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Buffy The Vampire SlayerThe season to talk to dead people
By Rob Salem
Monday 25 August 2003, by Webmaster
HOLLYWOOD-I’m all for empowerment ... but this is getting ridiculous.
The prevailing trend of this coming TV season has nothing whatsoever to do with "reality" - indeed, quite the opposite. There are no less than five new shows in which attractive young women somehow gain extraordinary communicative skills, allowing them to interact or converse with the dead, or the otherwise inanimate, or the missing, or in one case The Supreme Deity, and to then apply that information to the fighting of crime, the righting of wrongs and the averting of tragedies.
Dead Like Me is first off the mark, a quirky new Showtime series shot in Vancouver, debuting here on The Movie Network next Monday, Sept. 1 at 9 p.m. Ellen Muth stars as the 18-year-old George, a young woman without much enthusiasm for life, until hers is abruptly ended by a flaming toilet seat from the Mir space station that comes crashing down to earth - directly on her head.
But being dead is just the beginning for George. She soon discovers that her afterlife has been consigned to service as a "Reaper" - sympathetic souls who are assigned to help others make the difficult transition themselves. Alas, she’s having a little trouble adjusting to her new role. For one thing, she keeps trying to go home again, causing problems for her traumatized younger sister and her emotionally distant mom (Cynthia Stevenson).
And she can’t quite seem to get the hang of this whole "reaping" deal, much to the chagrin of her supervisor (a hilariously crabby Mandy Pantinkin) and the amusement of her colleagues (Callum Blue, Jasmine Guy and Rebecca Gayheart).
A similar, if non-fatal, accident sets up the premise of 1-800 Missing, another Canadian-shot American cable (Lifetime) series, based on the series of books by Meg Cabot, in which a young girl (Caterina Scorsone) gets zapped by lightning and suddenly finds herself dreaming up the whereabouts of missing kids pictured on milk cartons. The series, which co-stars Gloria Reuben, debuts here on CKVR Sept. 10.
Next up, Joan Of Arcadia, about a young girl who, like her historic French namesake, talks directly to God - as manifested in various human guises, from the cafeteria lunch lady to that cute guy on the bus. Her hotline to heaven will no doubt often prove useful to her police-captain dad (played by Joe Mantegna). The new CBS hour, to be simulcast by CTV, begins airing Sept. 26.
About one month later, on Oct. 30, it’s former Buffy bad girl Eliza Dusku in her solo series debut as the title character in Tru Calling, a young part-time morgue attendant who not only talks to dead people, but is able to then travel 24 hours back in time to try to prevent them from getting killed in the first place. The series will run Thursday nights on Fox and Global.
And finally, sometime mid-season, Fox will trot out Wonderfalls, yet another Canadian-made series about yet another gifted girl, in this case a clerk at a Niagara Falls souvenir shop who starts hearing toy animals, ceramic and stuffed, verbally issuing cryptic instructions that lead her to help out total strangers. Any similarities to the French movie, Amélie, are apparently quite intentional.
So why all this, and why now? Many would say it is long overdue. In recent years, the increasing "WB-ization" of American network television has limited the scope of young women’s roles, just as movies and television had previously restricted the range of their more middle-aged sisters. The dutiful girlfriend, the scheming slut, the perky cheerleader ... invariably caught up in some romantic triangle, unrequited crush or in-crowd exclusion.
And then, ironically, out of the very same network, came Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It was a show that, despite its instant cult status, never did achieve the mainstream acknowledgement it deserved, suffering the further and final indignity of a network switch (WB to UPN) in its penultimate season.
"(Buffy) really turned a corner for series storytelling," says Bryan Fuller, the former Star Trek scribe who went on to create not only Dead Like Me, but also the upcoming Wonderfalls. "It showed that young women could be in situations that were both fantastic and relatable, and instead of shunting women off to the side, it put them at the center."
For example, the former Buffy foil, Dushku, about to take centre stage herself in Tru Calling. And playing the hero is a lot more complicated than merely the sidekick or villain. "You already feel like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders," she says. "And then, all of a sudden, when you’re really asked to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, it’s so overwhelming. It’ll be interesting to see where she’ll fail and see just how she deals. Everyone would want to say that they would do the right thing. But nobody’s perfect."
Young women may be the vessel of choice this season, but many see a general re-embrace of spirituality as the moving force behind the glut of supernatural series.
Joan Of Arcadia creator Barbara Hall traces it back to the aftermath of 9/11. "I really do think this whole thing has been brewing in the collective unconscious as far back as when The Sixth Sense came out, but Sept.11 really accelerated it. There was no way to live through that day and not confront issues of life, death and mortality, of good and evil, and whether or not there is some purpose in life.
"These shows," she points out, "are not about what happens when we die. They’re about what happens when we live and how we live. Right now a lot of people are confused about how to live."