If you were TV creator and you set out with the expressed goal of taking the daffiest premise imaginable and turning it into the most mundane series possible, you probably couldn't achieve that goal more successfully than FOX's new drama "Past Life."
Previewing on Tuesday (Feb. 9) night after "American Idol" before migrating to Thursday, "Past Life" dulls down the field of reincarnation and regression therapy into the kind of leaden drama that recalls the less inspired works from the Jerry Bruckheimer procedural family. I'd tell you to to think "Cold Case" meets "Medium," but both of those comparisons might be too complimentary.
Shuffling into a nearly impossible time slot in an Olympics/Sweeps month and with an already reduced episode order, "Past Life" may only last long enough for its stars to get a quick showcase before being resurrected on other pilots.
[Full review of "Past Life" after the break...]
Loosely adapted by David Hudgins ("Friday Night Lights") from the book "The Reincarnationist," by M.J. Rose, "Past Life" focuses on Dr. Kate McGinn (Kelli Giddish) and partner Price Whatley (Nicholas Bishop), who attempt to help clients suffering from "classic regression trauma." Since "classic regression trauma" apparently has to mean that a crime was committed involving the deceased soul, Kate and Price spend most of their time attempting to backtrack through those unsolved cases attempting to right the wrongs and set things straight with the universe. She's a psychologist and a true believer. He's a former cop, mourning for his deceases wife and he's a skeptic, but not a passionate skeptic.
Ultimately, Kate and Price are like every other mismatched, gender-mixed procedural partnership, only with a few key differences:
1) They have to keep explaining who they are and what they do over and over and over again. Skepticism is a seemingly unavoidable part of "Past Life" and it seems that Kate and Price can't interact with anybody without having to explain and justify the alleged legitimacy of their enterprise. I get that where these two people out in the real world trying to do this, they would be met with possibly even more eye-rolling and mockery, but a TV drama isn't the real world and if you have only 42 minutes to tell a story, sometimes you have to leave it to viewers to assume the exposition and confusion. I accepted it in the pilot, but when the exact same things happened in the second episode as well, tedium set in.
2) They have absolutely no help. The regular cast of "Past Life" also includes Emmy winner Richard Schiff and Ravi Patel. Don't ask me what they do or who their characters are. In two episodes, Kate and Price have solved two cases and Patel's Dr. Rishi Karna and Schiff's Dr. Malachi Talmadge haven't contributed anything. They don't go out in the field. They don't have displayed areas of expertise. And in the second episode, they spend the whole time editing a grant proposal. Even "Castle" has those two guys who sometimes crack jokes and appear regularly in the background of shots and Patel and Schiff's characters aren't even as useful as Those Other Two Guys From "Castle." And I know that sometimes it's hard to introduce a full ensemble cast in an episode or two. It's not, however, hard to introduce four characters in two full episodes, but "Past Life" can't manage and there's something truly sad (or moderately depressing) about seeing an actor as talented as Schiff hasting his time like this.
3) They're unlikely to attract 'shippers. Price is still mourning his wife, while Kate is much too invested in her dog and mother (who both appear in the pilot, but not the second episode) to have any interest in flirtations, much less dating. There's no chemistry between Giddish and Bishop, but that's more because of how little sparkle there is in their dialogue than because of any failings on the part of the stars.
Oh and unlike most crime-fighting duos, when these two run out of leads, they can count on their client having a regression experience -- like a flashback only... well, actually exactly like a flashback -- at exactly the right moment without any rhyme or reason. If you're looking for real and applicable examples and mechanics for how these kinds of investigators could actually use regression as glorified private eyes, look elsewhere. "Past Life" is really about how writers can use regression to cut dramatic corners.
"Past Life" is narratively ridiculous. But that doesn't mean that it can't be ridiculously entertaining. I question the science of "Chuck," but that doesn't mean it isn't great TV. I don't believe in vampires, but "The Vampire Diaries" is still a satisfying guilty pleasure. Even something like "Medium," which has a subject matter that some people, but not all people, buy into, never asks that you really and truly believe in what its main character can do. It skips past the credulity gap and just tries to tell a solid, creepy (or emotional) story every week. You can take "Medium" as plausible fact or as wild fantasy, it still tells a good story every week.
If you take away Allison Dubois' power, there is no "Medium." If you take the regression stuff away from "Past Life," it's just another show about investigators in New York, something the TV landscape isn't exactly lacking. Why would you want to take such a literally unbelievable conceit and use it for such generic ends? I have no idea. Whether they're solving a decades' old missing persons case or a decades' old murder, they do it in a manner you've seen hundreds of times before. They keep repeating over and over that they aren't witches, psychics or clairvoyants, but boy the show might be more fun if they were.
Giddish and Bishop make for amiable, but forgettable leads. She's like a Georgia-born Naomi Watts (even though she's playing a Texan and her accent remains purely Deep South) and he's like the result of a laboratory experiment to combine the DNA of Thomas Jane and Simon Baker. So they're both easy on the eyes. But Brit-by-way-of-Australia Bishop is having so much trouble flattening out a generic American accent that he can't be expected to sell lines like "I used to be a cop, so what I believe in are facts and evidence!" And Giddish has no character at all other than what she declares in dialogue like this explanation for driving a pick-up truck in NYC: "It's a Texas thing. Trucks, guns and the death penalty." Ick.
Since I'm unlikely to watch any more of "Past Life" beyond the two episodes FOX sent out, this will be my only chance to give the show a quick note of credit: "Past Life" is extremely well shot. It doesn't look like the "Oh God, why is there a blue filter over everything" showiness of the Bruckheimer procedurals. The pilot has beautiful autumnal tones and I actually found myself noticing how broad and interesting the show's color palette is. Of course, I was reflecting on the cinematography as a means of deflecting boredom, but that doesn't mean it isn't still admirable.
"Past Life" premieres on FOX on Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 9:01 p.m. and then airs at 9 p.m. on Thursdays.