Ghost Whisperer: The Complete First Season Review
One of the great joys of digital television is that you end up watching all sorts of rubbish. A couple of weeks ago I was idly surfing through the channels when I chanced upon an American talk show and, being in a nihilistic sort of mood, decided to stay with it. The subject under discussion was spiritualism and when I tuned in the show was in the middle of a pre-filmed segment in which a medium was helping a clearly distressed lady “talk” to a recently deceased relative. The spiritualist was an oily, unpleasant cove, to the impartial observer unconvincing for even ten seconds, but he had this poor woman utterly convinced she was communicating with her loved one. Abhorrent, one might say, but sadly fairly common in this day and age: what surprised me was the reception the guy got when the hostess of the show brought him up on stage in front of the studio audience; instead of pelting him with rotten tomatoes and calling out obscenities they actually applauded heartily, as though he had done a great service to mankind such as saving a life or rescuing a group of puppies from an abusive owner. Some even gave him a standing ovation. He lapped it up, looking about as smug as it is possible to be, before the hostess engaged him in an earnest discussion about his gift. Now, I know that US talk show audiences are traditionally dumb, but really, this was the limit and, after watching this slimeball for a few more minutes, seriously discussing his ability (and not, I noted, pointing out how much money he makes out of it) I turned over in disgust to an all-night phone-in quiz, which at least makes no bones about making as much money as possible.
Melinda Gordon, the eponymous Ghost Whisperer, isn’t like that at all. She’s young and pretty and full of life and just happens to have a hereditary gift which enables her to, like Cole Sear in The Sixth Sense, see dead people all the time. She’s also entirely fictional which is something she has over Slimeball (although I guess you could say in a way he was too) and unlike him she uses this ability for purely altruistic ends; in the mythology of the show, ghosts only hang around because they have unresolved issues with their nearest and dearest, and they come to Melinda to help them sort things out so that they can “cross over” to what is presumably the afterlife. These ghostly problems are never very great: although ostensibly a series about spooks, this is very much more The OC than Buffy, with melodrama rather than ghost-busting being the name of the game. Most of the apparitions Melinda encounters are essentially benign and just want a final cuddle while even those who initially seem malevolent and out for mischief are usually pacified after one good talk to Ms Gordon (who often entreats them to stop misbehaving by yelling “Stop it!” in the same way one would scold a toddler for throwing its dinner on the floor).
It’s a very gentle, happy series. Aside from the ghost thing, Melinda (played by Jennifer Love Hewitt) lives in a virtual nirvana. The series opens with her wedding to hunky yet caring paramedic Jim (David Conrad), a husband straight out of the last chapter of Mills and Boon romances, a man who utterly loves his wife and has big strong arms to wrap around and protect her. They move to an idyllic little town somewhere on the East Coast of America (where exactly is never specified, although in reality it’s based on series creator John Gray’s home town of Nyack in New York state) where the newly-weds buy a fixer-upper house (which, despite constant problems with the plumbing and electrics, is still homely) and Melinda opens up an antiques store with best friend Andrea (Aisha Tyler). Life for her is, in short, as good as it gets, aside from the occasional spats with Jim about such things as when they are going to have children (he wants them, she doesn’t) and, of course, the ghosts who constantly come knocking on the door.
Although, truth be told, the ghosts aren’t generally a very threatening lot; although there are frights to be had (especially as the season goes on) they are very conventional in nature and aren’t really effective as spine-tinglers - indeed, most appear solid and as real as the living characters and it’s only when the POV changes to someone other than Melinda that we see they aren’t actually visible to other people. Despite the efforts the show’s directors make, the writers aren’t as interested in the manner in which the ghosts present themselves as they are their problems, and Melinda’s quest to help them “walk into the light” (the show’s way of sending the ghosts off). The problem is that the series constantly plays safe: the actual development of these stories is very formulaic and, if one was being honest, trite; as mentioned, melodrama is the name of the game, but melodrama almost exclusively with a happy ending. No matter how intransient the difficulties seem at an episode’s beginning, or how obstinate the living associates of Melinda’s Ghost of the Week are in ignoring her entreaties, by the close of the episode there is inevitably a tearful reunion (this show always ends with Melinda in floods of tears) with everyone reconciled. At no point anywhere is there the whiff of controversy about either the plots or the characters, with even the ghosts who initially appear to be malevolent - such as the clichéd ex convict who causes trouble for Jim - ending up being good eggs after all and, with the exception of the Big Bad, Melinda always manages to bring out the good in the more wayward souls to the satisfaction of all concerned in time for the emotional climax. It’s real Woman’s Own self-indulgently sentimental stuff, the sort of show one watches with a box of chocolates on one’s lap and a hanky by one's side.
