Tru Calling: The Complete First Season Review
There was a brief flurry of excitement in the early part of 2003 amongst Buffy fans concerning a potential future for the franchise. The internet was rife with speculation that, following her return in both Buffy and its spin-off Angel, Eliza Dushku would take centre stage in a new series based around her character, the slayer-gone-bad Faith. It had fanboys salivating at the thought – Faith is easily one of the most interesting (and, of course, hottest) characters in the Buffyverse, and the prospect of an entire show based around her was certainly a very attractive one. BBCi even reported the series as fact, but in the event nothing came of it, Buffy-supremo Joss Whedon going off to make his Firefly movie and Dushku preferring to break new ground, starring in a pilot called Tru Calling.
My fellow reviewer DJ Nock describes the premise of the show as “Quantum Leap with death” and that’s a pretty apt description. Dushku plays Tru Davies, a would-be medical student who finds herself working in a City Morgue when her internship falls through. On her first night on the job, she is understandably disconcerted when a newly brought in body opens its eyes, turns to her and asks for help. Immediately Tru is whipped back to the start of the day, “to make right what once went wrong”, to try and save the life of the dead girl. This, she swiftly discovers, is not a one-off occurrence and soon corpses are regularly turning to her to save them. Although she initially keeps this a secret (well, you would, wouldn’t you?) she soon discovers that her gift is not as unique as she might have thought and others, including Davis the morgue attendant and her brother Harrison, are let in on the secret.
The character of Faith is going to haunt Dushku for a long time – it was the role that made her name and for many she is inseparable from it - so it was a wise move to take on a different kind of role and put some distance between herself and the character (I also happen to think that a series based around Faith would be a bit of a mistake, but that’s a whole other issue). That said, she hasn’t made that much of a break, as the two shows share a lot of similarities. Both have a young girl “chosen” by something beyond their understanding, guided by an older mentor and trying to live a normal life while keeping her extraordinary gift a secret from those around her. Heck, it even has Doug Petrie, a Buffy veteran, on its writing staff (with another, Jane Espenson, coming onboard just as the show was cancelled). (Thematically, it also has a strong resemblance to the excellent German film Lola Rennt (or Run Lola Run as it was known over here), both being concerned with the games Fate plays with us and a young woman’s attempts to outrun (literally) destiny’s grasping claws.)
Unfortunately creator Jon Harmon Feldman is no Joss Whedon - in fact, he’s actually one of the poorer writers on the show. His dialogue ranges from weak attempts at puns to incredibly clunky exposition – in the opening scene, practically the first lines of dialogue are (talking about their dead mother at the funeral) “She forgive me for not being able to help her and she says she’s okay”, “You have a vivid imagination but Mom was murdered in front of you, what part of that is okay?” His plotting is clumsy too, both in his own episodes (there are a couple of really awkward moments in the finale especially) and in the series overall, notably in the plot about the reporter who investigates Tru’s activities – she just vanishes as Jack’s role becomes more prominent. (It could be argued that this was something Feldman planned on picking up in the second season, but the development of the plot, which up until then had been nicely gradual, just stops dead.) Others on the staff have a better feel for what works and doesn’t, and of the best episodes of the season - Morning After, Murder in the Morgue, The Longest Day and Daddy’s Girl - he has a credit on only one, the latter, and even that's just as co-writer. In general, the writing is functional rather than inspired – there’s a lack of clever or memorable lines or situations (if Espenson had had a chance to pen an episode, this would have changed) - but is okay. (The flipside is that the direction is actually better than on many shows, with more adventurous camerawork – perhaps a result of having director Philip Noyce work on the pilot).
As you would expect, early episodes conform pretty much to a standard formula: the first act consists of setting up the story, ending with the victim asking for Tru’s help and sending her back. The next two acts Tru attempts to find out how they died and prevent it, usually leading to an end-of-Act-Three twist in which it is revealed she was barking up the wrong tree. Act four then consists of a last-minute dash to the person’s rescue, followed by Tru considering the lessons she's learnt about her gift this week. The writers have some fun with the repeating-day scenario – amongst other things, Tru helps various family and friends by using her knowledge of how their day went to improve their fortunes, while Tru gets to know people, including a prospective boyfriend, while they completely forget who she is – but by the midpoint of the season it does begin to get a little repetitive. Variations such as they are tend to be slight – more than one person asks for her help at once in one episode, the day keeps repeating in another and so on – but it is only the introduction of a bigger arc that brings the series fully to life.
Frustratingly, the philosophical questions Tru’s gift raises are never properly dealt with. For a series in which the central concept is battling fate, with all the questions of the existence or otherwise of free will as well as the nature of death itself that her gift raises, there is precious little in the way of anything approaching an intelligent debate on the topic. What conversations the characters do have about it tend to be of the incredulous “I don’t believe this is happening to you” or the perplexed “Why has this happened to me?” variety, a superficial approach that suggests the writers didn’t really want to get into the deeper waters that they could have done. Even when the yin to Tru’s yang arrives late in the season, the few arguments they have about the situation tend to be specific rather than general: why should this person not die, rather than why should you change the future? Or, if he does start expounding on his belief, it goes along the lines of “You shouldn’t mess with Fate it’s wrong.” Why he thinks it’s wrong is never fully explained beyond a vague notion of maintaining the status quo. This would have elevated the show above the norm, but the opportunity just slips away.
