Past Life debuts tonight at 9 p.m. on Fox. It moves to its regular timeslot at 9 p.m. on Thursday.
Here is a short list of things I'm willing to suspend my disbelief on if I am to enjoy a show about past-life detectives: Past lives exist. There are people who regularly experience flashbacks to their past lives that have all the narrative coherence of the video for Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." These people experience these flashes regularly but don't terribly care to figure out what they are until they make life almost impossible to live. There are detectives who use these flashbacks to solve long-dead cases, despite the fact that, uh, you can't exactly admit past-life evidence in court.
Here is a longer list of things I'm less willing to suspend my disbelief on if I am to enjoy a show about past-life detectives: Every single damn time the detectives meet someone, they have to explain the concept of reincarnation. The past-life detectives, instead of just alerting the authorities to what they suspect (like that crazy lady on Medium), have to also SOLVE THE CASE, so they occasionally turn to hard science like refugees from CBS. One of the past-life detectives is from Texas, the stereotype, not Texas, the state, with an accent that comes and goes and lots of talk about how she likes driving RECKLESSLY in her big TRUCK. The other past-life detective is a skeptic who seems to occasionally believe in past lives because he's noticed the title of the show he's on. The other past-life detective is a low-rent Jimmy McNulty. The other past-life detective's wife died tragically and will clearly turn up in the season finale. Richard Schiff is here, and he genuinely thinks this is a good show and is not just doing this for the paycheck.
Yes, it hasn't been a good week for new television. After the outright insulting tone of Undercover Boss, here's Past Life, which has the virtue of being possibly the stupidest show to premiere this season on a major network. It's also in a pitched battle with the "Every episode's about heart surgery!" Three Rivers for the season's most unnecessarily limiting premise. The whole thing feels like someone wanted to create a show that was one part Fringe and one part Cold Case and then decided to toss in one part Wonderfalls because, what the hell, y'know? There aren't enough shows about quirky ladies with a direct line to the cosmos out there. This is true, but it's not like there aren't simultaneously tons of other shows that are doing everything Fringe and Cold Case do. The whole thing seems poorly stitched together.
Kelli McGiddish, who can best be described as - and here's a phrase I bet you never thought you'd hear - a poor man's Anna Torv, plays Dr. Kate McGinn, a woman who works with the fictional Tallmudge Institute to track down people who are having past life regressions to the moments right before their previous selves' died. She and her ex-cop partner, Price Whatley (the distractingly accented Nicholas Bishop), travel the mean streets of New York to try to solve the crimes that are shown in these little flashes of insight. As they do their job, their client helpfully has further flashes that illuminate more of what happened to them, which means that Kate and Price have to do basically no real detective work whatsoever. They can pretty much sit around at the office and play quarters with the Schiff while waiting for their client to have more breakthroughs. And, sure enough, their client will, and they'll follow any tenuous lead in said breakthrough to more bland clues.
Here's the thing. I'm willing to accept that there could be a fun show where detectives solve crimes using past life evidence. I'm less willing to accept the idea that this show has to be, well, a cop show. The thing that made The X-Files and Fringe work was that both shows took place in universes that were enough like our own to be familiar but just dissimilar enough to accept aliens wandering around with their eyes sewed shut or entire buildings disappearing from New York City blocks. In Past Life, we get the sense that people are having flashes to their past lives all the damn time, but it's also a world exactly like our own, where people are skeptical of the existence of reincarnation (and/or the idea that it could lead to crime solving action). The flashes, then, are like the odd medical ailments that kick off every episode of House. They're just another thing that happens sometimes.
Because this is attached to a detective show, that makes everything that goes on here fairly limiting. Reincarnation, in and of itself, is a concept that's rife with all sorts of possible ideas for drama. In the first episode, the kid who's having the flashbacks says he's, "tired of being a girl," because in his past life, he was a girl. This idea is then mostly dropped in favor of more crime solving. In the second, the girl having the regressions is in a position where the storyline could do some interesting things about being a part of one class in one life and a another in the next. Reincarnation could be used to tell stories about race, about class, about gender. It could be used to tell stories of undying romance or whimsical fantasy or incredible adventure. But it is almost uniquely ill-suited to telling stories of detectives solving crimes on a weekly basis. Once the whole thing has been used to solve a murder once, what's the novelty in seeing it used to solve a murder twice?
And then there's Richard Schiff and Ravi Patel, who turn up simply because the show needs to have more characters than just the two at its center. This is one of those things that irritates me about modern TV (where you could never do a show with only one or two regulars, even if the show absolutely needed to be done that way), but at least in shows like Bones and Castle, the background ensemble players are vaguely interesting and have some of their own spark between them (particularly on Bones). Here, Schiff and Patel are just there because … they're supposed to be. Also, Kate has a kooky mom, and at the end of the pilot, she turns to a black guy for help. Both of these things are barely explained and supposed to be accepted as self-evident.
There's some OK stuff in Past Life. The directors come up with some interesting shots, and Schiff is always fun to watch. But the bulk of it is just painful to watch. McGiddish and Bishop both try way too hard, trying to force a chemistry that isn't there in their scenes together or playing up the quirk when they don't need to (particularly in McGiddish's case). Characters don't believe in past lives, until it's convenient to the plot that they do. There's maybe a fun show somewhere inside of Past Life, but it feels like it's been buried under a mountain of focus group derived notes.
- Vanessa Marano, one of my favorite all-purpose gawky teenagers, turns up in episode two as, well, a gawky teenager. Somebody needs to toss this girl on a female-themed Freaks and Geeks or something.
- So, yeah, this premise is pretty bad. Here's my suggestion to fix it, which sounds a lot like a more procedural FlashForward, come to think of it: Apropos of something, everyone on Earth starts experiencing flashbacks to their past lives. The government hires the workers at the Tallmudge Institute to travel the world and piece together people's stories to get an idea of why this happened. Thus, it becomes kind of an anthology series with recurring characters, which could be fun! More fun than this, at least.