Miracles: The Complete Series Review
Miracles premiered in 2003 on the ABC network in the US. Unfortunately the few episodes that actually made it to broadcast (6, less than half those actually filmed) were treated quite shabbily by a network that clearly had other priorities, and the show became a victim of bad scheduling and worse promotion. (To give you an idea of in how much esteem ABC held Miracles at the time, one need only observe that showings were often randomly cancelled to make way for repeats of The Bachelorette finale, and generally other delays only announced at the last possible minute.)
Instead of regular weekly shows, the episodes were separated unusually and even those fans (like myself) who were keen to follow the progress of the series had a hard time being able to guess when each subsequent episode was actually going to air. Predictably, this had a dire effect on the ratings figures (ever-critical to the network execs), which only reinforced the show's downward spiral into TV oblivion. Because of this - and subject matter that was perhaps too touchy for a primetime US audience - the series was fairly doomed from the start, despite an absolutely stellar cast and a dedicated production crew working to make what is, for me, one of the better television shows to have emerged in recent years. One of many promising US shows that have received limited runs before abrupt cancellations (Firefly, Brimstone, Odyssey 5, Harsh Realm, etc.), the good news is that every filmed episode has been brought together for this DVD box set. I honestly never thought it would happen, but I'm definitely glad it did.
So what is the show all about? Well, it tracks the story of Paul Callan (Skeet Ulrich of Scream fame), who starts off as a miracle investigator for the Church, and more than a little down-hearted at always having to dash the hopes and dreams of religious people who really want their experiences to have been miraculous. As such, he's trained to look at potentially supernatural events and debunk them if there is instead any bona fide scientific explanation. While taking some time away from the job, Paul is asked to look into the strange case of Tommy Ferguson, a young boy who appears to have healing powers.
Paul and Tommy are inextricably linked through a shared dream and from the very moment they meet events come into play that has Paul returning to the Church to acknowledge that a real miracle has finally occurred. When the Church is less than enthusiastic about acknowledging this, Paul resigns his post, uncertain about his future. Having been waiting in the wings, Alva Keel (Angus MacFadyen from Braveheart) recruits Paul to work for his vaguely-mysterious organisation which is dedicated to investigating strange events and occurrences... and dangles a carrot to Paul with reference to his own miraculous experience. And yes, I'm working hard not to breathe even a single spoiler here, because honestly, the pilot episode for this show is one of the strongest I've ever seen, complete with a truly gripping and unexpected ending.
Keel's organisation, Sodalitas Quaerito, is made up of Keel, Paul and Evelyn (Marisa Ramirez of General Hospital) - an ex-cop and single mother. Together they get called in to investigate a series of strange events which cover poltergeists, haemography (blood spontaneously forming into words), possession (a few times, in fact), reincarnation, temporal anomalies (seriously!) and sainthood. The series occupies that generous middle ground somewhere between The X-Files and Millennium, with its feet seriously placed in the horror genre but featuring enough light touches to make it less than one-dimensional. Each episode brings something new to the mix, and there's just enough character development to start to really care and engage with the regular characters that crop up. But in the end the show is all about Paul's journey.
An orphan, Paul has been brought up within the Church and has always thought of paranormal experiences as potential miracles (though from what we're shown, he's not experienced many - or perhaps any - before the show starts). Keel provides a more secular approach; he absolutely believes in the supernatural, just not that it's a sign of a benevolent God. And Paul is given many reasons to question his faith in these 13 episodes.
One of the strongest points of the series is that it keeps things mysterious – there are no real answers provided on the good/evil debate. We're made to think about them in the same way that the Sodalitas Quaerito gang do, from our own beliefs and experiences and from all angles. The line between two sides is only roughly sketched here, and with the two sides barely defined there's a lot of leeway for a viewer to make of it what they will. Episodes are mostly self-contained, with an 'investigation of the week' feel, but there is an underlying story arc that emerges from time to time, especially in the pilot, the 'Hand of God' episode, and then of course, in the final episode of the series. I hate to use the word 'luckily' in connection with a show that I really wish hadn't been cancelled, but luckily the final episode provides a somewhat solid ending to the story... so we don't feel completely cheated out of future series. It's thankfully nothing deus ex machina however, and it doesn't tie everything up neatly – but that actually fits this particular show better than cut and dried answers would.