That said, it’s also very watchable. One finds it bizarrely easy to forgive the fact it is actually emotionally indulgent tosh, often paradoxically for the very same reasons that, critically, it suffers. A huge part of making it acceptable is down to the leads who, without exception, are charming and good company. Refreshingly Melinda is not a kick-ass heroine in the Buffy mould: although she is usually able to stand up to the ghosts she’s not above having a good old scream and running for cover. Love Hewitt has never been the most versatile actress in the world but very sensibly she sticks to what she’s good at - all-American girl who doesn’t have the verb “to bitch” in her vocabulary - and Melinda is a similar character to the one she played years ago in Party of Five, its spin-off Time of Your Life and the various teen movies she’s popped up in since. Charming if occasionally a bit too sweet she carries the series perfectly ably and is attractive - in every sense of the word - to watch. (She also has a huge wardrobe: every episode she wears multiple suits and none ever reappear). In a way Conrad as her husband has a tougher role, having to combine playing second fiddle with a natural desire on his character’s part to protect his wife, but he does it well; he’s both a man’s man for the chaps out there watching and a dream husband for the ladies (at the risk of being sexist, I suspect this is more a show for the latter than the former) making for a sturdy, stabilising presence. He doesn’t always do much on screen but has a subtle charisma about him that is difficult to define but is undoubtedly there (for some reason I can’t readily work out, beyond a physical resemblance, he reminded me of Nathan Fillion in screen presence, which can only be a good thing.) The two actors have a nice, warm chemistry about them which ensures that their constant lovey-doveyness (and, in another fillip to the Woman’s Own crowd, there is a lot of lovey-doveyness) is not as nauseating as it might have been in the hands of others.
Spoilers for the Season Finale follow
Equally good is Aisha Tyler as best friend Andrea. Initially the decision to kill off the character in the season finale surprised me, given the chemistry Tyler and Love Hewitt have and the natural ebullience they give their scenes. They make a good contrast, with Andrea's sass against Melinda's sweetness, with Tyler being a good performer and a definite asset to the show (not having seen the second season I don’t know if her replacement, Camryn Manheim, is as good). I don’t know if she requested to leave or whether it was a decision made by the writers, but after giving the matter some thought it actually makes sense, dramatically speaking. Melinda’s life is often too cosy and her life needs a little bit of spice added to it, so the removal of a natural confidante in Andrea is perhaps the best way to go about that. Regrettably, the manner of her demise is a little clumsy in the determination to pull the wool over the viewers’ eyes: it’s a gag the show does several times over the course of the season and is usually used well but here it feels a little awkward. Nonetheless, and although it’s a shame to see Tyler going, the departure of Andrea is one of the rare times this season the show is actually brave, and should therefore be applauded, no matter how much the show will miss her.
End of Spoilers
Another thing the show has which works in its favour is a definite sense of place. Unlike many television series which rely on a few standing sets and the odd piece of outdoor film per episode to establish its location, Grandview feels like a real town with a living, breathing community. This is down almost entirely to the use of part of the CBS backlot that in a previous life was the home to the Sun Valley clocktower in Back to the Future but has now been converted to become the main town square of Melinda’s adopted home. It’s here that much of the action in each episode takes place; there’s the antique store itself, the coffee house where Melinda and chums relax, the fire station where Jim is based, the theatre which is occasionally visited, the town hall, and so on and so forth. Constantly filled with residents going about their daily lives, it doesn’t feel artificial at all and, although it might sound a little thing, the fact that Melinda can just wander across it, go see Jim, pop into the coffee shop and so on really does help bring the place to life.
But all this cosiness presents a problem come the finale. One of the few genuinely creditable things in the writing is the way the threat slowly but surely creeps up on both Melinda and the viewers in the course of the season, from the occasional glimpses of the two baddies to her (and our) gradual realisation that the spirits are getting more aggressive as the season progresses: for the first few episodes all the ghosts she encounters are benign to the nth degree, but gradually they become increasingly violent and more difficult to handle. Unfortunately in the end the finale, while one couldn’t consider it a disappointment (it is, indeed, one of the better episodes of the season) drops the ball as far as Melinda’s showdown with the main villain (who the show dub “Wide Brim Hat Man”) is concerned. Frankly it’s a bit of a damp squib and shows that the writers haven’t a clue what to do with him, what his purpose is, or how Melinda should tackle him (the lack of Buffy-like toughness being a rare problem here). As a result the climax meanders vaguely and manages to dissipate much of the sense of threat they have built up so carefully over the year, neutralising the foe by his very appearance. This is a nice show with nice people being nice to each other; there’s really no place for apocalyptic battles which suggests they need to give serious consideration next season to how they are going to handle the situation.
