Reasons to watch Jennifer Love Hewitt in 'Ghost Whisperer', ways to detect rounded characters on a flat screen, and why I should be called 'Television Whisperer'.
Ghost WhispererDistributor: Paramount
Cast: Jennifer Love Hewitt, David Conrad.
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2007-09-18
Seems like there's a "whisperer" everywhere you turn. Not only are there animal whisperers, from "The Dog Whisperer" and The Horse Whisperer to bird and elk whisperers, but the title has branched out to other occupations and hobbies, as in "The Wood Whisperer" (adventures in wood carving), "The Boss Whisperer" (how to navigate office politics), and "The Bacteria Whisperer" (like, you know, a biologist). In my house, when I find the remote lodged in the sofa cushions, I'm the "Remote Control Whisperer". Once, I persuaded a telemarketer to buy something from me, which earned me the title of "Telemarketer Whisperer".
But now, feeling unfulfilled, I want more. That's why I'd like to be "The Television Whisperer", and I could introduce myself the way "Melinda Gordon" (Jennifer Love Hewitt) does at the beginning of each Ghost Whisperer episode: "My name is Quentin. I'm not married. I live in the southern United States and I really dig watching television. I might be just like you. Except, from the time I was a little boy, I knew I could talk to TV shows. 'Airborne pixels', my grandmother called them. They stick with us and end up in syndication because they have unfinished business with the viewers. They come to me for help. In order to tell you my story, I have to tell you theirs."
On Ghost Whisperer, Jennifer Love Hewitt's Melinda Gordon has a more singular and insular gift than the one I'm imagining. She can see dead people. She can talk (and, yes, whisper) to them, too. Some are confused, completely clueless to the circumstances of their deaths, sometimes unable to figure out that they've died (as in the "Drowned Lives" episode). Some are acutely aware of what's happening, but are angry and bent on retribution ("Mean Ghost", "Speed Demon"). Those are the scary ones, similar in force and machination to the vengeful spirits we find on CW's Supernatural. Others simply want to send a message ("The Woman of His Dreams", "Cat's Claw") or complete an experience that was cut short thanks to an untimely demise ("A Grave Matter").
Melinda, like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, helps these "earthbound spirits" communicate their "unfinished business with the living". The spirits learn to "let go" of their fears and hang-ups in order to "crossover into the light". Detractors of the show, The Anti-Whisperers (wink), rightly point out that Ghost Whisperer's spirits deal in the petty change of karmic currency. But isn't that the point? Learning not to sweat the small stuff, even in the afterlife, to become unbound like Prometheus in Greek mythology, or, on a more visceral level, to understand that we live with our hand in a jar, grasping an apple, and you can't take the apple with you when it's time to remove your hand. You gotta let it go.
The "light" in Ghost Whisperer is commissioned in the most universal way, because we, the viewers, don't really know where these spirits go once their "business" is concluded. We aren't told and Melinda herself frequently admits she has no idea.
Melinda resides in a fictional small town located in the New England region of the United States, epically named Grandview. Here, she owns Same As It Never Was Antiques, where she makes it her business to deal in the memories and regrets associated with knickknacks and bric-a-brac, just as she deals with the same attachments in the spiritual realm.
Ghost Whisperer is, therefore, more about life, and how to live it, than about death and where our souls will eternally reside. In this context, "light" symbolizes wisdom and spiritual growth. In this regard, the show resembles much-beloved Michael Landon's Highway to Heaven, except Landon's Jonathon Smith was a forever-do-well angel angling to earn his wings by completing a heavenly number of good deeds. On Ghost Whisperer, it's the spirit, not the mediator, that ultimately wants to be upwardly mobile and Melinda, as mediator, might come across as a goody-two-shoes, but she's not an angel. As a bit of trivia, you might remember that Highway's sidekick, ex-cop Mark Gordon (the very funny Victor French), had the same last name as Melinda. Fascinating, I think, although I can't quite explain why.
Anti-Whisperers will also point to the sentimentality in Ghost Whisperer, especially the Melinda-assisted mushy moments between ghost and loved one that inevitably arrive as each episode comes to a close. With a nod to Roma Downey and Della Reese in Touched by an Angel, you'll hear that the sentimentality is unearned, too much of a tearjerker, or perhaps even "too girly".