I've attempted to write the episode guide so that it avoids any major spoilers, because I want people to be able to read the synopses in order to get a better idea of the week-by-week mood of the series. There are some really stand-out episodes along the way... the most impressive of course being the pilot. (Honestly, I remember watching it the night it was broadcast and being immediately enthused that a really cool, interesting series was about to play out.) 'The Friendly Skies', 'Hand of God' and 'Mother's Daughter' also stood out for me particularly, for a number of reasons, and in a way, if the show was going to be taken off-air early, then 'Hand of God' was the perfect episode for that to happen with. Of course, internationally all 13 episodes were shown, but for those in the US, this DVD set is the only legitimate way to access those final 7 episodes.
The writing is universally strong and always maintains that edgy horror undercurrent. Things are genuinely creepy in Miracles (thus the natural comparison with Millennium), but where the latter dealt more with the murky depths of humanity - serial killers and the like - Miracles explores a somewhat more spiritual side where the lines between good and bad are less clear. For example, a doctor getting good information about curing a disease from a potentially very dodgy source… good, or bad? The questions are raised, but as Keel and Paul often have different points of view, we're sometimes presented with a series of answers. And they're not always a very 'buddy' investigation team; there's at least one massive bust-up between the pair that adds to the dynamic as the show enfolds.
The cast are also perfect for this series. In the commentaries and interview on the DVDs, the word most often used to describe Skeet Ulrich is 'soulful' and watching these episodes it's easy to see why. He brings a real humanity to his character so the journey he takes is one with which we can empathise. However he's no sap and is willing to take a stand for his potentially unfashionable beliefs, especially when compared with Keel. For that matter, Angus MacFadyen brings an intensity to Keel that the series developers were originally not certain about. They envisaged Keel initially as a father figure for Paul, but when they saw MacFadyen audition he became more of a 'brother figure'. Personally, I think it turned out for the best... the dynamic between the pair is sometimes almost electric, with both bringing out the best in each other. Ramirez rounds out the team in a fairly unassuming way, but then many of her scenes found their way to the cutting room floor to make way for the more central relationship of the series. Still, she does a great job with the scenes she does has, and presents more than merely a stereotypical token female cast member.
I found Miracles to be an immensely watchable show with interesting themes and a distinctive character. The quality of production, writing and acting all ably help make this such an engaging series that it's definitely a shame it didn't have a longer life. That being said, at least it didn't have time to over-run its welcome and deteriorate (as too many good shows do). So the 13-episode run was both a gift and a curse… which is actually oddly appropriate given how often the supernatural events in the show could be seen as either or both as well.
1: 'The Ferguson Syndrome'
Paul Callan, investigator of miracles for the Church, is growing weary of his job and takes a leave of absence to try and restore his energy. While on hiatus in Arizona, he receives a call from Father 'Poppi' Calero (the priest who ran Paul's orphanage) asking him to investigate a young boy named Tommy Ferguson. It's been said that Tommy can heal the sick... so Paul goes to investigate, putting on his cynical hat to see how this might be possible. However when he meets Tommy, Paul realises the power of his own dreams - as the two of them have in fact shared the same disturbing vision – and in the end has to question his faith in his work and in the Church itself.
Returning to Boston after a literally life-changing experience, Paul quits his job. He then meets Alva Keel who drops him some mysterious tidbits about his supernatural experience and asks Paul to work with him at Sodalitas Quaerito.
2: 'The Friendly Skies'
When a plane disappears for 64 seconds in plain view of the ATC tower just moments before landing, Keel is asked to come investigate by an old associate and brings along his current colleague (Evelyn) and new recruit (Paul). Each of the passengers is interviewed in detail about what happened during this mysterious period of lost time, and each has a different strange experience to report. While searching for an explanation, Keel deals with a flight attendant who now speaks ancient Aramaic, while Evelyn interviews a young girl plagued with a detailed knowledge of her entire future and Paul speaks to a completely-paralysed woman who is suddenly able to speak and walk.
3: 'The Patient'
When a doctor researching a specific disease starts to receive treatment hints and tips from a patient whose condition heretofore had prevented him from being able to speak or move, the former begins to behave erratically. Paul is drawn to the case through the doctor's daughter who he met at a lecture. Due to potential danger to Paul, Keel also gets involved in a case which abruptly looks more like a possession than any sudden medical breakthrough.
