The most interesting thing about Alison Dubois isn’t that she can talk to dead people. It’s how the people around her deal with it.
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Jake Webber, Miguel Sandoval, David Cubitt
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2007-10-16
From watching the first couple of seasons of Medium, you might be pardoned for thinking that TV’s best-known psychic housewife/crime fighter spent most of her time in bed. A series of abstract, vaguely ominous images, a sudden flash of violence, a rushed intake of breath, and there was Dubois (Emmy-award winner Patricia Arquette), tugging at her hapless husband’s sheets again with the words, “I had another dream.” Everything else, paperwork at the DAs office, lunch breaks, shopping, carpooling three daughters to school and doing laundry, receded into the background. Dubois fought evil alone, at home and from a mostly supine position, one ghost at a time. Think of it as a variation on the home-based call-center employees, outsourced part-timers catching murderers in the privacy of their own homes.
The bed remains an important set in the third season; however, in this set of episodes Alison’s world expands considerably and the focus shifts from her and her ghosts to her and the world around her. The season opens, in a double episode, with four different people’s dreams, one after another. Alison dreams, as usual, about death by foul play while her middle daughter Bridgette (played by Maria Lark) has essentially the same dream but in animated monkey style. Detective Lee Scanlon (David Cubitt) dreams about renting a son for a day at the amusement park, and District Attorney Manuel Devalos (Miguel Sandoval), Alison’s boss, dreams of waist deep, warm water, and wakes in a pool of his own urine. For a show that has lived, up to this point, mostly in its main character’s head, this four-person point of view is almost unimaginably open-ended, refreshing as an idea, but unfortunately, a little muddy in the execution. It’s bad enough having to rely on one person’s dreams for plot movement. Interweaving four of them, two from non-psychics, is downright confusing.
And yet, the instinct is a good one. Some of the best shows of Season three shift the focus dramatically away from Alison and allow secondary characters to carry the weight. The late-season arc of stories that begins with “Joe Day Afternoon” and carries through the next six episodes, finally gives Arquette’s co-star Jake Weber the spotlight.
As Joe Dubois, Weber is called upon mostly to be the ideal supportive spouse and husband. (Can you imagine waking your significant other up pretty much every night to tell them about a dream you’ve just had? Am I the only one who would be sleeping in the garage?) He’s the one who takes the girls to school when Alison has yet another hunch about some grisly crime scene. He’s the one who makes dinner and puts the kids to bed when she decides to look for corpses in a remote part of the desert and runs a little late. It’s a fairly radical role, actually. Very few husbands, real life or TV-based, would support this sort of casual abandonment of responsibilities. Think about how subservient, how willing to suppress her powers Samantha of Bewitched was. Can you imagine Darren holding down the fort while she went off to fight injustice, nose-wiggling style? No way. Times have changed.
So, while Joe was an interesting element in the first two seasons of Medium, he stayed on the sidelines. In “Joe Day Afternoon” he takes the central role. The story begins early in the morning. He has unknowingly asked a disgruntled (and fired) coworker to give him a ride into his job. Alison has one of her “bad feelings” and begs him to stay, but he goes anyway. The coworker eventually takes Joe and three other coworkers hostage and kills two of them before being captured. Joe survives, but not without damage. Over the next six episodes, even while the usual quota of victims piles up and crimes are solved, he visibly questions every element of his life. He is no longer a bit of comfortable backdrop, but a volatile and unpredictable character on his own terms.
Season three also puts the emphasis on each of the Dubois daughters, in varying degrees. Chubby, stubborn Bridgette (Maria Lark) has a wonderful turn agonizing about her beloved father in one episode. After a drug awareness program at the school, she asks him point blank if he’s ever done drugs. He says no. But as Alison later points out, blossoming psychics (the kids take after her) are not good people to lie to. Bridgette immediately knows her father has done all kinds of drugs and imagines the police coming to get him. (The episodes she sees are from a long time ago. Joe is not, like many dads I know, prone to late night joints once the kids are asleep.) Later when all has been ironed out, Bridgette presents her dad with a picture and asks him if it looks just like him. He says sure, as nearly any dad would, and she shrugs and answers, “Oh, dad, you’re such a liar.” It's a beautiful moment, because you can see Bridgette acknowledging her extraordinary talent with a shrug, as if being able to tell what her dad was thinking was no more remarkable than having blue eyes or blond hair.
Ariel, the eldest daughter (played by Sofia Vassilieva), is also developing as a character, impatient, bossy, willful as any teenager and not exactly thrilled about being able to talk to dead people. She gets her star turn in “Mother’s Little Helper” an episode in which she and Alison receive conflicting messages from a mother/daughter pair of murder victims. Even the youngest, Marie, has her story arc. Apparently psychic abilities are just as good for pirating pay cable channels as for solving murders.
And then there are the people around Alison, her boss, a faux-psychic brother (who turns out to have real powers), Detective Scanlon, and a childhood friend turned child molester. Captain Push, Alison’s wary Texas Rangers admirer from the first season, and Dr. Walker, the continually reincarnated psychopath, make return appearances. It’s sort of like old home week, festive in its way, but, at times, a little forced.
The most interesting part of Medium has always been the intersection of the very mundane with the paranormal. Alison is just as likely to have a vision at her kitchen table as at a crime scene, and her daughters very casually, very naturally share her gift. Patricia Arquette, in another life the David Lynch siren, juggles work and home in a way that many women will recognize, pouring orange juice distractedly as she tries to work out what to do next on the job. And when, in the final three stories, a reporter (played by Neve Campbell) decides that Alison is a dangerous fake, you’re pulled up short. Yes, most self-declared psychics are charlatans. Yes, in the real world, someone like Alison would be certifiable. And yet, she seems so normal here. How could she be a nut? (Campbell’s character gets hers by the way. She ends up decapitated.)
Medium: Season Three includes all 21 episodes, some deleted scenes and commentary by the director and producer Glenn Gordon Caron, and guest director/co-star Miguel Sandoval. The most interesting of the extras, however, is a short film on the animations used in the season opener “Four Dreams”. This is Bridgette’s dream, a surreal exercise in cartoon violence, which matches her mother’s dreams almost exactly, except that it is acted out by monkeys. The animators and the director explain the difficulties of developing animation on a tight production schedule (the opening was moved up at the last minute from January to November), and show exactly how much care and thought went into creating a very short, but memorable segment of the program. It’s an interesting sidelight, and it made me want to watch the first two episodes again.
But mostly Medium succeeds when it sticks close to its formula. An everyday wife and mother, surrounded by ordinary people, but able to converse with the violently deceased. Maybe the creepiest thing about the show is how normal it seems. What, your mother couldn’t see ghosts, too?