by Dennis Palumbo
“I see dead people,” Haley Joel Osment famously said in the film “The Sixth Sense.” If the current crop of similarly themed television series is any indication, so do a lot of folks.
In “Medium,” “The Ghost Whisperer” and “The Dead Zone” “gifted” characters routinely aid the restless spirits of the deceased. And more shows are on the way: BBC America just introduced “Afterlife.” Glenn Gordon Caron, executive producer of “Medium,” is developing a romantic drama about a dead young woman who returns to life to help people. And for mid-season NBC is bringing “Raines,” starring Jeff Goldblum as a cop who talks to the ghosts of murder victims.
In almost all of these shows, those who have died are unable to pass over until they communicate something of vital importance to the living. On “Medium” the dead help a psychic, Allison DuBois (Patricia Arquette), solve crimes for the Phoenix district attorney’s office. On “Ghost Whisperer” they urgently impart–through an antiques dealer played by Jennifer Love Hewitt–messages of solace, unrequited love or belated support to those left behind. And on “The Dead Zone,” news from the other world is conveyed by Anthony Michael Hall as the uneasy clairvoyant. It seems, at least on television, that the dearly departed have never been so reluctant to depart.
None of this is new of course: ghosts have been chatting up people (and vice versa) for years on television, in comedies like “Topper” and in “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” not to mention “Casper.” But today’s paranormal shows aren’t played for laughs; they’re serious, almost painfully earnest dramas. Certainly they speak in personal, easily relatable ways about life-and-death issues. But is there anything more to this than a hot trend that draws impressive ratings?
My interest is admittedly professional. As a former Hollywood writer who is now a psychotherapist working with patients in the arts, I regularly talk with live people who write about characters who talk to dead people. Based on what writers and producers tell me in sessions, I’ve noticed they feel an urgent need to use the small screen to resolve the big questions we all grapple with. For example, one writer-patient cheerfully summed up the genre’s appeal: Death is a bummer.
Perhaps this requires interpretation. Like many of the creators and writers of these shows, the patient is a baby boomer who, along with most of his generation, is alarmed at the prospect of actually dying some day. Though this concern isn’t unique to people who came of age in the 60s and 70s, we do seem to be in a state of some resistance about our own mortality. It’s obvious why the paranormal fascinates these writers: shows about talking to the dead posit, by definition, that there’s a life after this one, that there’s a continuity of being.
That’s why, this same writer said, his show is a hit. Every week it says to the audience: “Don’t worry, death isn’t really death. It isn’t the end of anything.”
That may imply just another variation on past hits like “Highway To Heaven” or “Touched By An Angel,” in which heavenly visitors bring divine wisdom and understanding. But there is a crucial difference (and it’s not just that, as one of my more cynical writer-patients put it, “Angels have been done to death”). The new heroes are mortal, prey to the same emotional struggles as the rest of us, and so able to relate on a human level with the troubled ghosts they–and only they–can see.
That was part of the appeal for a writer-patient on her second season with one of these shows. Though she disguised identifying details in her script, it was written “to say all the things I wish I’d said to my mother when she was alive,” she confided. “And I guess my hopes for what she’d say back to me.”
I hear such sentiments from writers all the time, and not just those who work on these shows. Like many in their audience they’re taken with the pop-therapy concept of “closure,” the hope that a final encounter can put a conflicted relationship to rest. How better to do this than actually to talk to those who have died, yet still exist, and who need to resolve unfinished business on this plane before they can move on to the next? One of the central conceits of these shows is that the living and the dead can have a final, healing conversation. On “Medium” Allison DuBois has helped a teenager come to terms with the suicide of his mother; on this season’s opening episode Allison and her dead ex-lover had to find closure of their own.
This restorative outcome relies on a narrative conceit that stretches from ancient Greek tragedies to modern dramas like Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” namely the belief that the lingering dead have mellowed, grown wise or finally seen the error of their ways. They’ve attained a new understanding, which the medium has to convey to the surviving loved ones.
Take a recent episode of “The Ghost Whisperer”: Sonia Braga played a mother whose posthumous acceptance of her son’s desire to box helped bridge the bitter estrangement between the boy and his father. Shows featuring the professional medium John Edward and his many imitators serve a comparable purpose: communication with the dead is the vehicle by which new consolations and revelations are attained, for the benefit of the living.
What all these shows have in common is the promise that, even if only in the afterlife, there will come wisdom and contentment.
A producer patient is developing yet another pilot script along these lines, and he used his conflicted feelings about his wayward grandfather as his inspiration. Con man, crook, the old man was just horrible to his family. Yet the producer loved him so much that he visualized his dead relative sitting calmly in a chair, watching us down here. The dead man realizes his life was a mess, that it brought him nothing but grief. He just shakes his head at the foolish, selfish things living people do. And he wants to help.
It doesn’t take a producer or a writer to entertain such fancies. Like anyone might, my patient used his imagination to envision his grandfather living on in some way after death and becoming a better man. But another patient of mine, who has written for these shows, sees a simpler explanation: “It’s what we have instead of God,” he said. “Or, at least, it’s what I have.”
He’s not alone. Most of the television writers I’ve worked with are at best ambivalent about traditional notions of God. “Medium,” “The Ghost Whisperer” and their ilk offer the comforting assurance that there is a heaven-like realm after death, without requiring belief in a specific faith or conception of God. Even the fact that the dead are never shown arriving at some glittering, cloud-filled destination, but rather simply vanish from the screen, gives the viewer a lot of latitude in imagining where they went.
But the implication is clear: There’s something out there–a force beyond our understanding–that gives meaning to our lives, and our deaths.
Maybe it’s that simple, after all. If faith is, as the theologian Paul Tillich maintains, man’s ultimate concern, then the reason these shows are flourishing seems suddenly obvious. They’re about what storytelling has always been about: hope.
Dennis Palumbo, formerly a screenwriter whose credits include “My Favorite Year” and “Welcome Back, Kotter,” is now a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles.
Originally appeared in the New York Times, Television section, December 10, 2006.