While I don't agree with the "too girly" part, because I'm not sure what we're really saying with "girly", the show's mixture of soft-horror, fantasy, and drama has a tendency to send the plot into distinct, sometimes predictable, phases. As each phase carries a particular tone and mood, the individual parts don't always mesh as fluidly as, say, a single-tone get-the-bad-guy police drama.
Here's the very general Ghost Whisperer template, with description and paraphrasing added for my amusement:
Stage One: A paranormal event occurs while Melinda is chillin' with her husband "Jim Clancy" (David Conrad), chillin' at the antique shop she owns, or chillin' in some random place. The paranormal event might be the appearance of a ghost or an object that glows. Melinda also has dreams and flashback visions that make her a spectator to crucial events in the spirit's past. The show goes to great pains to explain that souls are "perfect", in the sense that life's infirmities or afflictions are "cured" by death.
In Stage One, however, ghosts are still so grounded and attached to their lives that they appear to Melinda as their earthly selves, whether the person was burnt to a crisp, dripping wet from drowning, or bleeding from the mouth after contracting an illness during a South American expedition. The background music begins in up-tempo fashion, usually soft rock, until something "spooky" happens. Then it's "scary music" time and loud sound effects.
Stage Two: With puzzle pieces gained from the first paranormal event, Melinda begins to investigate the spirit's identity and what it will take to allow the spirit to "crossover". In Season Two, she gathers information through newfound friend "Delia Banks" (Camryn Manheim), who has access to subscription-based real estate records. She also uses "Penthius", a fictional search engine apparently more potent than Google. No matter what she types, you can bet she'll receive something that helps her crack the case.
Stage Three: Melinda's husband, Jim Clancy, will give her a massage and say, "Wow, honey, I don't know how you talk to these scary ol' ghosts. You're amazing." Melinda will say, "I know. But I can't figure out what's keeping this ghost here." Jim will respond, "I wish I could see them, too, so I could beat the crap out of them for you," to which Melinda will say, "That's sweet, but it's not like that. They just need someone to understand them."
Jim works as a paramedic so, quite naturally, he tends to the sick and the ailing on earth, while Melinda's work is "on a higher plane". She can be somewhat of a snob about this, though, like in the "Deja Boo" episode when she dismisses suggestions on how to solve the puzzle, asking, "And why is it everybody's better at my job than me?" Hmph.
Stage Four: Seeing that Melinda hasn't figured it out yet, the spirit will drop a hint big enough to make you (the viewer) and Melinda say, "Oh, snap, she died in a fire," or, "Oh, snap, she died in a jungle," or, "Oh, snap, she slipped on a pair of roller skates and split her head on the PlayStation." On the other hand, if Melinda knows more than the ghost, she will school the ghost, like, "Yo, you died in a fire, son," or, "Hey, man, you died in the jungle," or, "I hope you weren't planning to give that PlayStation to your kid brother. Forget about it." Either way, this is the "Oh, snap" moment that sparks the turning point in the puzzle.
Let me also say that you should stay far away from the plot descriptions on the DVD packaging, lest they rob you of what suspense there is in the storyline! Like a lateral thinking problem, part of the fun is trying to figure out why the ghosts are still earthbound or why they look a certain way. For instance, it's intriguing when a ghost acts like he can't see or hear Melinda ("The Ghost Within"), but the descriptions ruin it by telling you it's the ghost of an autistic young man, like I just did.
Stage Five: Melinda finds a living person who's associated with the offending spirit and says, "Hi, I'm Melinda Gordon. Just out of curiosity, you haven't experienced anything weird around here, have you?" When the person says, "Weird? Like what?", Melinda will say, "You know, strange stuff. Like," gulp, "a supernatural presence, a ghost maybe?"
You'll see that these people, usually played by recognizable and talented guest stars, want to slam a door in her face, but they usually just ignore her until they see something spooky or until Melinda unearths information no one but the ghost could have known. Sometimes, the confused spirits will send Melinda down a wrong path, or she'll simply misunderstand what the ghost was trying to say. When this happens, Stage Four offers a clue that puts her on the right track.
