Combining a police procedural with the concept of reincarnation is such a loony idea that I half-hoped that the team behind FOX’s new series Past Life would somehow find a way to make it work. They haven’t. Instead, they’ve actually made a bad idea worse by saddling it with clichéd lead characters, boilerplate dialogue, and plots that peddle redemption with less subtlety than a typical episode of Touched by an Angel.
The central conceit of Past Life is that we carry around the buried memories of our past lives. For most of us, these memories are long gone, but for an unlucky few, flashbacks, usually bad ones that revolve around an unsolved crime, crop up to haunt our everyday lives. Enter Dr. Kate McGinn (played with smug ballsiness by Kelli Giddish), a psychiatrist who has assembled a team to solve these resurfacing mysteries for her clients.
Giddish is joined by a slumming Richard Schiff, as her mentor Dr. Malachi Talmadge, and to add color and humor, Ravi Patel as Dr. Rishi Karna, the junior psychologist on the team—who, according to the show’s website, “loves bad TV, Cuban jazz and driving everyone crazy.” The non-doctor on the team is disgraced cop and token cynic Price Whatley (Nicholas Bishop), who is like a flavorless, bland version of Jimmy McNulty from The Wire. We’re told—mainly through awkward expository dialogue—how he is tortured by his wife’s senseless death and that he drinks to escape the pain, but we never see it in either the way the character is written or the way that Bishop portrays him. He comes across just as annoying as McGinn, his obvious foil and his even-more-obvious potential love interest.
In the pilot, the team’s client is a teenage boy (Cayden Boyd) tortured by memories that are not his own. Through a combination of psychobabble and Encyclopedia Brown clue-gathering (the boy runs into the ladies room, ergo he must have been a girl in his previous life), they uncover and solve a decades-old mystery. The episode ends with the boy, channeling the memories of a murdered girl, hugging that girl’s parents while his own parents look on. Meanwhile, Coldplay swells on the soundtrack.
The only way the premise of Past Life could have been remotely watchable is if the writers had been willing to truly take the theme of reincarnation to the limit, to have victims haunted by caveman crimes, or still tortured by a bad experience at Gettysburg. Then at least it might have been decent pulp entertainment. As it is, Past Life is just a bad premise executed badly, and very unlikely to be given a second