"Ghost Whisperer," the new Jennifer Love Hewitt paranormal tear-jerker premiering tonight on CBS, might be titled "Touched by a Dead Person," or more accurately "Touched by a Person Who Sees Dead People" -- a dead-people person, you could call her. In this relentlessly heartwarming series, Hewitt portrays an otherwise ordinary young woman whose special gift, or curse, it is to see and talk to the unpassed-over dead as clearly as if they were checking her out at the supermarket. The trouble with ghosts, of course, is that they usually want something, and as the only contact in town she gets all their business -- delivering messages, sorting out their mental trash, helping them achieve the "closure" necessary for them to truck off into the Big White Light (characterized here as a big white light.)
"I need you to help me. They told me you could," says the unquiet ghost of a soldier killed in Vietnam who arrives at her house one dark and stormy night, as if her name were posted on some message board in limbo.
"Who told you?" asks Hewitt, who as a newlywed is seen often in her sleep clothes. (Some viewers will turn up just for that.) The soldier doesn't know, and perhaps neither do the writers.
The series' presence here among the living might have something to do with the success of "Medium," which, like "Ghost Whisperer," looks at the home life of a psychic. But this well has been visited many times before. It wasn't so very long ago that "Joan of Arcadia," "Tru Calling" and "Wonderfalls" -- series concerning young women receiving bulletins from the Beyond -- arrived all in a burst. It has roots as well in such this world/that world anthologies as "Highway to Heaven" and "Touched by an Angel." "Six Feet Under" is at least a cousin. Not to mention "Blithe Spirit." And "Topper."
The idea the show is ultimately here to sell is that love can transcend death -- not an idea for which it's terribly hard to find buyers. There are viewers who will rate this show on that point alone, for what one person might find a load of sad, sentimental, superstitious hooey, another might find moving and profound. "Load of hooey" is not a phrase you will find in the promotional materials for "Ghost Whisperer," which are content to describe its co-executive producer, self-styled "clairsentient" James Van Praagh, as he seems to himself: a "real-life psychic." The network has already been to bat, or gone to bed, with Van Praagh on the TV movies "Living With the Dead," with Ted Danson, and "The Dead Will Tell," starring Anne Heche, and are obviously happy to call him whatever he likes.
The show is not without comedy, and in fact could use more -- it enriches Hewitt's character. When she tries to avoid eye contact with the dead, for example, so they won't know she sees them and so won't ask for her help, it helpfully scrapes off a bit of her saintly goodness.
Hewitt is quite good, or as good as the show allows; there are some potholes along the way, as the script sacrifices sense to sentiment. But her marriage to regular-guy-hunk David Conrad ("Miss Match" ) is easy to buy; they have a nice chemistry that gets them through a couple of fairly turgid scenes. When "Ghost Whisperer" works, as it does in passing even on someone as firmly in the "load of hooey" camp as myself, it's primarily because of Hewitt. She's not the deepest young actress; she isn't even Neve Campbell. But there are times in tonight's show, as she engineers the reunion between the dead vet and his now-grown son, where she conveys just the right combination of emotional exhaustion and reflected happiness. I am quite prepared to believe in the art, even as I reject the picture.
When: 8 to 9 tonight
Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
Jennifer Love Hewitt...Melinda Gordon
David Conrad...Jim Clancy
Aisha Tyler...Andrea Moreno
Executive producers John Gray, Ian Sander, Kim Moses. Creator, writer, director John Gray.