And, still, thinking back to the woman on the talkshow, the way the show presents its premise troubles me, showing spirituality and mediumship as something as normal as having breakfast. Melinda’s friends are all fully supportive of her and don’t doubt for one minute her gift - even her mother, who at first won’t have any truck with it, is eventually revealed to be in denial and, by the season’s end, fully supportive of her daughter. This is underlined by the fact the pilot isn’t a typical one: instead of following our heroine’s attempts to make those closest to her believe in her, we join a story which is already well in progress, with all her convincing long since done. It’s an approach which, while refreshing in the fact it doesn’t follow a typical Episode One formula, also helps to underline the normalness of her gift, which doesn’t, to my mind, send out a particularly useful message. (Early on, I spent an enjoyable couple of episodes imagining that she was in fact a paranoid schizophrenic whose friends were humouring her in some kind of Care in the Community scheme, but sadly it’s a theory that doesn’t wash.) There are a lot of vulnerable people out there ripe for exploitation, and at the risk of exaggerating its strength and scope of influence it could be said this show is blatant propaganda for the spiritualist movement. Melinda’s character is in part based on real-life medium Mary Ann Winkowski and one of its Executive Producers is another spiritualist James van Praagh, with some of its episodes based around their experiences. Now, I have no intentions on casting aspersions on either of these people or their beliefs, especially as I know very little about either: what I have a problem with is that it only presents a positive side to such activities, without giving sufficient warning that there are plenty of charlatans out there waiting to pounce. This is a very cosy show: its very niceness is seductive to its cause.
However, the presence of such people on the staff of the show does a little to dispel my other major qualm about it. For a lot of the episodes I sat wondering whether what I was seeing wasn’t just a deeply cynical exercise in viewer manipulation, that it was almost robotically pulling on the heart strings of viewers in a carefully crafted way without really having any feeling itself. It’s an easy charge to throw at the show with its maudlin themes which allow few soap opera clichés to go unused, from distant parents through to closeted homosexual adolescents and beyond. One of my favourite quotes from George Lucas (and, to be fair, I don’t have many) is his remark, on being told that THX-1138 was emotionless, that if he wanted the audience to cry he just had to wring a kitten’s neck, before going on to make American Graffiti to prove it and I wondered whether I was watching another case of artificial feline-abuse here. In the end I’m still not sure: the very fact this is a very formulaic show suggests a high level of calculation on the part of the writers, (Act One: Melinda meets ghost. Act Two: Melinda finds out who ghost is. Act Three: Melinda tries to convince sceptical family or friends of ghost that ghost is there. Act Four: Tearful reconciliation and ghost departs to the netherworld) but there is something about the level of gravitas all put into it which suggests that, while the writers know exactly what they are doing, they genuinely want to tell an emotional story as well.
Or maybe I’m just being naïve, but maybe it doesn't matter because ultimately this is comfort television, nothing more. It’s soppy, sappy and unrealistic pap, a world in which all loose ends can be tied up and there’s always a solution to every problem. But damnit, it’s also very well done pap, which one finds oneself enjoying in spite of any qualms. It’s like the mirror opposite of Medium, another series with a similar theme but totally different outlook. In the short term it’s good, undemanding stuff; in the long term, one suspects it will either become a fixture for years, churning out the same stories season after season with a Season Seven episode virtually identical to a Season One season, or otherwise that viewers will quickly grow tired of its repetitive nature and relentlessly saccharine view of the world. It does need to take a few more risks, but it must also be careful of what those risks are: the finale flirts with some X-Files-like themes of agency knowledge of spirits which would most definitely be the wrong way to take the show (although the connection is not entirely non-existent: The X-Files’ composer in residence, Mark Snow, also scores this show, contributing a very ethereal, rather good theme). This is a small-town show that has no need for government conspiracies; what it does need is finding a way of striking a balance between its utopian idyll and a more meaty, three-dimensional approach to its characters. Sadly I suspect it won’t, preferring to play it safe; if it does, it might find itself heading towards the after-life of syndication faster than it suspects. But it's still preferable to watching the supposedly real thing on US talk shows.
All twenty-two episodes from Ghost Whisperer’s first season are presented on six single-sided dual-layered discs. The discs are held in three slimline cases which fit into an overriding container. The front designs of the boxes and the container are near-identical, the only difference being that whereas the main case shows an image of the Big Bad next to Melinda’s head the slimline cases have three different images taken from the opening sequence. On the reverse of each case are details about all the episodes on the two discs held within, as well as any extras attached to those episodes.
