This review was corrected on Aug. 27, 2001.
John Edward sees dead people. And he makes a darn good living at it. “Crossing Over With John Edward,” in which the friendly psychic communicates with those on the “other side,” has been a huge success for the Sci-Fi Channel, and it’s about to explode as the most anticipated show on the national syndication calendar. Whether this show is taken literally — and, apparently, lots of people do — or as a kind of high-end snake oil infomercial, there’s nothing more bizarrely fascinating or fascinatingly bizarre on television.
In each episode, Edward stands before his “gallery,” set up in a semi-circular grandstand, and begins channeling bits and pieces of information — letters of names, birthdates, any number of small details about a person’s death, etc. — until he finds an audience member who says: “That’s my…” (fill in the blank — father, mother, child, spouse, sibling, best friend, etc.). Edward then shoots off a rapid-fire litany of other material about the dead person who’s “coming through,” with the audience member asked to “validate” the communication. Usually, the audience member is either crying at this point or staring in a stunned awe. Both are equally entertaining.
It’s the audience that this show is really about, and that’s what makes it so unexpectedly gripping. People come onto the show hoping to “connect” with someone. Their needs are deep, highly emotional and universal. The comparison to “The Sixth Sense” can be informative, helping us understand the show’s commercial appeal and elucidating what it’s actually doing. The Haley Joel Osment character in that blockbuster pic helped the dead come to terms with their passing so they could move on. “Crossing Over,” on the other hand, is always much more about the living than about the dead.
Edward is a therapist extraordinaire, helping to heal grief by letting people know their dead loved ones are still “with them.” For entertainment’s sake, it doesn’t really matter whether viewers believe — what’s compelling is how much the people onscreen need to believe.
Exactly what it is we’re being asked to believe is left pretty vague. Most of the time, the communication from the dead is simply an “acknowledgment” of their presence. Apparently, dead people hang out together trying desperately to send a message home that they’re “OK.” After that urgent message is communicated, they “pull back,” as if their quarters have run out. Edward ends the episodes by interpreting the lessons of the readings. Usually the message is: Cherish the time with the living but recognize that the “bonds of love” never go away. Inoffensive to the extreme.
The syndicated version of the show has modified the original episodes, replacing John Edward’s “private readings” — one-on-one sit-down sessions — with follow-up interviews of audience members a few months after their loved ones dialed in through the John Edward long-distance service. This means there are fewer readings per half-hour and more skeptical folks expressing how they’re now convinced. The production values have been improved, and the graphics are a bit glossier.
That glossiness, though, doesn’t extend to Edward himself. Edward has a mildly goofy, nerdish presence that works to his benefit. Dressed in casual clothing — the jeans, T-shirt and jacket in the first syndicated episode represent his typical wardrobe — this guy just doesn’t seem slick enough to be a con artist. In the opening for the show, we’re told Edward has had visions since he was a little boy and was 15 when a psychic reading confirmed his capabilities. He’s clearly comfortable in the role, and if he isn’t genuinely sincere, then at this point he certainly fakes it brilliantly.
As the show enters syndication, it will return to its previous latenight slot on Sci-Fi; a Sunday primetime edition at 8 p.m. will feature “celebrity” episodes.