A pair of detectives tackle old unsolved crimes by talking to the reincarnated victims. It sounds like a totally off-kilter premise for a TV show, but Fox's Past Life actually made me question the future of genre television. Spoilers ahead.
Past Life, airing spring 2010 on Fox, seems to be trying to piggyback on the success of Medium, a show I haven't actually seen. You have a kind of procedural crime-solving aspect to each episode, but there's also a spooky supernatural aspect. And it's all sprinkled with a dash of personal growth. It's very loosely based on an M.J. Rose novel called The Reincarnationist, but I don't think much beyond the idea of reincarnation got carried over.
Fox kindly sent us a DVD of this pilot, and it's got the same rough edges as a lot of other pilots. It's also saddled with the task of selling you on one of the oddest premises I've seen in quite some time. In a nutshell, Dr. Kate McGinn is a psychologist who works at New York City's Talmadge Center For Behavior Health, which is dedicated to studying "the human soul." McGinn specializes in "regression therapy," helping people to confront the stuff that happened in their previous lives which may be affecting them today. McGinn is almost paranormally sunny and cheery, except when she's comforting someone who's grappling with having been murdered.
And because (I guess) these cases often involve ferreting out the details of exactly what happened the last time around, the Talmadge Center hires a detective, Price Whatley, to help McGinn out. Whatley is the Scully to her Mulder — he doesn't believe in all this past life nonsense, but he needs the money since he lost his job at the NYPD. But Whatley harbors a secret pain having to do with his dead wife — and you won't be too shocked to hear that he's secretly hoping all this reincarnation nonsense will lead to some sort of reunion. (I'm picturing Whatley eventually having a very serious relationship processing conversation with a one-year-old, which is how old his reincarnated wife would be now.)
The Talmadge Center, incidentally, is quite swanky, and seems to be able to afford to keep Kate McGinn in classy therapist outfits. The clients we meet in the pilot, whose 14-year-old son is having weird murder-esque flashbacks, seem extremely well heeled. So I'm guessing we're mostly going to be concerning ourselves with the previous lives of the wealthy and troubled here. Besides Kate and Whatley, the Talmadge Center is also home to Dr. Malachi Talmadge, who stands around looking worried and occasionally butts heads with Whatley. And then there's Rishi Karna, the hard-working research assistant who barely pops up in the pilot.
I'm just going to pause here and wonder whose idea it was to call our tough-guy detective character "Price Whatley."
So I'm guessing that not every episode of this show will involve murder, per se. You could have a character who got mugged during the 1920s, and never got over it, and now is still pissed about it thirty years into a new incarnation. Presumably, there has to be some kind of crime every week, though, or Price Whatley won't have much to do.
Judging from the pilot, there'll be two tracks to every episode: the therapeutic track, in which the reincarnated person works through all of their issues under the sympathetic, tight-lipped smile of Kate McGinn. And then the mystery track, where Price Whatley searches through old case files and says things like, "I know it sounds crazy, but I really think we're on to something here." (That's not a quote from the pilot. That's just the sort of thing I can imagine Price Whatley saying.) Price Whatley, of course, is on the outs with his former superiors, but there are still some cops who owe favors to him and will let him research old unsolved crimes on the sly.
And then, at the end of every episode, the two tracks will converge somehow, as the tormented reincarnatee finally discovers the truth of what happened and gets some closure. And Whatley gets his man, or woman, or whatever. A crime is solved, a soul is healed, and the cycle of suffering turns a bit slower. Or something.
If you're thinking "This doesn't sound like my cup of tea," then it's probably not. I went into the pilot feeling somewhat apprehensive, and nothing about it was quite able to change my mind — although there was nothing wrong with any of it. The main thing that jumped out at me, honestly, was that Price Whatley should be a laughing stock. He's a former cop who now runs around chasing leads that come out of vague past-life visions from people who seem a bit mental. Nobody should be taking Whatley seriously at all, and yet somehow he manages to fulfill the same role as every detective on every procedural show ever. And the show invests a lot of energy in showing how professional and serious Kate McGinn and the rest of the Talmadge team are, with their jargon about regression therapy and their great resources.
So why do I feel as though this is some kind of watershed for genre television? Maybe because it feels like an uneasy fusion of a few different genres, into something that I'm not sure is ever going to be as thought-provoking as other Fox shows like Fringe or Dollhouse (or the late lamented Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.) Rather than boldly venturing into speculative territory, this show reflects the gathering consensus that any speculative themes must be subtle, vague, and swaddled in formula.
So you have the "team of experts" model of detective show, not unlike Bones or CSI. (Except that instead of having a laboratory, these people have a therapist's office.) You have the therapeutic, personal-growth type show, where every week someone is going to get past his/her trauma. And then you have the one strand of actual speculative fiction, the past life regression, which doesn't look like it's ever going to evolve into a mythos or ask deeper questions. It's just going to be the McGuffin — and it's going to allow us to have spooky J-horror-esque blurry flashbacks to something vague and terrifying happening in the 1960s or 1970s, which get slightly more detailed every time we see them throughout the episode.
It's a perfectly solid show, and a nice enough cast, but the genre element feels like weak tea. And I'm really not sure how the reincarnation-of-the-week format will pan out week in, week out. It seems like it could suffer from the same problems as Tru Calling, only worse. Still, I have a feeling this show could be a humongous mega-hit, and further drive genre television in the direction of being somewhat apologetic, and vaguely detective-oriented.