Patricia Arquette’s voice is kind of narcotic. It emerges from the TV dreamy and disconnected, as if from an opium fog. There’s a slight asymmetry to her beauty, and joy isn’t expressed easily in her face. She always seems a little distant, as if she lives at the margins, watching. She’s mysterious, I guess, and it made perfect sense that David Lynch would cast her in the lead of his 1997 film Lost Highway. More recently, she won an Emmy for her work on the NBC drama Medium, which is now winding down its fifth season and may or may not return for a sixth.
Arquette plays Allison Dubois, a married mother of three, who serves as a crime-solving psychic for the Phoenix District Attorney’s office. Her talent is the gift of prophecy, with unbidden dreams that cryptically reveal the truth behind heinous criminal acts descending upon her. Impressionistic and slightly surreal, the dreams are elusive narratives. Usually unfolding from the disorienting point of view of a killer, they appear on the screen without introduction, infused with anxiety and impotent dread, and Allison awakes abruptly, panting, the central narrative of the show having been launched.
The conceit is appealing enough, but what’s most likely behind the show’s enduring popularity is Arquette herself. At this point in her career, the 41-year-old actress has assumed the stocky, practical build of a mother who’s spent the last 10 years hauling children in and out of backseats. Although she’s still obviously attractive, her sex appeal isn’t fetishized the way it used to be. Her character wears comfortable pajamas and sensible shoes, and she’s tired most of the time.
Allison’s life is busy and complex, her children imperfect, and like most mothers, she feels guilty about the intersection between her work and family. Worried that she might be inadvertently exposing her family to danger, her situation is further complicated by both those who oppose her unorthodox methods and those who would exploit her gifts for their own means. In short, this working mother has a hell of a lot on her plate.
Unlike most police shows, the animating principle behind solving crime on Medium is intuition rather than science. Eschewing the typically masculine allegiance to logic and procedure, the show puts its faith in what feels right. It has a uniquely feminine sensibility, and in spite of the insecurities and pressures that plague Allison, she forges ahead, doggedly pursuing what she knows to be true in spite of her braying critics.
Of course, in order to do this, she needs some support, and this comes in the form of her husband Joe (Jake Weber). He’s exemplar, patient, and loving regardless of the unlikely situation in which Allison has found herself. However, he’s no patsy, carrying with him the appealing residue of a middle-aged hipster and a narrative all his own. In each episode, Joe provides a useful counter-narrative, allowing the audience a moment or two to pull back and temporarily push all the supernatural pyrotechnics aside, concentrating on the frustrated domesticity between husband and wife that often comprises the most touching and compelling scenes on the show.
More and more, Medium is taking on a cinematic approach, running two or three-part episodes that are stretched out over feature-film length. Employing guest stars like Anjelica Huston, Neve Campbell, and Kelsey Grammer, the show has a big-budget Hollywood vibe to it. The current episode arc, which concludes on Monday night, borrows liberally from the visual motifs that are central to many of Hollywood’s serial killer films. However, this works in the show’s favor, and it comes across as appealingly familiar, speaking to its audience in a shorthand that requires little investment.
There’s nothing in Medium that’s going to truly put a deep scare into you, but it will briefly suggest such a thing, before returning you to a familiar nest of domesticity. It’s Ghost Whisperer for adults, the equivalent of a movie you’re happy you didn’t pay to see at the theater, but content enough to have rented—amiable, distracting, and professionally crafted.