Stage Six: Melinda has a final epiphany that brings the entire puzzle into focus. That's when you realize Melinda Gordon almost has as much in common with Angela Lansbury's "Jessica Fletcher" from Murder, She Wrote as she does with Medium's crime solving psychic "Allison Dubois" (Patricia Arquette). Fletcher, residing in her own fictional small town of Cabot Cove, had a gift for mystery writing, which she used to solve murders. Just as ghosts seem to follow Melinda, Jessica Fletcher couldn't throw a rock without hitting a dead body.
You could call Ghost Whisperer an amalgam of Murder, She Wrote, Highway to Heaven, Touched by an Angel, Medium, and Quantum Leap. You will recall Quantum Leap was the show about the scientist (played by Scott Bakula) whose experiment ping-pongs him into other people's lives. When he corrects their mistakes, he can leap to the next life, which he hopes will be his own.
And, yeah, I suppose there's some Scooby-Doo involved in this, too, except the ghosts are real in Grandview and not a hoax. On Medium, I wonder if anyone is ever tempted to say, "I would've gotten away with it if it hadn't been for that pesky psychic!"
Stage Seven: Armed with the solution to the story, Melinda must convince the necessary relative or otherwise significant other to confront the earthbound spirit. Of course, they can't see the spirit, since only Melinda can do that, so it takes a moment to get them to come around. Occasionally, like when the hour-long show is running out of time, she'll come right out with, "I talked to your husband's ghost and he wants you to get on with your life and become a marine biologist." Then, since no one but the husband knew about her dream of becoming a marine biologist, we'll see the reunion scene between the ghost and the loved one, mediated by Melinda.
The ghosts always say the most eloquent and beautiful things and Melinda always paraphrases it to, "He misses you", or, "He said he'll never forget you." I'm always thinking, "This man is dead and you can't be bothered to transfer his message verbatim?" At the end, the ghost will see the light and say, "Wow, is that for me?", before walking into it and fading away.
I think the funniest one of these was when the spirit of Jim's high school classmate, a modest introvert-turned-model, approaches him in the hopes of communicating with her younger sister. In the final moments, after she's made her peace with her family, the model turns to Jim and, through Melinda, explains how he was the only person in high school who treated her with respect. Indeed, another of the show's running themes is that we don't always know the impact we have on other people: "Things we forget are turning points for someone else." Nevertheless, as the model goes on and on, Melinda cuts it short, like, "All right, that's enough. It's time for you to go into the light and stop pushin' up on my man."
Final Stage: Melinda will chill with her husband Jim, who will repeat, "Wow, honey, I don't know how you talk to these scary ol' ghosts. You're amazing." Melinda will say, "I know. But I'm worried. I'm afraid all of this ghost stuff is going to come between us. It's who I am, you know. Can you handle that?" And Jim will answer, "Don't be silly. Your ghosts are my ghosts. I can handle anything as long as I'm with you." In "A Grave Matter", he said, "Ghostbusting keeps a marriage strong." The Anti-Whisperers will gag as the show fades to black.
As you can see, Ghost Whisperer's formula is easily ridiculed and given to monotony. I tried to be as cynical as possible to heighten the effect, and I didn't even mention some of the clichéd touches, like the ever-present "Idiot Goes into Dark Attic or Basement" scary scene or the "Mean, Spoiled, and Popular Cheerleaders Ostracize the Odd Girl" motif, which is, like, ohmuhgawd, so Saved by the Bell, okay? Like, helloooo?
There are a few episodes that operate outside of the formula. These are welcome additions to the set and offer a fresh look at the show's central premise.
The problem with the formula is that it lends itself to thin storylines and hackneyed characters when stretched over 22 episodes. Out of the six DVD's in the Season Two packet, I'd say seven or eight could probably have been eliminated. However, we shouldn't ignore the show's evolution, a fact emphasized in the cast and crew commentary in the special features. Fact is, Ghost Whisperer is a show in transition, trying to broaden its appeal and expand its repertoire so it can. In Season Two, the best example of this transition is the expansion of the cast.