The menus are simply designed. After getting past the studio logos, one is led into the Main Menu via a motif similar to that of the opening sequence. This menu consists solely of the list of episodes on that disc and is accompanied by a looping version of the main theme music. Most episodes don’t have a submenu, the only ones that do being those which have an extra attached, either a commentary or a deleted scene, in which case there is a submenu allowing you to access those as well as watch the episode itself. There is no Chapter Select menu (although each episode has seven chapters).
There is also no subtitle menu. There is close captioning, but the lack of a traditional subtitles option is a problem and loses the set an automatic point.
Pretty good with no major problems. The dark scenes are occasionally difficult to see, but intentionally so from all accounts, while the transfer handles the intense brightness of many of the outdoor scenes with no major problems, giving a clear, solid picture.
The first thing to note about the audio is that some of the music used in the broadcast versions has been replaced on these DVDs to tracks with less expensive rights attached to them. Other than it's a good but unremarkable audio experience: not as much is made of the various spooky moments as one might like or is used to from film discs (one never feels anything is creeping right up behind one, for example) but other than that hard to criticise.
Four episodes come with commentaries. The first one is a better than average track over the Pilot, with creator John Gray and producer Kim Moses giving plenty of information about both the episode itself and the wider series, including such esoteric things as how the show is marketed. It occasionally descends into a mutual admiration society, but is otherwise very good.
The second is, by contrast, way below par. Kim Moses is at the mike again who is this time accompanied by Executive Producer Ian Sander to comment on Ghost, Interrupted, an episode Sander directed. Sander takes great delight in the fact this is an episode with lots of split-screen work with one actress playing identical twins, pointing out each time this happens, as well as explaining about the wonders of a mysterious process called CGI. The majority of the track is filled with both either discussing how good the actors are or commenting on what’s happening on screen, and is not worth your time.
Sander goes on to explain more complex technical jargon in the commentary for Lost Boys when he tells us what a teaser is. Cheeringly his co-commentator David Conrad picks him up about this annoying habit at one point: when Sander explains that wires are edited out in post-production Conrad chastises “People know that, this isn’t the 1920s.” That’s the highlight of an otherwise uneventful track: why didn’t they give Conrad an episode in which he had a big part (such as On the Wings of a Dove) to talk over?
The last commentary is arguably the most fun of the four, mainly because of Tyler, who joins Gray in talking about Undead Comic. At times she doesn't stop talking but, while not everything she says is that informative, it's enjoyable to listen to and is far more diverting than the previous two yak tracks.
There is one deleted scene for each of three episodes, namely Mended Hearts, Homecoming and Undead Comic, none of which are very remarkable but add a little bit of extra information to the stories they were excised from.
Can You See Me? The First Season of Ghost Whisperer (21:18)
“One week it’s a horror film, another week it’s a comedy, another week it’s a combination of the two. Or it may just be a human drama yet in the end you get to cry every week.” Utterly standard fluff piece in which Gray, his producers and actors talk about the origins of the show and mouth platitudes about how much fun it is to work on and how it’s a show with real heart that really means something, you know? Fine for what it is but hardly controversial.
Second Sight: The Clairvoyants of Ghost Whisperer (8:25)
Mary Ann Winkowski and James van Praagh talk about their experiences as mediums while the principal cast members comment on their own beliefs. A featurette that won’t convert people one way or the other, but will, I suspect, confirm the opinion of both the believers and the sceptics.
A Tour of Grandview (3:24)
A giggly Love Hewitt gives a tour of the town square while designer Roy Forge Smith gets a few words to talk about his sets.
Ghost Whisperer Mythology (9:48)
One of the shames of modern TV is that more and more series are forgoing title sequences, which is a mistake because when one is done right a good opening can summarise and capture the mood and style of a particular show. Ghost Whisperer’s eschews the current trend to produce a really atmospheric sequence which, while occasionally obscure, is certainly evocative. In this short featurette Kim Moses and the team responsible for the titles at Digital Kitchen talk through the various images and how they were put together from original photos by artist Maggie Taylor. Some of the stuff flirts with Pseud’s Corner a bit but it’s still very welcome that this amount of thought went into the sequence and produced what is generally a very good result (although sadly there’s no contribution from composer Mark Snow).
Scare Tactics (11:14)
Decent little featurette in which the visual and sound effects teams talk about putting together the more spooky scenes of the show. Watch out for the guy who thrashes around on the floor to record the sound of Melinda falling down the stairs.
Blooper Reel (4:46)
Four and a half minutes of much merriment as various actors corpse (corpse, get it?) As funny as that joke.
A pleasant if mildly banal series gets a decent release. There are a few niggles, the main ones being the lack of subtitles and the change of music in some episodes, but the extras are slightly more numerous and detailed than the average television release making this a mixed bag but one which has more pluses (just) than minuses.
Last updated: 03/05/2018 06:25:57