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.