Instead, to fill in the time while Tru is off saving this week’s victim, most episodes feature a B story featuring her friends and relations. These, while amusing enough in the small doses we get them, act more as a distraction rather than a compliment to the main story - when someone’s life is at stake, who really cares if brother Harrison is having another dismal date with Tru’s best friend Lindsay? Although the effort to present a rounded picture of Tru’s world is understandable, these extras are often not interesting enough to warrant the amount of screen time they get, something you get the feeling the writers felt too as some are just ditched with little in the way of explanation (Meredith’s drug addiction being the most obvious one). Again, this has to be put down to poor planning – in better hands, these secondary stories would have complimented the main story, or at least interwoven with them, more.
Having said that, the characters, while not stellar, do enough to make them good, if completely unmemorable, company, their main problem being that they feel exactly what they are: characters in a television show. It’s difficult to believe they are fully-rounded flesh and blood people whose lives continue on once each episode has finished. This comes from the fact that, with two exceptions, they are pretty much one-note characters. Davis as Tru’s mentor is slightly too melancholic and down to be entirely successful – not once the entire season does he show any spark, and his one attempt to confront a villain, in the season finale, ends in abject failure. This wetness is meant to evoke sympathy, but ends up provoking only frustration while Zach Galifianakis’ playing of him is subdued with nothing for the audience to hold onto. AJ Cook as Tru’s best friend Lindsay, meanwhile, is likeable but bland, again with little to distinguish her, her one function in the show seemingly to be to roll her eyes at Harrison’s latest misdemeanour. Harrison himself, played by Shawn Reaves, has a bit more life to him – he’s one of those lovable rogues who’s always messing up but, with the help of his sister’s foreknowledge, is able to recover disastrous dates, bet correctly on high stakes poker games that have previous hideously wrong and job interviews in which he would have said the wrong thing. Reaves isn’t one of the greatest actors to walk this earth but he does enough to make the character’s impishness charming rather than annoying. It’s also noticeable that the actor raises his game on the entrance of the final regular cast member late in the series, a cast member he shares some of the season’s most memorable moments with.
Usually, the arrival of Jason Priestley onto a show is a sign that all is lost and the producers are waving a white flag, but it turns out he is quite the best thing on the show. His enigmatic character Jack injects some life into proceedings, the one other than Tru who actually feels like a real person, and as such his presence elevates the last batch of episodes up above the rest, at a time when the formula was just beginning to drag. His careless callousness is both chilling and affecting, an amoral piece of work who is also utterly convincing – it’s just a shame his arrival came so late in the day. But, yet again, the execution of his arc is flawed – the viewer is let into his secret before the characters, and we have to endure a couple of episodes while Tru and Davis laboriously work out what we already know. In the right hands that’s not a problem, but here it’s a bit tiresome.
He’s also a little overbearing in that the battle between him and Tru doesn’t feel entirely equal. Although convention dictates that eventually Tru would overcome him, you do get the feeling in the climatic scenes that they are not even close to a level playing field, Dushku oddly not putting across the strength needed in her confrontation with him to make it look like a close fight. Whereas in Buffy there was always the feeling that, no matter who the supervillain was she could eventually conquer, here Tru’s assertion that she will defeat him comes across more as a petulant child complaining to its parent about some injustice – a fly for Jack to swat aside rather than a genuine threat (while also underlining that Tru’s network of helpers is really not up to much). This makes the climatic moments, in which a character tells Jack he has a real challenge on his hands, a bit harder to believe.
This is a shame because in all other respects Dushku is excellent throughout the season, showing that she is more than capable of headlining a series. Although it’s a shame she doesn’t get to show more of her sassy side so prominent in just about every other role she’s ever had (aside from kicking a gun out of a character’s hand in the pilot, I can’t remember an occasion she strikes out at all), this does give her an opportunity to broaden her persona, so we see a more gentle side to her. It would be wrong to say that Tru was a completely rounded character – despite many surface-level conversations about her ability, we never really get into what she believes, what her aims in life are or, most importantly, how she feels this thing is affecting her now (there’s no Buffy-style angst here) – but Dushku infuses her with a down-to-earth, fun personality, caring for her family with also a determination to do the right thing. I’m sure that, given time, she would have risen to the challenge a season two would have presented with her, giving her more substance to get her teeth into to produce a truly (no pun intended) memorable character.