4: 'Little Miss Lost'
A series of disasters strikes in Boston, and at each Paul gimpses a deathly-pallid young girl, clutching some balloons just seconds before the accidents happen. Keel explains that this is a well known phenomenon and it always appears to be the same girl, whose body (amongst the many other corpses resulting from each tragedy) is never claimed. The pair work on the theory that the girl's appearance is somehow causing these events and that they need to track down the first such appearance and determine why such negative energy might exist. In finding the girl's family, they hope to put her spirit to rest.
5: 'The Bone Scatterer'
The Sodalitas Quaerito team follow a disturbing phone call to the town of Red Deer, Michigan, where they encounter schoolboy Travis Prescott, son of the local Sheriff. Travis (played by ever-recognisable Chris Marquette of Joan of Arcadia, etc.) has been having dreams of people being killed which are quickly becoming a reality. Paul watches over Travis to prove it's not him that's performing these acts, while Keel looks into local legends about twins and discovers that Travis' twin died in-utero due to domestic violence. The story plays out from there as the truth of Travis' claims are unravelled.
6: 'Hand of God'
When a woman is found murdered in her home after sketching Paul's name and picture (as well as the ominous words 'God is Nowhere'), Paul himself comes under investigation by the authorities. He also breaks into the Sodalitas Quaerito files on haemography and finds out this isn't a solitary case. In a chilling episode for Paul, he sets off to warn a potential victim but is stopped by the police. After freeing himself, he tries to warn someone else and discovers not only the killer but also some disturbing facts about all those who share the haemography experience. (This was the last episode to be broadcast in the US.)
7: 'You Are My Sunshine'
When Paul offers to nurse an ex-girlfriend back to health, he doesn't bargain for the house she's living in being possessed by some jealous and murderous ex-residents. With Paul susceptible to such spiritual phenomena, it's up to Evelyn and Keel to save him from complete disaster.
8: 'The Battle at Shadow Ridge'
When Keel drags Paul off to look for 'ghost lights' (said to be the souls of soldiers from the American Civil War) in the Virginian countryside, they chance to hear of two local children having reported seeing the ghost of a Confederate infantryman in the woods. In an episode that looks at two sides of haunting, as well as managing to sneak in that classic Star Trek standby (the 'temporal anomaly'), we witness Paul's softer side when having to speak to the children about their experiences. Once the source of the haunting is discovered, there's a race against time to get a message across to the other side.
9: 'Mother's Daughter'
Initially called in to investigate an Amish teenager's apparent stigmata experience, Paul and Keel discover something much stranger at play involving reincarnation, invisible friends, and two souls sharing the same body. Following the girl across country, the Sodalitas Quaerito gang have some tough explaining to do to all of the families involved, but ultimately this is more of an episode where Paul and Keel act as a catalyst to some emotional journeys for those touched by a supernatural event.
10: 'Saint Debbie'
A diner waitress miraculously recovers from having her neck sliced open at a robbery and everyone in town is convinced she's touched by God. Keel is absolutely convinced in the miracle and also starts to show a warmer side as he falls for the woman involved. On the other hand, Paul reverts to his old miracle investigator role and remains sceptical of any saintly happenings. Real miracles do come to light during the investigation, even if they might not be quite the expected ones.
11: 'The Ghost'
When a estate agent's office appears to be haunted, Sodalitas Quaerito are called to the scene. All the worker's have vivid tales of paranormal activity... except the owner, strangely enough. After a bit more digging about to investigate the situation, they get him to admit to seeing strange things... but his explanation is that it's his dead son coming back to be near him. (Thus the reason he's been so protective over any unexplained occurrences.) Paul and the gang fear something else might be responsible for the ghostly activity and it's up to them to explain to him.
12: 'The Letter'
One of Paul's co-residents from his orphanage years begins to receive letters from her father - who died when she was very young. As Paul investigates further, he discovers they've been sent by an illiterate death row inmate, all of whose victims' families have received similar letters purporting to be from their lost loved ones. With only a few days to decide on whether the inmate will receive clemency before his execution, the families are left with the decision of whether to sever the only link to their dead relatives…
13: 'Paul is Dead'
Well – that's not a 'stand up and notice me' episode title, is it!? Paul is worried about the number of times he's seeing the ghost of Tommy Ferguson and speaks to Keel about it, as if he's a client of Sodalitas Quaerito himself. At the same time, the company is investigating a TV psychic who is obviously a fraud, until he touches Paul and has his first - and not at all pleasant - genuine paranormal experience. When Evelyn's son Mateo goes missing on Paul's watch, there's some fracturing of the previously close team and Paul takes drastic actions to redeem himself and help find Matty... actions that also help solve the issue of Tommy's haunting.
