Sunday, October 23, 2005

TV Review: Shh, it's a Ghost Whisperer

Back when it seemed the country was hopped up on an economic bubble that could never pop (or maybe that was X?), it was as though we were being invaded with three named actresses. Sarah Jessica Parker, Sarah Michelle Geller . . . Mary Kate and Ashley.

Easily the most talented of the crop was Jennifer Love Hewitt. She was also the most attractive. (Disclosure, we know Love.) She made Freddie Prinze Jr. almost seem human in I Know What You Did Last Summer (a feat SMG has still not managed to pull off in real life). She held her own in the company of Gene Hackman, Sigorney Weaver, Anne Bancroft, Ray Liotta and Carrie Fisher in the hugely underrated Heartbreakers. The future was wide open, as Tom Petty might just as well have sung about her.

All it took was a lousy show, Time of Your Life, to destroy that bright future. Probably not a good idea to spin off your Party of Five character when you'd already left that world far behind.

Meanwhile, the other Jennifer (Lopez) beat her into development with a film based on wedding planner who falls in love with the groom. Love couldn't seem to catch a break as everywhere you looked Katie Holmes was making an idiot of herself saying "boop-boop-pee-doo!"

Love ended up making films like Garfield and a lot of people were writing her off. (Though when there was talk of turning of turning the TV series Dallas into a film, Love was often mentioned for the role of Pam.) Now she's back on TV in Ghost Whisperer.

Ghost Whisperer.

Oooh. Scary.

But not really. There's no "Oh my God!" leap to your feet moments in this show. It's even milder than Nick's Goosebumps and, honestly, plays like a weekly version of Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer with various Caspers and Wendys filling in for the colts and fillies.

That's what we call a minus. Here's another one, David Conrad. He plays Love's husband. We're not sure how good or bad he is in the role, we're just sure that the world hasn't been waiting for a dark haired Doug Savant. (The world can barely stomach a blond haired one.) The Tom DeLay type hair style's a turn off. The nose reminds us of W.C. Fields. The thin lips need another shade because what appears to be Benefit's Ginger Snap isn't working on him. Also not working are his long wisps of sideburns which make it appear he's wearing a wig from the Eva Gabor collection.

Near the end of "The Homecoming," there was a mild bump-in-the-night moment that caused Love and a shirtless Conrad to leave their bed. We checked out the body and let's just say that Conrad's face is, sadly, his best feature.

Conrad's Jim is basically the Oscar Goldman to Love's Jamie Sommers (Bionic Woman) with bedtime benefits thrown in as a bonus. He's there for Love to explain where the plot's been headed in case anyone dozes during the mild proceedings. Conrad's the type of plain, second tier actor who's killed the joy in too many Sandra Bullock films. Having been paired with photogenic men in the past (plus Breckin Meyer), we're wondering how much thought went into casting Conrad opposite Love?

No thought goes into the writing. Early into "The Homecoming," we learn that a haunted house (former orphanage) is about to be bought. When we meet the buyer and he brusquely informs Love that he's going to tear down the home, we knew right away that he grew up there. Even if we had to wait thirty-five more minutes or so for that to be confirmed. While we waited for the obvious confirmation, we were treated to Love reading Peter Pan to two ghost children while a third listened from the hall and cried.

It was all so warm and fuzzy, we kept expecting Stone Phillips to toss a sweater over his shoulders and show up.

Intercut with those haunted house moments were scenes of Love with Conrad as they played newlyweds who bickered over one of his friends. When the friend comes peeling down the street, you know he's going to run over Love's prized plant (a bush -- no, we weren't going to say "Love's prized . . .") because moments earlier, for the first time, she's told her husband to watch where he steps so he doesn't step on her plant. As she hightails it out of there (to the haunted house), the bud asks why does she hate him so? Conrad informs him that besides running over her plant, it might have something to do with passing out at their wedding before the ceremony started.

Conrad and friend get a solo scene later where Conrad suddenly decides he's had enough of his friend and gives him a grow up & get out speech. We were confused as to why. When you've already passed out at the wedding, what's left to do? Apparently taking part in a pointless, static, talking head scene was the ultimate betrayal of friendship.

Love reunites the buyer with his childhood friends (the ghosts) in a sort of Whoopi Goldberg Ghost moment, only without the Righteous Brothers on the soundrack. Then she goes home happy to discover her husband's friend has been sent packing.

The episode ends with them being awakened by a noise. Turns out it's the ghost dog from the haunted house. Yes, people, the shows is so cloying that it also results to ghost dogs. All Conrad can see is the ball going up and down the stairs. Love can see him playing with it. Since neither wore shoes, and no mention was made of the dog being housebroken, let's also hope Love can see any little treats ghost dog might leave for them.

It took many episodes for The Bionic Woman to feel the need to bring on Max, the bionic dog. We're not even a fourth of the way into the first season and already we've got a ghost dog. Can guest spots with Lee Majors playing Richie Rich be far behind?

The show has bad word of mouth on it, strong bad word of mouth, and CBS keeps telling reporters that it's those pesky Joan of Arcadia fans who are so furious with CBS for cancelling Joan that they're determined to sink Ghost Whisperer. Apparently the market's invisible hands are attached to tween-ers. You can pass that on to Adam Smith (or let Love's Melinda since Smith is dead) but we're not buying it.

If this show were a salsa, it would be one you could serve your great-grandma.

That said, it does work on some levels. That's largely due to the fact that Love's actually effective in the role -- even when playing retreads of scenes from I Know What You Did Last Summer. (Instead of pretending to need to use the phone, she pretends to need to check out the basement.) Love has a wounded quality onscreen. That's probably why the "You're gonna' make it after all" flavor of Time of Your Life worked so poorly. (Or one of the many reasons.)

In her most effective roles, she plays a character who stands apart. That's Sarah who was never really part of The Party of Five, that's Julie James of I Know What You Did . . . and I Still Know What You Did . . ., that's the con artist who tries to shut down her heart in Heartbreakers, go down the list. You can even include the social misfit Del from The Tuxedo.

As Melinda Gordon, a woman who can communicate with the spirit world, Love's a perfect fit.
She does hold your attention. You watch and keep waiting for something big to happen. It never does. We think they're taking the "Whisperer" in the title far too literally.

And we're honestly reminded of the Knots Landing episode ("Three Sisters") where the women were in the haunted house. Don't remember that? Few do. It's before the show gets into full gear with the Abby/Gary/Val storyline, while Knots Landing was still floundering around attempting to figure out what exactly it was.

What Ghost Whisperer is right now is a show in transition, between the real world and the spirit world, and afraid to cross over. Love's holding the audience but the show runner needs to figure out where this is all going. Otherwise you're looking a program, that's currently a hit, tanking fast. To their credit, they've flattened Love's hair in some scenes. (The Kim Possible hair style overshadows her face and makes Love look even more dangerously thin.) But that and casting her in the lead is about all that's been done right thus far.

We'd suggest killing off Conrad's character quickly, giving Love's Melinda some powerful moments with his ghost and then sending Conrad packing. We'd also suggest that the writers stop creating situations where Melinda plays Mary Poppins to the spirit world. Right now, the show has an audience and they're watching for one reason. If they aren't given more reasons, they will turn elsewhere. Whispers may play well as pillow talk, but they're death to the medium of TV drama.
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