Sunday, June 7, 2009

Medium Quality

I forgot to mention this the other day, but I was quite heartened by the news that Medium, the NBC procedural, found a new life after cancellation. CBS, the network that actually produces the show, decided to pick it up for the fifth season, and for once a quality television show has managed to avoid the axe that befalls so many other quality shows out there.

A little while ago I started putting a few thoughts together as to why I like Medium.

Depiction of Domestic Life

I actually cannot think of another show that has such a realistic portrayal of ordinary domestic life. The details are just so well done. I mean, the parents are scruffy in the morning, wearing pyjamas that no respectable Hollywood type would be caught dead in. The kids go through breakfast like the messy chaotic ritual that it really is, with fruit loops on the table, some in, and some out of the bowls, milk splashed liberally around, Mom rushing to get everyone packed into the car and off to school so she can get get to a part time get the idea.


In most of the characters, even the odd recurring ones, there is a certain gravitas and moral ambiguity, and you are never always sure on which side of the line people will fall. As events occur, characters change, and how they respond to the world shifts, changes, evolves.


One scene that really stands out for me was when Joe DuBois, the husband, after being laid off from his job at an engineering firm, is sitting in the unemployment office, undergoing his weekly round of humiliation in order to get what little benefits he is entitled to, is given a full-on bitch-slap by, of all people, Alvin from the Cosby Show. As DuBois complains about answering the same stupid questions every week, Alvin looks him in the eye and says (paraphrased slightly) -

"Mr. DuBois, you're a smart man. You're highly educated, so why are you waiting for someone else's permission to earn a living."

At first, completely missing the point, DuBois just gets confused, Later, at home, when he sees his kids, he loses faith in his Dad-ness when he is unable to help them with a little science project. It really sinks in that he really is that passive, he really hasn't stretched himself and really, truly tried. Not just at that moment with his children, but in his hunt for new work, and in his quest to support his family. And that night he comes up with a way to increase the efficiency of solar cells, and suddenly he starts taking his own, and his family's destiny into his own hands. Or at least tries to. Which brings the realities of domestic life and economic exigencies back into the picture.

The Ability to Inspire Terror

Terror in this show does not come from the big monster, or the raving lunatic, though from time to time a few of those are trotted out for a round of play, but in the soft, ordinary, benign happenings that will irrevocably change or destroy your life.

One scene in particular, about a boy in a toy store, was truly one of the most horrifying things I have ever witnessed on television. The Dad is talking to his boss, he doesn't want to, but is pressured into a conference sales call, and while he is distracted, his son sees a funny clown puppet and walks toward it. As the clown puppet moves away, on the back of a man who is not fully visible (only the clown is really shown) the boy follows along, and then he is gone. What followed was horrifying - the way that the abuse is carried out, the way the scene is shot, how music is used, and the how the child is shown laughing and finding everything just so funny, all while the viewer is rendered entirely speechless by the contrast between the quirky Mr. Rogers-ness of the tone, and terrible thing the audience knows will happen very, very soon.


The key actors in this show are spot on. In fact, unlike with many other shows, especially other procedurals, there is nothing about any of the leads in Medium that irks me or puts me off the way they do on other shows. I never could get really into shows like Criminal Minds, Without a Trace, or Close to Home, because there was always one or two characters who were simply unrecognizable to me as real, normal people. In Medium, even if they come on the show sparkling and super-human, like the hot blonde from the Mayor's office, they quickly end up becoming very humanized, like the former hot blonde from the Mayor's office who becomes a needy and frumpy Mom-to-be.


Oh, did I mention this before? Good. Because I want to bring much needed attention to this key point. The writing on this show is excellent, especially by the standards of big network shows. All the stuff I loved about Intelligence, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, is in Medium. On many shows, there is a way in which things sometimes descend into large, loud, played out matters (politics, discussions of morality, etc) that get all preachy and deviate entirely away from story and character. Think some of the more annoying Battlestar Galactica episodes in season 3. But in Medium, like in Intelligence, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, "issues" are not presented in black and white, and often operate under the primary pillars of story and character. When the "issues" are touched upon, it's just that. Touched upon, lightly, subtly, with a line here, or a hesitation there. And in this subtle gesture, impact the viewer, the discerning viewer, far more powerfully than might otherwise be possible.

In Closing

Look, there are other shows I look forward to more eagerly each week. Those shows (many of which were sadly canceled just recently) are all fun, sometimes hit and miss, but when they are good, they're good. But with Medium, the delivery is always solid. Like the temperature in Vancouver, the highs and the lows aren't very far off from each other, and what is left with is a show that is solid and consistent. And then there is the irony, the sweet irony that a show ostensibly about the paranormal, Medium ,has a far more accurate depiction of normal, everyday life, than pretty much any other show on US network television.

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