Contemplating the laundry list of projects to which “Tru Calling” owes a debt — “The Sixth Sense,” “Early Edition,” “Groundhog Day,” “Quantum Leap,” and sundry “Twilight Zone” episodes, for starters — you might even think of “The Graduate.” After all, the title character is a recent college grad/track star who stumbles upon her purpose — in this case saving people who died unnaturally, not marrying Katharine Ross. Although fraught with silliness, the familiar premise does yield a modicum of suspense and appears destined to go about as far as Eliza Dushku’s adorableness can take it.
Said adorableness shouldn’t be underestimated. Dushku already has a following within the youthful angst/sci fi crowd by virtue of her recurring role in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” possessing the kind of sex appeal that could by itself practically raise the dead. Still, similar attributes didn’t save Fox’s “Dark Angel,” and that show wasn’t tossed into the Thursday-night abyss — the kind of high-mortality timeslot that could put “Tru” in need of its protagonist’s services.
Having witnessed her mother’s murder as a child, a decade later Tru is a troubled young woman, in the midst of an affair with her college professor and somewhat estranged from her siblings. After a planned summer internship in advance of med school suddenly goes belly up, she’s referred to a position at the morgue.
“Most of these people shouldn’t be dead yet,” explains her boss, Davis (former VH1 talk personality Zach Galifianakis, who makes a convincing nerd).
Yes, our heroine sees dead people, but more importantly, she hears them. When a corpse moans “Help me,” Tru is propelling back a day — gradually realizing that she has the chance to undo the past — and also taking it upon herself in the premiere to try sparing her ne’er-do-well brother from a nasty pounding and her sister from a cocaine relapse.
Writer-producer Jon Harmon Feldman (who worked on “The Wonder Years”) and veteran director Phillip Noyce bring a bit of energy to the well-worn formula, which surely hopes to latch onto the “CSI”-fueled forensic craze as Tru pieces together clues to cheat death. The storytelling, however, lacks that level of intricacy, leaving a limited assortment of can-she-or-can’t-she options.
For some reason, Tru also runs everywhere. While this might inspire some to wonder about a faster mode of transportation with lives hanging in the balance, the producers are doubtless betting Dushku looks good enough sprinting that such lapses in logic will go unnoticed.
Most of that running is set to an overblown, synthesized score, and “Tru Calling” also features what’s fast becoming the “Fox look” — a hyperactive visual style bursting with flashy editing, apparently seen as a prerequisite to galvanize the youth market. With all due respect to the marketing gurus, similar flourishes didn’t do much for “Keen Eddie.”
With her whiskey voice and sultry features, it’s hard to believe Dushku was that same little girl seen clinging to a plane in “True Lies.” She certainly possesses star quality, though the material initially places more emphasis on her wardrobe (tight, low-cut) than character (pouty, angry). The second episode does give her acting chops a bit more of a workout, involving a handsome fireman and young girl killed in an arson blaze.
For network executives, there’s doubtless inherent appeal in the fantasy of turning back time and preventing things from dying prematurely, as they have a habit of doing right before the November sweeps. That said, if this mildly entertaining series faces the executioner’s ax, it wouldn’t be the kind of unnatural death that merits Tru’s heroic measures.