James Van Praagh has built a lucrative career around seeing dead people, but CBS was smart enough to realize the living would rather feast their eyes on Jennifer Love Hewitt. Enter this cloying my-heart-(and-soul)-will-go-on drama, a shamelessly sentimental hour where the spirituality of “Touched by an Angel” and “Medium” meets “Joan of Arcadia’s” former timeslot. Considerably less intriguing creatively than “Joan,” the series’ prospects of avoiding its own untimely demise rely mostly on Hewitt’s winsome smile while raising the burning question of whether a young woman who talks to the dead trumps one who converses with God.
The premiere benefits significantly from a guest shot by “Prison Break’s” Wentworth Miller as a dead soldier seeking to connect with the surviving son (Balthazar Getty) whom he never knew. Or something like that.
The truth is the precise rules governing this whole contact-from-beyond thing remain kind of fuzzy. Melinda (Hewitt) has the gift, and she regularly sees spirits hanging around their loved ones. Fortunately, her friend Andrea (Aisha Tyler) doesn’t understand how the system works, which allows Melinda to engage in a fair amount of expository mumbo-jumbo straight out of Van Praagh’s books, such as explaining how a big life event “sends a ripple effect through the spirit world.” Uh huh.
There’s a touch of mystery here, since the ghosts don’t remember exactly what happened to them, turning Melinda into an amateur sleuth. Not surprisingly, survivors don’t always respond well to hearing that their late relatives are lurking about, which also causes a modicum of tension.
Ultimately, though, the first hour from writer-director-exec producer John Gray suffers because there’s so little substance to it. Although the music seeks to create a certain unease, the series essentially feels like an anthology, where other people’s lives unfold through death as Melinda acts as a helpful bystander. Her husband (played by David Conrad) seems nice enough, but frankly, it’s no wonder she spends so much time with the dead, since her life is kinda boring.
CBS is to be forgiven for attempting to cash in on the perceived hunger for spiritual reassurance, following its own Van Praagh-inspired miniseries “Living With the Dead,” the alleged medium’s short-lived syndicated talkshow, “Crossing Over With John Edward” program and the aforementioned “Medium” — another Paramount production, only for NBC.
Hewitt and “Threshold” star Carla Gugino do add some ostensible sizzle to CBS’ revamped Friday night, but look past the surface and this throwback drama would hardly seem out of place alongside “Murder, She Wrote” and other remnants associated with the rural, old-codger image that the Eye net has labored to shed.
In fact, if restless spirits and Hewitt’s more tangible assets can animate this rickety formula, then CBS’ crystal ball is clearly working magic.