As a result of a plane crash in the Season One finale, we lost "Andrea Moreno" (Aisha Tyler), Melinda's business partner. I liked Andrea, a lot, as did other Pro-Whisperers, so it was a bold move for the writers to take her out. The good news, though, is that Season Two introduces us to new characters: Delia Banks, Delia's son Ned, Professor Payne, and the gifted and mysterious newcomer Gabriel.
Camryn Manheim, as Delia Banks, is a welcome addition, playing Melinda's friend and eventual employee in Melinda's antique shop. She is less a replacement for Andrea than a representation of the shift in Melinda's life since Andrea's death. Where Andrea knew about, encouraged, and trusted Melinda's forays into the spiritual realm, Delia (despite her name being an anagram for "ideal") isn't built for chatting up ghosts. She doesn't find out about Melinda's abilities until late in the game, but her reaction is worth the wait, considering all the guest stars that initially doubt Melinda but are too easily convinced for the sake of finishing the plot. Delia, in response to Melinda's assertion that her husband's spirit is haunting her, brings the Whisperer to tears. "You really are nuts," she tells Melinda.
Delia Banks also comes with a teenager, "Ned" (Tyler Patrick Jones), who, while struggling with the loss of his father, learns about Melinda's abilities before his mother does. I'll leave it at that, although I'm sure that one day (but hopefully no time soon!), my spirit will be trying to get some future clairvoyant to tell you that this character is a little wooden and a lot annoying. Please know that I don't have any problem with the kid who plays the role. In fact, he and Camryn Manheim work well together. I just think the "troubled teen" angle is overused and doesn't add much to the season. Despite that, Ned's presence is a reminder of something happy-go-ghostly newlyweds Melinda and Jim talk about from time to time: having children. Will the couple eventually have a child? How will Melinda's abilities complicate the matter? Maybe we'll find out.
The other regular addition is the affable, quirky, and very funny "Professor Rick Payne", played by Jay Mohr of Jerry McGuire fame. Although Professor Payne teaches a class (at fictional "Rockland University") that deals with the intersection of myth, psychology, and the supernatural, but he's personally a devout skeptic. Yet, for all of his "Darn it, Melinda, I'm a scientist not a cult member" posturing, he's really a softy. Melinda consults him for his expertise in symbolism and lore, careful at first to avoid spilling the beans about her ghost whispering.
As the season progresses, we see the chemistry between the Professor and the Whisperer, and their banter resembles that of "David Addison" (Bruce Willis) and "Madelyn Hayes" (Cybill Shepherd) in Moonlighting. Later, her straight face begins to crack, and her fondness for the Professor shows through. As solid as Melinda's marriage seems to be, it looks like a classic case of unrequited love. Sooner or later, he'll have to let it go!
Gabriel makes his first appearance on the last disc in the set. When Melinda realizes he can see and speak (and, yes, whisper) to dead folks, too, she's determined to find out more. Turns out, he's a collector, and also a bit of a liar when it comes to his past. But with the addition of this character, we witness the flux of the Ghost Whisperer cosmology, as spirits have been doing things throughout the season that were previously impossible, and we discover something is "blocking the light". There are, apparently, "dark spirits", and they are for some reason focused on Melinda Gordon and her close-knit town of Grandview.
Lastly, there is Melinda Gordon herself, transitioning from newlywed to happily married wife, pondering the best way to balance her gift with the safety and sanity of her friendships. Criticism of Melinda and the actress who portrays her, Jennifer Love Hewitt, are plentiful and, at times, scathing. For one thing, there's the snipe at Love Hewitt's acting chops in Party of Five and campy scary flicks like I Know What You Did Last Summer. A Season Two episode has Melinda making grudging reference to the latter film, which is a subtle and funny bit of self-parody. For another thing, it's a rare critique of the show that doesn't mention Love Hewitt's wardrobe along with a comment about her clothes being too revealing, too chesty, or too busty. Curiously, Jim is frequently shirtless or shown in the shower and nobody has a problem with it.
The attention to Melinda's outfits and bodily dimensions misses the point, implying that the character has nothing going for her besides her looks. Not so. In fact, the Melinda Gordon character offers a refreshing television personality in this pixilated world of TV stereotypes. Sandra Kobrin, in her article "Prime-Time TV Sweeps Women to All-Time Lows", noted that female TV characters generally fall into three categories: "bimbos", "b*tches", and "ball busters".
