Judge Bryan Byun can hear this dead TV show calling to him. Unfortunately, all he can do is rewind to the beginning and watch it die all over again.
Her destiny is calling…
Fresh from her stint as Faith on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Eliza Dushku passed up a chance to reprise the bad-girl slayer on her own spinoff show in order to star in another supernatural-themed series, Tru Calling. Given that show's speedy demise after barely more than a season, however, Dushku might have been better off keeping the Faith.
Facts of the Case
Tru Davies (Dushku) is a 22-year-old medical student with a special gift: She hears dead people. What's more, whenever the dead ask for her help, she's mysteriously propelled back in time to the beginning of the day, giving her an opportunity to prevent the death. Tru is assisted in this task by Davis (Zach Galifianakis), her boss at the morgue where she interns; and when she's not running around saving lives, she's kept busy with her wildly dysfunctional family, which includes a gambling-addicted, slacker brother, Harrison (Shawn Reaves), and a drug-addicted sister, Meredith (Jessica Collins).
Over the course of the first season, we see Tru discover, or rather rediscover, her gift (as a child, Tru heard the voice of her murdered mother speak to her at the funeral) and learn to deal with its many consequences, among which is a rocky relationship with her boyfriend Luc (Matthew Bomer), from whom she has to hide her ability—a deception that, naturally, requires a lot of running off on short notice and flimsy excuses about where she's going. We also learn more about the circumstances surrounding her mother's death, and are introduced to the mysterious Jack Harper (a grizzled-looking Jason Priestley), who has much in common with Tru. These two mysteries deepen and mesh in unexpected ways by the season finale.
Tru Calling: The Complete First Season offers all twenty Season One episodes on six discs, with the finale—originally aired as a single two-hour broadcast—presented as two separate episodes.
Tru Calling had, and continues to have, a small but loyal following, and it's tempting to group this series with other prematurely cancelled shows, like Firefly and Freaks and Geeks, as a classic series killed before its time. While it certainly isn't a bad show, however, Tru Calling just isn't in the same league.
The premise—which owes a huge debt to past series like Quantum Leap, Early Edition, and Quincy, M.D., not to mention The Sixth Sense and of course Groundhog Day—is appealing enough, especially once Jack enters the fray, but the execution is formulaic and uninspired. Tru Calling feels like it was assembled from tips out of a manual on how to create a television series: You start with a plucky, attractive heroine; give her a supporting cast of characters, each with their own issue (the ne'er-do-well brother, the coke-addict sister); add a quirky, eccentric mentor; and place her in a largely unvarying situation where the body speaks to her in Act One, she starts the day over and begins investigating in Act Two (throw in a twist before the commercial break that makes all of Act Two a red herring), and the murder/suicide/accident is averted in Act Three. Oh, and make sure that a lot of annoying things (Davis eating a spoiled sandwich, the lid falling off of Harrison's sugar shaker, etc.) happen before the "rewind" that Tru can then prevent, to comic effect.
One of the big problems with Tru Calling is that these plot devices are employed in such a hamfisted way that they rarely—and only very late in the season—take on a life of their own. The creators of the show obviously started with types—the Clueless Boyfriend, the Dysfunctional Family, the Quirky Sidekick—instead of characters, and even the able performances by the actors filling those types aren't enough to disguise the contrivance.
Bland, unimaginative writing doesn't help. There are too many episodes where Stuff for Tru to Fix After She Rewinds is paraded with zero subtlety before the viewer and stacked up to be checked off of Tru's to-do list when she repeats the day. There are too many episodes where Tru—who doesn't have any special position or credentials to give her access to the people she saves—runs breathlessly up to the doomed victim to tell them "You're going to die today!" (And she always seems surprised when the corpse-to-be tells her to go away.) The dialogue is too often clunky, obvious, and rickety with exposition.
A high-concept (and in many ways derivative) show like this begs for a Whedonesque touch of irony, of an awareness of its own absurdity. Sadly, there's precious little of that to be found in this maddeningly straight-faced series, which takes itself very, very seriously. Tru herself is something of a bore; perhaps in an effort to distance herself from her roguish Faith persona, Dushku tones down both the attitude and the physicality, but in the process reduces her character to little more than someone who runs around town a lot and pesters people while wearing a series of pained, concerned expressions.
Tru Calling also suffers from the same problem that weighs down shows like Smallville, with its Freak-of-the-Week Syndrome. Many of the early episodes follow the standard plot template for the series, which makes for a repetitive and tiresome viewing experience—especially on DVD, where episodes can be consumed in larger chunks. Things pick up considerably toward the end of the season, but those developments should have been introduced far sooner; as it is, a number of fascinating issues—the advisability of interfering with Fate, whether or not the people Tru saves are meant to die, and what the consequences might be of saving them—are brought up but never explored.
Tru Calling: The Complete First Season comes to DVD with a vivid 1.78:1 widescreen transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound. The picture is uniformly decent, with some grain and softness, but more or less on a par with most recent TV releases, and certainly equal to the original broadcast quality. The audio track is excellent, with crisp, clear sounds and a fairly active surround field and extremely rich, bass-heavy tones on the score. The music actually tends to drown out the dialogue at times; you'll want to keep your thumb on the volume control if you've got fussy neighbors.
Tru Calling fans should be delighted by the wealth of bonus features on this set. Six episodes are presented with audio commentaries with the producers and cast members (including Dushku, Galifianakis, Reaves, Priestley, and others), and for the most part they're solidly entertaining and offer some interesting insights into the production process, creative decisions, and the experience of filming the series (in Vancouver, B.C.). Fans of Galifianakis, an actor-comedian who's appeared on Letterman and Conan O'Brien, are sure to enjoy his witty presence on these commentaries. There are also three informative, brief featurettes, divided by theme and consisting mainly of interviews; and for those who love the opening theme music or the band that performs it, Full Blown Rose, there's a full-length music video of the title song, "Somebody Help Me."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all its fundamental flaws, Tru Calling is never less than watchable. The supporting performances are excellent across the board, with Galifianakis and Reaves enlivening every scene they're in. As the season progresses, these characters gain some much-needed depth (although one, Meredith, appears to simply drop off the series), and might, by Season Two, actually develop a third dimension.
A couple of episodes merit special mention. "The Longest Day," one of the most poignant stories from the season, features Alec Newman (Paul Atreides in the Dune and Children of Dune miniseries) as a desperate father killed during a convenience store robbery, and has Tru reliving the day again and again as she struggles to ascertain exactly what fate has in mind for the man. "Daddy's Girl," in which Tru's father comes to town, introduces Jack Harper and brings some surprising, shocking twists to the ongoing mystery of the murder of Tru's mother. And "D.O.A.," the first half of the season finale, has Tru unable to prevent the death of a much-admired doctor, but led instead to help someone connected to him, in a solid dramatic story with a moving conclusion.
Tru Calling isn't a lousy series by any means, but—with apologies to its fans—I didn't find anything particularly special about it, either. For the most part, it's a fairly routine mystery-suspense series with a supernatural gimmick, executed competently but unremarkably. Whether it deserved to be axed, I can't say, but it certainly wasn't cancelled because it was too innovative or edgy for the studio suits. As such, while ardent admirers of Tru Calling will certainly want to pick up this set, new viewers probably needn't invest their time in this truncated series; given another full season or two, it might have found its legs, but this first season of Tru Calling is mostly underwhelming.
Charges against Tru Calling: The Complete First Season are dismissed, as the defendant is deceased.
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