December 2003

Tru Calling:

What a Difference a Day Makes

The Fox TV Network has buried Tru Calling - one of the most unique new programs of the 2003-2004 season, on Thursday nights at 8:00 pm. This is the kill-or-be-killed slot where CBS airs the umpteenth edition of Survivor and NBC tries desperately to squeeze one more season of comic-gold out of the dry-well called Friends. Because of the schedule, large audiences haven't yet discovered this strange genre series, and thus far Tru Calling scores only about 3.8 million viewers a week. That's a shame, because the first four episodes reveal hints of a concept that might evolve into something special given a little time and imagination. Of course, such a glorious future assumes that producer John Harmon Feldman and his stable of writers can aggressively move beyond the show's heretofore rigidly formulaic plots and begin to explore the vagaries of time, free will, pre-destination and other unique philosophical concepts.

The central thesis of Tru Calling is actually pretty good, though critics have been quick to compare it with Early Edition and last year's dead-on-arrival UPN flop, Haunted. The series concerns a young woman named Tru, portrayed by the intense and compelling Eliza Dushku. Tru's mother was murdered ten years ago under mysterious circumstances and now her surviving family, consisting of a coke-addled sister (Jessica Collins) and a loser of a brother (Shawn Reeves), seems woefully rudderless and dysfunctional. And Tru has some issues of her own. In particular, when corpses are wheeled into the morgue where she interns, they tend to open their dead eyes and request help. And how does that help manifest itself? Oddly, Tru finds herself reliving the twenty-four hours leading up to their deaths. Though she was unable to rescue her mother a decade earlier, Tru now makes amends by saving others.

Some in the media have aptly tagged Tru Calling's format as a variation on the Bill Murray comedy, Ground Hog's Day, but the series only wishes it were that inspired. Instead, the show teeters precipitously on the edge of becoming as repetitive and absurd as Murder, She Wrote or, to call up a genre example, Friday the 13th: The Series. In both cases, every nuance and plot point repeated themselves in every episode - ad nauseum. In Murder, She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher always saw a friend or family member accused of murder and solved the crime. In Friday the 13th: The Series, a trio of antique dealers recovered cursed items from their haunted shop, week-in and week-out for three years.

In Tru Calling, the rigidly repetitive format is irksome. Tru awakens, leads a normal day, learns something useful to her brother or sister, then heads to the morgue for the late shift. At the morgue, a corpse asks for help, and the clock rolls back twenty-four hours. Knowing the future, Tru puzzles through a mystery, always involving a last-minute twist. At the same time, she provides the necessary data that helps her siblings evade crises, like a random drug test.. After four weeks of the same story, intrepid viewers can anticipate the plot-twists down to the minute, despite a rambunctious energy-level and go-for-broke pace that outshines ABC's fading Alias. The result of this repetition is inevitably boredom.

However, Tru Calling is still young. At this point, it is necessary to reinforce the bizarre, highly-stylized and repetitive format until viewers become familiar with it. Because then and only then can the show achieve its true (or Tru) potential. How? By breaking the rules it has so rigorously established in these early episodes. In doing so, if the show lasts that long, this series could become something brilliant. Consider the following questions. What if Tru were to relive a day and save one person, but her actions cause the deaths of ten other people? What if Tru were to save the life of a fellow who then goes on to harm innocent people, a rapist or a serial killer? What if on the way to rescue some poor soul she ends up trapped in an elevator during a black-out and her opportunity is wasted?

More to the point, as Tru continues her temporal odyssey, the character must start questioning the very order of things; of fate, nature and God. What power permits her to relive time? Does it have a purpose? What is that purpose and why has it selected her as its instrument? By interfering in the fate of others, is Tru serving destiny or obstructing it?

And, here's another cool notion. What if somebody else boasts the same powers as Tru, but his or her temporal "rescues" interfere with hers? And, must not the cosmic scales be balanced? If one person is saved by Tru, does another person have to die?

When clever writers stretch the format and begin asking - and answering, this multitude of questions, Tru Calling will really become a lot of fun. The "relive a day/safe a life" formula is already stale, but if the scribes examine the notions and conceits underlying their strange formula and stop taking it at face value, they may find room for surprisingly imaginative stories and plots that deal with the very nature of human existence.

But they better hurry! The Thanksgiving issue of TV Guide placed Tru Calling on the "Endangered Species List" despite the fact Fox ordered a full season of episodes. Let's hope that in the last half of the season, Tru questions her gift a little more and delves deeper into the mysteries surrounding it. Because as formulaic as it is, Tru Calling remains the only new genre program in the post-Buffy, post-Firefly, post-Farscape age with even a sliver of potential.

And network executives, unlike the power fueling Tru's temporal adventures, are notorious for not permitting second chances...