If you want to think through the issues raised by Terri Schiavo’s death without having to suffer through Larry King’s three-hour special tonight (8 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET on CNN), you could just watch the two-hour season premiere of Tru Calling (Fox, 8 p.m. ET), a paranormal-themed teen show that by sheer coincidence (or is it?) taps eerily into the cultural anxieties raised by the Schiavo case: Who lives? Who dies? And who decides?
Tru Davies (played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Eliza Dushku) is a med student and part-time morgue employee with the magical ability to go back in time and prevent the death of any corpse who asks her to (the show’s key image, repeated in almost every episode, is of a body on a slab suddenly turning its head to the side to croak out, “Help me”). In the middle of the first season, Tru was joined by an archrival named Jack, played by Jason Priestley (himself a kind of revenant, not only from the undead cast of Beverly Hills 90210, but from the car-racing accident that nearly killed him in 2002). Where Tru’s calling is to prevent, by hook or crook, what seem like inevitable deaths, Jack’s mission is the opposite: He travels back in time to ensure that those fated to meet their maker do so unimpeded. Each episode becomes a struggle between two worldviews, as both Jack and Tru claim to be dedicated to “giving fate what it wants.”
Like Tom DeLay in low-rise jeans and a lace tank top, Tru bounds around town, taking extreme measures to convince complete strangers to heed her crazy-sounding (but almost inevitably accurate) predictions about impending disaster. Meanwhile, Jack has a grim, almost businesslike investment in the inevitability of death; asked by Tru to reveal how he tracked down a potential victim before she did, he retorts, “Does Apple tell Microsoft?” Jack’s not pro-death, exactly; he’s pro-destiny, as summarized by another character on the show: “In Jack’s world view, letting someone die who was meant to live is just as bad as letting someone live who was meant to die.” Jack is unquestionably the show’s villain, but he’s a complex one. Unlike, say, a talking-head battle on cable TV, Tru Calling allows for some wiggle room between the principals’ belief systems.
Tru Calling’smoral universe lacks Buffy’s goth-religious underpinnings; Jack and Tru are presented not as supernatural agents of good and evil, but as mortal human beings wearily saddled with differing ethical missions. In fact, for a show obsessed with end-of-life issues, Tru Calling is remarkable in its secularity; for all the talk of “fate” and what was “meant to be” for each individual victim, no deity is ever explicitly invoked. In Jason Priestley’s first episode last season, the two rivals stood in the morgue discussing death; Tru lamented the fate of those “taken before their time,” while Jack railed against “tubes and machines” that kept people alive beyond the point of usefulness.
Ironically enough, Tru Calling itself is currently on artificial life support; the series was canceled in 2004 after its first season, and the six second-season episodes being screened over the next month are serving as temporary placeholders for the spot just vacated by Point Pleasant, another supernatural-themed teen drama. The possibility of a third season has already been ruled out by the network, so barring fans’ ability to travel back in time and save it, Tru Calling is doomed. Perhaps it’s for the best, since in many ways this is a mediocre show: muddy-looking, hastily scripted and (unlike its predecessor Buffy) ploddingly sincere. But there’s an undeniable pull to the fantasy of omnipotence at its center: that if we try really, really hard, we can make it so that nobody, ever, has to die.