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'Past Life' needs a different incarnation

The Fox show that uses reincarnation as a hook to investigate crime falls short by David Hudgins' ('Friday Night Lights) standards.

February 09, 2010|By MARY McNAMARA | Television Critic
  • Richard Schiff is one of the stars of Fox's new "Past Life" series. The show was created by David Hudgins ("Friday Night Lights"), who certainly knows his way around a script, so it is literally shocking how bad the writing is.
Richard Schiff is one of the stars of Fox's new "Past Life"… (Courtesy of Fox Entertainment…)

People in the creative fields and management training seminars like to comfort themselves with the notion that there are no bad ideas, just flawed executions. And perhaps in a world where murders are regularly solved by former fake psychics, current fake psychics, mediums and ghost whisperers, there might just be room for a procedural in which sleuthing depends on reincarnation.

Unfortunately, Fox's “Past Life” isn't it.

For believers in reincarnation, fans of "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" and those of us who came of age during the bestsellerdom of "Audrey Rose" ("Mommy, Daddy, hot, hot, hot"), there is something compelling about the notion that we carry within us the narrative of many past lives. That some of these lives would include the unfinished business of a murder is a decent enough hook -- hit shows have been built on less.

An agency headed by a driven but lovely young psychologist -- in this case Dr. Kate McGinn (Kelli Giddish), who no doubt has a few uneasy past lives of her own -- makes sense enough for the network that gave us "Fringe." She will need, of course a sparring, and potentially romantic, partner, preferably someone who knows a bit about actual criminal investigation. Enter Price Whately (Nicholas Bishop), the cynical former NYPD detective so crushed by the death of his beloved wife that he's willing to believe anything. Or not. Add a beloved and much missed star (Richard Schiff, has it come to this?) as Kate's tough but tender boss and the now-requisite Indian sidekick, here played by Ravi Patel, and you've got yourself a TV show. Just not a very good one.

Giddish, bless her heart, gives it her all, grounding Kate in a rangy Texan matter-of-factness that almost makes up for the ridiculousness of the concept (whoever says there are no bad ideas is lying). Although briefly aided by the still fabulous and also much missed Judith Ivey, here playing Kate's mother, Giddish cannot keep "Past Life" above water on her own; watching her try, one longs to make a few calls to see if there isn't something good out there for her next pilot season.

"Past Life" is created by David Hudgins ("Friday Night Lights"), who certainly knows his way around a script, so it is literally shocking how bad the writing is, with Whately grinding out such illuminations as "You can't get DNA from a memory" or "It's like all your life you've been playing this game and then someone changes the rules" until you want to scream. This kind of half-hearted attempt at clever dialogue is especially fatal when the audience is already fatigued from having to suspend a fairly hefty amount of disbelief. (Who, we might ask, is funding the Talmadge Center for Behavioral Science?) It doesn't help that in playing grief, Bishop goes for wooden. Even when he finally concedes that there might be something in this whole past-life thing, well, people of my acquaintance have expressed more emotion over the discovery of a new and conveniently located In-N-Out franchise.

Finally, there is something unforgivable about opening a series with a case involving not just a troubled teen but the abduction and particularly horrific death of a child. If you have to resort to killing kids to make your pilot pop, you might want to rethink your show.


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