But sadly, this is not to be. Although officially renewed for a second season, something went wrong and now the series is no more. Suffering from comparisons with the similarly themed Joan of Arcadia (a show I’ve not seen so can’t comment on) it never quite caught on in the way a network hopes and so they bailed. This is a shame, because the final, narrative clumsiness aside, does set up a potentially exciting second season – one in which Tru would begin to properly battle Jack, discover the truth about her father and so on – while promising on even bigger things to come. The fact that we won’t see any of this is extremely frustrating, and it’s almost cruel to recommend this box set as now, it’s all set-up and no pay off. But that would do the series an injustice – while never a great show, it is a very entertaining one, with a sparky central performance and fun premise that, while never quite breaking out of its formula, certainly manages to play around with it. What a shame that it couldn't call on its own central character to resurrect it in its hour of need - as it is, its death has only brought back to life one thing: those pesky Faith rumours. Seems Ms Dushku still has a way to go before shedding completely the shadow of the rogue slayer...
The series comes on six dual-layered disks which are housed in an attractive box set. The outer box contains three slim jewel cases, each of which holds two disks and have information about every episode on those disks on their covers. The only problem with the cases is that, with mine anyway, the teeth holding the disks in place aren’t as tight as they could be, resulting in the disks coming loose fairly often. Each disk’s menu is the same, with a list of episodes and a Play All button. (When highlighting the episode to select it, the time of death of the character in that episode is displayed). Each episode has a submenu from which any extras pertaining to that episode are to be found. The first three disks hold four episodes each, the fourth and fifth three and the last two. The last two episodes were originally broadcast as a two parter on the same night but regretfully the option to watch them as one joined episode is not present. All the extras (bar the commentaries and deleted scenes, naturally) are to be found on the final disk. Given the option to Play All for the episodes themselves, it’s odd that there isn’t a similar option for the featurettes, especially given that they are fundamentally one documentary broken down into three parts. None of these extras are subtitled.
Pretty standard for a television release. There’s a lot of softness in the image that at times borders on blurriness, as well as some artefacts and artificial enhancements scattered around. The pilot episode is also noticeably more grainy than the rest.
Standard 2.0 mix that is unremarkable in every way. No dialogue is lost but there is nothing here to get excited about.
A decent selection of six commentaries, all featuring creator Jon Harman Feldman who is joined by Dushku, Reaves, Galifianakis, Priestley and producer Dawn Parouse on different tracks. These are worth a listen, a mixture of facts about the making of the show and what went into the creative decisions, and are somewhat better than other recent series’ commentaries.
He may not be the greatest writer in the world, but Feldman is certainly very generous in the time he’s given to the extras. As well as the episode commentaries, he also provides an optional track over the deleted scenes from no less than 13 episodes. As with the main commentaries, what he has to say is relevant and to the point, and while for most episodes these scenes only make up a couple of minutes of footage, this level of contribution is to be applauded. The scenes themselves are of only passing interest – although we do get to see a character cut out of the pilot – and, while it’s tempting to wish they could have been branched back into the episodes, most of the time it’s either impractical, both because of the way the episodes are edited and also because of the lower quality of some of the footage here, and unnecessary.
Finding the Calling: the Pilot
Standard ten minute featurette about casting the show and filming the first episode. It’s the usual guff – everyone says how special the show is, the actors imply what a riot they have making it, and Eliza tells a mundane anecdote about how she, get this!, actually tripped over while filming one of the running scenes. And everyone saw! That’s how crazy filming the show was.
The Tru Path: Season One
This is a disappointing extra – the title suggests that we will look at the key episodes, how the story was developed and character growth, but besides from a brief mention of The Longest Day and Murder in the Morgue there’s none of that. Instead we get more vague assurances that lessons were learnt (what were they?) and that some episodes worked better than others (for example?) and that by the end of the season things were on track. Oh, and Zach keeps the crew amused for hours by walking onto set with no trousers on. What aspect of this they find the most amusing is not commented on but it sure makes Dushku laugh.
Evil Comes Calling: A Late Season Twist
Best of the three featurettes on offer, this looks at the impact Jason Priestley’s character had on the show, and benefits from the single focus. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but from the brief snippet here, it would appear that Reaves was not particularly happy about the actor coming onto the show, which is fun. Also a little sad, as everyone talks about how excited they are for season two...
The full version of the title track, “Somebody Help Me” by a group calling themselves Full Blown Rose. The lead singer is a terrifying red-haired woman (who looks rather like Jonathan Ross’ wife) who screams at the viewer “Free me, before I slip away” while writhing around before her backing band who all look faintly embarrassed. Frankly I’d run a mile if she came back to life as she does in this video but there you go. The full length version betrays the low quality of the track itself as well – it works extremely well for the opening sequence, but when considered as a single in its own right is just another unremarkable slice of goth rock.
Arrested Development Promo: Blind
I don’t watch Arrested Development and this promo doesn’t make me want to start.
Tru Calling is not the greatest show in the world, but it is a very diverting way to spend a few hours. With an attractive and charismatic lead, interesting premise and heading in a promising direction in the future, it’s annoying the show is not going to get a chance to spread its wings further. At least it gets a good DVD release – although the main featurettes are disappointingly vacuous, the deleted scenes and commentaries make up for them.