There's a lot of truth to Kobrin's article. What Melinda Gordon represents, I think, along with Medium to some degree, is the continued push for female characters that resist conventional classification.
From my sofa cushions, it appears that women on television are split between their heads and their bodies. Within this dichotomy, the "heady" characters can be sketched out as I've done below.
Category A ("Scattered"): Intelligent but insecure and/or indecisive, either professionally or in their personal lives, like Grey's Anatomy's "Meredith Grey" (Ellen Pompeo). They are often looking for the fabled Prince Charming (a.k.a. "McDreamy") but realize they have to kiss a lot of frogs to get there. They spend a lot of time in their heads, like "Ally McBeal". Sometimes, they are quiet, introverted, and conservative dressers, like "Pam" on the US version of The Office.
Gilmore Girls's "Lorelai Gilmore" (Lauren Graham) might have helped to flip this category somewhat, but the show ended before she fully overcame her romantic insecurities or the pains caused by an inability to communicate with her controlling parents. I liked that Lorelai couldn't cook worth a damn, though, and happened to love a man who could ("Luke Danes"). I also like that she proposed to him instead of the other way around.
Category B ("Tough"): This category can be further broken down into three subparts: (i) self-possessed but exceedingly sarcastic, like many sitcom wives, (ii) somewhat cold and/or distant, like Designing Women's Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter), and (iii) downright ruthless, like Dynasty's Joan Collins or Glen Close's character on Damages. These characters are often celebrated, and rightly so, as they thrive without Prince Charming counterparts (they either have no "love interest" or several) and tend to be successful in male-dominated fields.
Category C ("Flighty"): Sometimes selfless and kind, sometimes self-absorbed, but, either way, these characters aren't the brightest bulbs in the chandelier. This is a perennial character on TV sitcoms (see: "Rose Nyland" on The Golden Girls,
"Mallory Keaton" on Family Ties, "Hilary Banks" on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or Reba's "Barbra Jean" and "Cheyenne").
Then there are the "Body"-oriented characters.
Category A ("Weapons of Ass Destruction"): They are physical, kick lots of ass, and operate in a fast-paced, high-stakes world. This is the category for such high octane shows as yesteryear's Charlie's Angels, Wonder Woman, Alias, and both versions of Bionic Woman. I don't think it's coincidental that these shows are premised around these women keeping their physical skills, and sometimes their identities, secret. They can do anything the boys can do as long as there are some "boys" who don't know about it and/or other "boys" get to call the shots. A variation of this was Remington Steele, in which the female protagonist had to pretend a man was running her detective agency to secure business. The variation is that she was the brain of the operation, not the body.
Category B ("The Temptress"): These are your vixens, your Jessica Rabbit characters, the voluptuous and bodacious seductresses. They are, generally, hypersexual and stand out from their friends based on their looks. Many times, you'll see women portrayed in groups, usually of three or four, and one of the women will fit into the "Temptress" category, while the others will fit into one of the other categories, such as "Heady: Flighty" and "Heady: Tough". Think of The Golden Girls, The L Word, Sex & the City, Army Wives, and Desperate Housewives. When the women are paired up, it's more of an Odd Couple theme and the personalities are meant to clash or be contrasted. Consider Laverne & Shirley, Kate & Ally, Faith & Hope, and Cagney & Lacey.
Yes, characters can have traits from more than one category.
Yes, male characters have this "head" versus "body" split as well, but I maintain that the dynamics and impact are different for males, as are the stereotypes.
Yes, gender analysis would be more complete when viewed in relation to other factors, such as age, nationality, ethnic and racial classifications, and economic status.
No, I'm not saying any particular category is better than any other. It depends on the show. I enjoy characters in each category.
Yes, there are "strong" and "independent" female characters on television today and we could also go back and applaud The Mary Tyler Moore Show and other shows for the healthy breakdown of traditional gender roles.
Yes, I understand how unrealistic it is to ask for rounded characters on a TV screen that's becoming increasingly flatter and thinner.
Which brings me back to Melinda Gordon. She's not looking for a Prince Charming. She's already got him! Melinda and Jim are partners in their marriage, and on equal footing, perhaps symbolized by the fact that she didn't take Jim's last name, "Clancy". Also, he sometimes calls her "Mel", a masculine nickname that might connote a hint of bossiness, as in the sitcom Alice in which the title character worked at "Mel's Diner".