Although a widescreen version of Miracles does exist (as it was broadcast in widescreen to those few lucky souls with HDTVs - and HDTV cable subscriptions - in the US), when Shout! Factory went to produce the DVD box set, they were only provided with the standard full-frame transfers that the majority of viewers will be familiar with, so picture here is in 4:3 ratio.
The show was actually filmed on anamorphic cameras – a surprising fact that is mentioned a few times in the commentaties. The quality of the picture is very good throughout; even in the very darkest shots, both subtle action and the actors slightest facial performances are distinguishable. There's some grain here and there, but nothing too over-powering and the skin tones are extremely natural. Other colours can be a little muted at times, but this appears to be more of a stylistic choice than one of transfer.
The English soundtrack is presented in the original Dolby Digital 2.0 and also a Dolby Digital 5.1 version. The latter is a remastered track done by Shout! Factory. To be honest, I didn't notice any huge advantage to listening to the 5.1 track though; it just seems louder rather than more directional. The rear speakers are used extensively, but mostly for effects and background music, so it's not essential or particularly necessary to fire up the surround sound speakers for this DVD box set. In general, the speech in both mixes is clear and untainted by background noise and the music fits in extremely well – something quite important for ramping up the creepiness factor in an unashamedly horror series.
Richard Hatem (who created Miracles) was obviously quite involved with making this DVD set and it includes a lot more special features than I might ever have dared hope it would, particularly considering its status as a cancelled TV show that many haven't even heard of. The extras are spread across the 4 discs and provide a lot of additional and intriguing information about the series. In addition, I found Hatem quite enjoyable to listen to... which is good, as he's featured in almost every extra I think.
The biggest chunk of the extras is provided naturally enough by the 6 full-length episode commentaries on 'The Ferguson Syndrome', 'The Friendly Skies', 'The Battle at Shadow Ridge', 'Mother's Daughter', 'The Ghost' and 'Paul is Dead'. For three of these commentaries Hatem is accompanied by executive producer David Greenwalt (who also worked on Angel, Jake 2.0 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among other popular shows). The other half see Hatem twinned with director Matthew Reeves, writer David Graziano and writer Christian Taylor. I found each of the commentaries interesting and certainly enthusiastic - you definitely get a good feeling for how much the crew really enjoyed working on this show. They discuss the writing, the origin of the series, the casting and the actors, production, the problems with the network and various details of the research they did into the supernatural phenomena the story covers. They also namecheck some of the fans that helped keep the series supported and petitioned for a DVD.
On disc 2, there are no commentaries. Instead there's an extended interview with series creator Richard Hatem, which lasts around 30 minutes and gives more in-depth information about the history of the show from start to finish. These kind of interviews have a tendency to lapse towards tedium, but Hatem is so enthusiastic about the show that you can't help but get a bit carried away with it and end up being engaged by everything he says.
There are also 5 deleted scenes scattered across the discs, each accessible from the main extras menu of the disc and also under each episode sub-menu. Often the scenes involve Evelyn's untold story and Hatem seems genuinely sad that, for plotting and timing purposes, these weren't able to make it into the final broadcast versions of the episodes. Hatem introduces each deleted scene to explain the context and reasons for the exclusion. I don't think any of them were essential, but it's always interesting to know what extra clips were shot.
Finally, the fourth disc includes the series promo in rough cut. It shows some of the critical acclaim the show received when it was first shown, interspersed with key clips from the show. Nicely put-together, it really made me wonder how they could have cancelled such a critically well-received series.
It's hard for me to recommend Miracles strongly enough, especially if you enjoy shows like Millennium and The X-Files. I found it to be a remarkably engaging show with a definite character of its own... despite the number of TV shows out there that deal with supernatural events. Both cast and writing are very strong, especially as this is only what could have been the first of several series, allowing for much more characterisation and story to emerge over the years. Hints towards a larger mystery are always there, tempting us to draw conclusions, but the writers steer well clear of offering any answers. We are simply presented with alternatives to draw our own conclusions from, although in some cases it may be more obvious than others.
But I fear it was always a bit doomed by its religious undertones, if not by its incredibly dodgy scheduling. Shout! Factory, together with Richard Hatem, deserve a great deal of credit for having brought this show to DVD and thus to a wider potential audience - and they've done a remarkably good job of it too, considering. Now, if only more excellent-but-cancelled-oversoon shows could receive the same treatment…