'Medium,', is NBC's No. 1 new show
Just an everyday, paranormal life:
about a down-to-earth woman with unusual talents
By Robert Abele Special to The Los Angeles Times February 21, 2005
Grisly crimes and villain hunts are juxtaposed with spousal spats and child-rearing issues. What begins with a creepy foreshadowing dream and Hitchcock-like music typically ends with an intimate observation about family life. There's the woman who inspired it who claims to see the dead and foresee the future and the executive producer, who's a self-proclaimed cynic.
In little more than a month, NBC's "Medium" has become a different kind of television hit: a drama that merges the grotesquerie of a crime procedural with the quotidian reality of a family, bridged by Patricia Arquette's portrayal of real-life Phoenix-based medium Allison DuBois, a wife and mother who assists the district attorney.
Whatever executives at NBC may feel about the power of psychic ability, "Medium" has certainly made them believe in time slots returning from the dead. Since its Jan. 3 debut, the show along with solid ratings-getters "Fear Factor" and "Las Vegas" has helped the peacock network gain a long-sought foothold on Monday nights.
With 15.4 million viewers, it ranks in the top 20 among those in the 18-to-49 demographic and for NBC, doubles the audience that the canceled airport series "LAX" brought to the same 10 p.m. slot last fall.
And though an original "Medium" episode has yet to best an original "CSI: Miami," the show's rival, it has come in first three times against repeats of the popular CBS spinoff. It's not only NBC's highest-rated new show, it's the third highest rated of the network's programs, behind "ER" and "The Apprentice."
For NBC, which has been struggling all year with the loss of such hits as "Friends" and "Frazier," "Medium" is a much-needed bright spot.
"Monday was really one of our toughest time periods in the whole week. We were virtually lights out," said NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly. "So we're back in business in a big way on Monday nights."
Reilly says the female-skewing viewership, which is oddly similar to the demographic of "CSI: Miami," has been passionate about the show's central focus on a working mother. "I think if it was 'Psychic Cop,' it wouldn't be working as well."
NBC is hoping for a few more wins against "CSI: Miami" by filming three extra "Medium" installments for a total first-season order of 16 episodes. A second season already has been ordered, rare for such a new show.
One quirk in the competition is that "Medium" and "CSI: Miami" shoot next to each other on a Manhattan Beach studio lot. Arquette says there's good-natured taunting between the crews. "Our camera crew is very military, so I think they would like to paintball them," she said, laughing.
The road to "Medium" began in 2000 with a pilot called "The Oracles" that Kelsey Grammer's company Grammnet produced for Paramount Television. Intended to capitalize on high-profile medium John Edward's success, the format called for five spiritualists specializing in things such as numerology and fortunetelling and an audience of willing participants.
DuBois, who was pursuing a career in law as an intern in the local district attorney's office while also getting tested as a medium at the University of Arizona, became one of 18 finalists for "The Oracles." She was flown to Los Angeles for the taping and nabbed a spot as one of the final five. DuBois says she wasn't interested in a TV career: "I went there to see what other mediums were like."
That show never made it to air, but DuBois stuck in the producers' minds as a drama series subject, especially since she didn't fit the profile of crystal-ball-gazing fairground oddball or multimillion-dollar superstar like Edward. She had kids, drove a Volvo and in an odd-couple pairing that sounded too high-concept even for Hollywood had an aerospace engineer for a husband.
Emmy-winning "Moonlighting" creator Glenn Gordon Caron, asked by then-Paramount Television head Gary Hart to write a script, met DuBois for lunch and started quizzing her about her history. "She said, 'When I was 14, I discovered that if I drank, I could keep the voices down.'
"It had tremendous veracity to me," Caron said. "It was such an odd, naked thing to say."
Sufficiently intrigued, he fashioned a show that was less crime-fighting procedural than a character study of uncertainty.
"An audience would never connect with a character who sees everything and is always right," Caron said. "There's no ghost in the corner going, 'Arrest Wilson.' Because as we all move through life, there are things we don't immediately understand."
Hence, episodes have explored how Allison can misinterpret what she sees, sending her down the wrong investigative path. In one episode, she thinks the wrong man is being put to death for serial murder and rape because he doesn't look like the man in her dreams. At the end, she realizes the face came from a restaurant menu.
Some of what "Medium" portrays is true. DuBois, 33, has three children, all girls, and she volunteers her time for the district attorney's office. Her husband's name is Joe. But Caron, who talks frequently with DuBois (a paid consultant for the show) about her experiences, says he can't solely rely on her for script material.
"The judicial system is a very slow-moving beast, so she doesn't actually generate enough stories for a weekly television show, and for that she should be ashamed," he quipped, in show-runner mode. "So a lot of what we do is really inspired by who she is, not by specific events."
Arquette, 35, starring in her first TV series, was fascinated by the concept of someone whose professed powers and unexplainable results make her "a dirty secret, like a hidden woman." The actress didn't want to do an imitation of DuBois, who has a palpable air of confidence about herself and a slim, glamorous look ironically more suited to the women on a "CSI."
Arquette likes her own Everywoman curviness and the message it sends to female viewers.
"I want to look like a normal person in a marriage where they're turned on by each other and never have apologies like 'I'm sorry I'm a little plump,' " said Arquette, herself the mother of a 16-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.
"We don't have a lot of good marriages on television, where people are in love, they fight, they have problems, they're good partners and they work together. That turned me on, having that out in the world."
As for the factual basis for the homicide stories, DuBois balks when asked to be specific about real incidents adapted for television. She cites sensitivity toward families who have lost loved ones and the trust she says she has developed with various law enforcement agencies.
"Some reporters are shocked that the Texas Rangers won't go on record," she said, referring to the case that inspired the pilot episode (with significant details changed). "Do you expect them to? They didn't do what they did to back up a medium and her claims. I could bring five agencies forward who'd say, 'Yeah, we use her. She was great.' It's never enough."
DuBois has her own website and a book due for re-release this spring through Simon & Schuster. As a result of the publicity, she says she has a backlog of 150 murder cases to examine, and the waiting list for her private consultations is 2,000 strong.
But don't suggest that she should be whipping through as many clients and unsolved murders as possible. DuBois likens what she does to giving blood something nobody can do 24/7. "It will take a toll on you that you can't recover from," she said.
Caron still regards himself as a "generous cynic" about parapsychological phenomena, despite the accuracy of some of DuBois' predictions. An initial pitch meeting at ABC went well, Caron recalled, and he was positive "Medium" would land there. DuBois said no, NBC would pick it up and it would succeed. That night, ABC took a pass.
He has since shifted a bit in his outlook on people like DuBois.
"I've come to believe that it's arrogant to assume we know everything there is to know about the human condition," Caron said.
DuBois and her husband admit that they've learned some things, too, even gleaning a few marriage tips as viewers. "I look at [Patricia] with the children, and she's so soft with them that I've actually been making a conscious effort to be softer with my kids," DuBois said.
And her husband, Joe? "They write great lines for [Jake Weber], so I'm trying to pick up some," he said. "I never called Allison 'Baby,' but I do now."