Melinda and Jim, as of Season Two, are happily married. In one episode ("The Night We Met"), Melinda worries that Jim has forgotten the night they first met, but of course he hadn't. In fact, her marriage is secure to the point that he hardly blinks when Melinda explains that, if they have a child one day, a recalcitrant spirit might be reincarnated into their firstborn. He's like, "Hey, I'll make it work." He puts up nary a fight when Melinda decides the best way to help a troubled girl is to take her into their custody as temporary foster parents. He's like, "Hey, we'll make it work."
Meanwhile, I was thinking, "Come on, Jim, it's time for y'all to have a fight right about now," but no, it never comes to that. He understands that Melinda's spirit work is her "job", a "business", and is as important to her as his profession is to him. She's entered the married on her own terms, and maybe the balance is tilted too heavily in her direction, but we don't get to see that enough on TV. Vengeful spirits reincarnated into your kids? Hey, that's simply a business expense. Deal with it, Jim. And when she's not handling her preternatural business, she's running the antique shop she owns. Let me say that again: she owns it. It's hers. She sets her own hours, collects her own inventory, and works with whomever she pleases. She's an entrepreneur.
Further, guiding spirits into the "light" is a portion of her identity. Sure, she might be "heady" and maybe insecure in some respects -- people picked on her in high school when she talked to ghosts, her father left the family when she was a young girl -- but she's confident in who she is, how her gifts fit into her self-concept, and her mission. And she has fully integrated her personal and professional lives in ways that few female characters have been able to do. Compare that to ghost hunters "Sam" and "Dean" on Supernatural who travel the country with fake IDs and constantly wonder how their lives would be different if they had never known about spirits and demons.
It genuinely baffled me when, during the first season of Heroes, my friends would complain that Ali Larter's character didn't have a "real heroes power". "It's more like a split personality disorder", they'd say, as her "Niki" personality sought to be a good mother while the "Jessica" personality was a professional assassin, and of course the "personal side" didn't initially know what the "professional" side was doing. But ask any woman who has a "day job" and maintains a marriage and a family -- she'll tell you that keeping all of this together and running smoothly is in fact a SUPERPOWER.
If you're wondering, here's the reason why Melinda's outfits tend to be revealing: because it balances her "headiness". Usually, revealing outfits are reserved for the hotties and hard-bodied characters. Here, there's an attempt to combine several female archetypes into one, to blend mind, body, and soul in one character.
I'm not saying Ghost Whisperer is the best show on TV right now. It's not. But even with its formulaic limitations and patterned story arcs, it's got potential and, better yet, offers a rounded female lead in the process.
Maybe that's not enough to sell you on the show. I can live with that. But please know that the Season Two DVD set has a mountain of special features and extras. The "Crystal Ball Mind Game" is sort of lame, and similar (okay, it's identical) to the "pick a character and we'll guess it" gimmick in the Heroes Season One package, but there's much more to see.
Selected episodes are equipped with commentary from producers Ian Sander, John Gray, and Kim Moses, some of which is continued in the cast and crew discussion, "A Conversation with the Living." You get to see how they create the ghosts in "Ghostly Visions" and you get the backgrounds of the spirits in "Grandview Graveyard". Wanna see how they pick those busty outfits everyone's talking about? Check out "Melinda's Closet". If you go to the menu on Disc One and press the "right" button twice, you can select the bumblebee on the letter "R" in "Whisperer", which yields a video montage of the show. There's also a cool "speed painting" of Love Hewitt/Melinda set to music.
My favorite extra was The Other Side, a "Webisode" series that depicts what happens from the view of the earthbound spirits. As bite-sized episodes, they move quickly but are satisfying to watch, despite my "you can't be serious" reaction to the black guy's spirit boasting, to a rudimentary "beat" no less, "I got diamonds on my box, I got diamonds in my grillz." Fortunately, the series works because you think you know where the story's going, but there are a couple of surprises that should have you wanting more.
Oh yeah, did I mention the tarot cards? The set came with three limited edition tarot cards. How can you not love this show?