February 22, 2010

TV's Scary Turn

For Good or Bad, Channeling the Paranormal Has Become the Medium of Choice

By Joanne Ostrow
Denver Post

Between-world spirits, reincarnated beings and plain old dead folks are casting shadows all over the network schedules. It's a good time to be a ghost on TV.

Some are old-fashioned spooky phantoms, others are figments of quantum physics, having fallen out of their places on the space-time continuum. That can be pretty spooky, too.

Psychics, mediums and other ghost whisperers have found a place in the public imagination. So have ethereal beings like plane-crash survivors on a particular island in the Pacific, unstuck in time.

Procedural dramas, as well as ABC's famously mysterious "Lost," increasingly rely on that extra dimension for a plot boost. These days, it's not enough to bring good detective skills to the table. Clever crime solvers need a direct line to the great beyond, too.

What does this say about the cultural moment? Why, from the new and truly awful "Past Life" on Fox to the long-standing "Medium," reborn on CBS after being killed by NBC, is the medium overrun with mediums?

"It's in our DNA," according to Stuart Fischoff, professor of psychology at California State University and Los Angeles bureau chief for Psychology Today. "The questioning of the unknown, it's what the ideas of God and Mother Nature are all about. To help explain the unexplainable. These (paranormal ideas) are being exploited by entertainment, not created by entertainment."

Peter Buirski, dean of the graduate school of professional psychology at the University of Denver, points to "the existential idea of death anxiety" as a drive for our fascination.

Even if we can't explain that very natural anxiety, we bring it with us to the TV couch as we would to the analyst's couch.

But it doesn't take a shrink to spot the trend.

"The Mentalist" on CBS has the cutest player of mind games in Simon Baker. "Psych" on USA has the goofiest, with James Roday as a fake psychic who relies on a photographic memory, and Dule Hill bantering comically (the season finale is March 10). "Ghost Whisperer" on CBS has perhaps the most earnest in Jennifer Love Hewitt.

In some cases the claim to special psychic powers is muted — both "The Mentalist" and "Psych" boast leading players with finely honed observational skills, more Sherlock Holmes than sixth sense.

In the case of "Medium," Patricia Arquette's character, Allison Dubois, is based on a real person, a self-proclaimed psychic who has worked with the police.

The idea of detectives using ESP or profiler vibes to solve cases has been around for years. And the appeal of the televised seance is clear: It's been more than a decade since John Edward launched "Crossing Over," a talk show in which guests unquestioningly accept the idea that their dead relatives communicate via a psychic on TV.

Unreal but engaging

But these are mature efforts, with bigger stars and better production values. No matter how skeptical you are regarding communication with the spiritual world, it's a sign of a good television show when Simon Baker or Patricia Arquette can make you believe for a moment that they are going deep on a hunch or picking up hints from their highly trained observational skills.

Similarly, it's a sign of bad writing when the dramaturgical holes in the "Past Life" story are more distracting than the series' central ideas of re- incarnation and past-life regression. Suspension of disbelief is one thing; suspension of critical viewing skills is asking too much.

Scientific theory matters more than mere DNA evidence on the best puzzler on television: We're routinely running into ghostly presences on "Lost," a series that operates on a higher astral and television plane. The deep mythology of that serial drama includes the reappearances of characters shown to have died, the ability to "move" its giant island and time travel, among other supernatural elements.

The here/not-here presences on "Lost" are calculated to evoke deep metaphysical questions. They're not hanging around to solve crimes, they're popping up to spur serious thought: People are dead and not dead, here and not here simultaneously in "Lost," as alternate timelines appear and diverge. A billowing, silly- looking smoke monster occasionally takes on the form of dead people. (A good thing, too, because audiences want to see more of those killed-off actors on retainer.)

The parallel universes or multiple realities of "Lost" don't produce the "boo!" ghosts, in the way the more routine crime shows do. But the "Lost" universe does contain people living different versions of themselves.

That's why some "Lost" characters have the funny feeling they've met before — they bump into each other in different time frames with a vague sensation of deju vu. They have met but in another slice of time, once upon a dream.

In the same way that murder victims in "Medium" and other psychic crime shows crave a reset (they seek a solution to a murder and punishment of the murderer), the characters on "Lost" hope for a reset in their life stories.

Is it possible writers on these shows have tapped into viewers' desire for a reset in their lives or in current history? Stop the world, I want to request a redo.

Psychologists say there are good reasons the escapism offered by these TV dramas fills a human need.

Embracing a hero with the power to chat with ghosts is "a way to maintain emotional connection to lost people in one's life, a belief that one is not alone in the world," DU's Buirski said.

"The less control you seem to have over reality, the more you move toward a supernatural reality," says professor and Psychology Today's L.A. bureau chief Fischoff. "Our economic-political-military problems are astounding and, in those circumstances, people turn to the supernatural for escape or even for inspiration."

Fischoff knows lots of people in the Hollywood Hills who've had their past lives "read" in the manner of "Past Life." He's not a believer. "In order for a clinical psychologist to believe in past-life regression therapy, you can't believe in psychotherapy. If you're being affected by what happened to you when you were Mary Queen of Scots, it's hard for the therapy to do a lot."

A need to know

The popularity of these TV series suggests we want answers and, finding none, are content to seek them in other dimensions.

"It's a hunger for something to tap into the metaphysical," said Atlanta psychologist Robert Simmermon, a specialist in film and media issues and a fan of "Psych." This fascination is "nothing new but a return to dealing with the mystical or unknown."

Simmermon sees an about-face from the 1990s cultural emphasis on the concrete and dogmatic to something more abstract.

"There's something in the zeitgeist, a transformation. The more optimistic of us say it's time to reappreciate the intuitive. A metaphysical way of looking at death is the underlying theme: There's more in this world than meets the eye."

He cites evidence in the popular culture from "Wicked" and "Avatar" to the psychic TV crime stoppers. "We've reintroduced the mystery. Maybe we're ready to delve into inner space."

It's all about faith, as followers of "Lost" know well. Do you believe in things you cannot see?

No doubt the fan base of "Lost" has little in common with the fans of, say, "Ghost Whisperer." But both know there's more out there than they can put their fingers on.