The Ghost Whisperer

You may regret that Jennifer Love Hewitt has resurfaced as Melinda Gordon, a tchotcke shop owner who blathers with the dead, none of whom know what she did last summer. The Ghost Whisperer aims for nothing less than to pluck your heartstrings until they snap back through you, as a queue of dead people line up seeking advice. It’s like the poltergeist version of Antiques Roadshow.

What’s most fascinating about the appeal of this show and others like it (Medium, Crossing Over with John Edward) is how willingly viewers swallow their premise, without thinking about the complications it might cause for traditional notions of the afterlife. But many Americans use their religion more than they dwell within it, worrying little about pagan Easter egg pollution in their Christianity, or what exactly, in the theology of heaven and hell it means that souls mill about looking for some undefined “closure.”

For what it’s worth, Ghost Whisperer exposes the sideshow streak in this sort of spirituality, where religious fundamentalism has a motel quickie with the questionably “gifted,” whose exchanges with ghosts resemble those children have with imaginary friends. Stranger still, the show is made by at least one true believer. Executive producer James Van Praagh has a blog link on the CBS website where he hocks his books about his contact with the dead. Soon he’ll be whoring out seminars and by-the-hour rates, selling secret doorways to possible other worlds at a premium.

I have no idea if the dead can speak to us. But whenever I watch these shows I wonder at the opacity of it all, especially the supposed governing rules of this unseen underverse. At one point in Ghost Whisperer, Melinda explains that your rate of visual decay in the afterlife depends on your ability to recognize your surroundings, that some dead deliver messages, some toss objects into our world from their side, and some have nothing better to do than stick around at a Starbucks, hectoring their sons for not having girlfriends. It’s a petty portrait of the afterlife, where crossing over means waiting years for a “ghost whisperer” to breeze by so you can tell your husband where to find the key to the box with the insurance papers. A word to the undead: locksmiths.

The Ghost Whisperer is especially calculated emotional predation. The soundtrack contains more softcore piano tinkles than 10 hours of Barry Manilow warming up. In nearly every scene, characters teeter on the brink of bawling, as Melinda swims in a sea of out-of-focus pain, beseeched by the damned to deliver one final clich√© to set things right. Her dollhouse-perfect husband, Jim (David Conrad), the paramedic who has so much love to give, gets his buck-up comfort, just as he’s about to quit his job, from a message given to his wife by his dead brother at their wedding.

This show gushes like an impaled anemic, playing out the agony of a son who never met his Vietnam-soldier father as if to suggest that the only way to overcome death is to find a way out of its permanence. This makes sense, except that Ghost Whisperer suggests the only way to make peace with the dead is via a psychic. Given the soldier subplot of the first episode, it’s easy to wonder whether these shows have cropped up now because our lives are lived in constant war under the lurking threat of terrorism. In that context, it’s easy to see how these shows appeal to a country dealing with death that seems both imminent and untamed. A car bomb or hurricane could decimate your beloved tomorrow. What would be left unsaid and what would give you the chance to say it?

Ghost Whisperer is no Six Feet Under, where conversations with the dead, may or may not be conversations with ourselves, and where these interactions only complicate questions about the nature of the universe in a way that makes loving the living in the here and now seem that much more important. It’s not even Medium, which offers a few cheap scares amid the purgatorial backtalk. Here Melinda’s acquaintances get their dead-o-grams and move on, serene again even though we know their pain can never fully heal. There’s no bottom to this show’s sentimentality. If Ghost Whisperer has anything to say, it’s that we probably should live with fewer secrets and more honestly, so that we can cleave less desperately to our necessary losses.