Sunday, February 06, 2005

TV: Sometimes a Medium fits best

In case you didn't notice, we're now in the mid-season. Fall shows have come (though few have gone) and collectively America yawns (LAX) and groans (Joey). And we start to feel that no one in the TV business knows what they're doing.

Then along comes Medium on Monday nights. Medium's not perfect and hopefully will get better as the season continues. However, it has the best thing this season has offered us: Patricia Arquette.

If you saw Flirting With Disaster, Ed Wood and True Romance, you saw her best films. That's not great news since the last one came out in 1996 (Flirting With Disaster). But even in her bad films (Stigmata) she hasn't been hideous with one exception (Little Nicky). That's partly due to the fact that she hasn't been cast as the generic love interest (except in Little Nicky). Even a stale confection like Holy Matrimony allowed her character to have a brain. And that's important because Arquette comes off too smart to play airheads. (In True Romance, her character had more going on upstairs than Christian Slater's character did.)

So now she's bringing that impression to TV screens, thankfully. Arquette's never been a big star but she's also never been annoying. In a celebrity obsessed culture, we've fortunately been spared The Patty Arquette Dating Show (Arquette was most recently married to Nicholas Cage, neither marketed the relationship in the manner of Ben Affleck or Jennifer Lopez). We've also been spared Tips for Beauty by Patty Arquette.

That, along with the fact that she always appears to have some common sense, probably accounts for her likeability. (In a poll in five classes this week, we asked people for their opinion of Patricia Arquette. 12% said they really loved/admired her. 10% were unaware who she was.
The remaineder said they liked her and "hate her" was one of the choices -- though no one picked it.) She comes off as a real person, not a bimbo, not a Natalie Wood waiting by the sidelines.

And Medium's strongest element is Patricia Arquette. The common sense shines through but something else does as well, something that rarely peaks through on TV: reality.

If she's going to out to eat or if she's appearing in court, she's put together, she looks like she's spent some time on personal grooming. But when she's at home with her kids, she looks like any other mother (any other photogenic mother, possibly). The hair may be messed up, the shirt frumpled, the sweater sagging on one side. It looks real. It looks lived in. Like she's been dealing with small children -- not sitting her trailer checking stock tips while lying on a slant board to avoid any wrinkles.

In Medium, she's playing Alison Dubois who, we learn in the first episode, is a psychic. That type of background can lead easily into Dionne Warwick & the Psychic Network jokes if it goes even slightly off balance. Thus far, it's walked the tight rope without stumbling and that's due to Arquette who comes off so real that even people who might scoff at the premise get caught up in the show.

In a world of Law & Orders, it's easy to forget what a character driven show looks like -- this is what it looks like. Without the grounding that Arquette and the back stories provide, no one would be watching. If she coasted into the room looking as stylish as Sela Ward all too often did in Once and Again, audiences would probably grab the remotes. But she looks like she's a mother and you end up caring about the kids. (Thank God they haven't yet decided to be precocious. That would kill the show immediately.)

The main stories could be stronger and tighter. And the back stories could be a little less soap opera-ish. (Did we really need, this early on, a sub-plot where Alison's husband Joe might have cancer?) But Arquette hooks you.

The show works best on a slow simmer. Last Monday, Arquette sat on the witness stand being asked why the district attorney employees her (she's not a paralegal and her employment depends on her keeping the psychic powers secret -- per the district attorney). Arquette danced around the defense attorney for a bit and then, when he pressed, leaned in and calmly began ticking off his many "crimes" -- including an affair, getting a friend to take his boards, etc.
As Arquette fixed her gaze firmly on him and ticked off the list, it was near impossible to look away. In the moments after when the camera went back and forth between the actor playing the defense attorney and Arquette, the show was a slow simmer.

This isn't milking. Milking is what they do on Everybody Loves Raymond: Make a lame joke seem funny by standing there and waiting. (That show is nothing but reaction shots, no forward movement at all.) Simmering is drawing you in, hooking you to make you see what happens next. Arquette can pull it off because of the common sense/smart quality that's inherent in her portrayals.

On the subject of Everybody Is Supposed to Love Raymond, it should be noted that Arquette manages to play a mother in a way that doesn't come off as screeching holler monkey. (Yes, Patricia Heaton, that snap was in your direction.) That may be what audiences are responding too as well. The number of actresses playing mothers who aren't cartoons (or caricatures) is largely limited to Amy Brenning's Amy of Judging Amy. All too often, the mother is either there to stroke the ego of the male (star) or else to screech like a banshee. Courtney Thorne-Smith is in the first camp (and deserves an Emmy if only for making Jim Belushi seem likeable) and Heaton is in the latter camp.

Roseanne could do a show on PMS and not have you thinking, "Women are irrational!" Everybody's Bored With Raymond did a PMS story that might have left you wishing Romano would just shoot Heaton and put her (and us) out of her (our) misery. (Menapause to be the only thing thus far preventing Deborah from transforming completely into Ray's mother Marie.)
Women are sick of it. Possibly more sick of those revenge fantasies than they are of the fat-man-thin-wife sitcom rule that seems to have taken hold.

Through acting and appearence, Arquette convinces you that being a mother is work and a struggle but she hasn't made it look repulsive. (Do most of the writers turning out TV scripts hate their mothers? Or does it just seem that way?)

We have concerns about the show in the long run. It's produced by Kelsey Grammar and Glen Gordon Caron. Roz became a caricature in the final years of Fraiser and Daphene wasn't much better. [Grammar was the driving force behind Fraiser, not just the leading actor.] Glen Gordon Caron will always be infamous to us as the man who destroyed Moonlighting. (Should Arquette be slapped and called a bitch as foreplay, we're bailing right then.) Caron can write strong women, he just tends to grow disdainful of them. (Maybe he's teased too often in the locker room for his grasp of them?) Once the disdain sets in, it's only a matter of time before he becomes downright hostile to them. Whether the "cow-ing" of Maddie Hayes was a result of friction between Caron and Cybill Shephard or not, when Maddie turned from a sensible woman into a resentful sidekick, Moonlighting died.

If NBC's smart, at the first sign of conflict between Arquette and Caron, they'll work to push Caron off the show. Patricia Arquette acheives something in Medium that's all too rarely seen:
she comes off like a woman you'd want to be and, with work, stand a chance of being. Roseanne thankfully slayed the domestic goddess stereotype but in her wake we've been left with far too many "women on the edge" who use bluntness (and loud volume) as a weapon. It's enough to make you recoil from the TV.

Arquette's portrayal is the strongest asset Medium has. Hopefully, the main stories and subplots will get stronger, but she's already made the show involving. Caron and Grammar would be wise not to tamper with her character or try to push Arquette into scenes that do not suit her. Alison Dubois may lack the quirks of Columbo, but she's just as involving and let's hope the powers-that-be grasp that.

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