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From Across the Pond: "Afterlife"

We Americans love our supernatural television dramas. Just take a look at the consistent popularity of series like The Ghost Whisperer and Medium. But our ghostly series tend to focus on pixie cute spirit-chatters, overworked moms, or university knitting circles of eccentrics (as in NBC's tragically condensed The Others from a few years back).

Not so with the Brits, who refuse to give us a cutesy nymph of a spirit medium as a lead in BBC America's new series Afterlife, starring Lesley Sharp (Vera Drake) and Andrew Lincoln (Love Actually, This Life). Sharp's Alison Mundy is no Jennifer Love Hewitt... and that's definitely a good thing. She's a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, literally haunted by the spirits she channels... and perhaps by her own past as well, hinted at in the series premiere, which aired Stateside last week. Alison's a paradox of countering values: at once fragile and tough, she's trapped between the worlds of the living and dead, unable to find solace in either one. She's come to Bristol to start a new life, one in which she won't have to act as a spirit medium, but she's quickly driven back to her old life in no time at all, despite the fact that her hold on reality is slipping. This is one medium who clearly does not relish her "gift."

Elsewhere, Lincoln's Robert is a university psychology lecturer who teaches a course on psychology and belief. He seems to derive quite a lot of pleasure from unmasking psychics as frauds and charlatans. But he too is running from something in his own past: the death of his young son Josh (car crash perhaps?) and the loss of his wife, played by Anna Wilson-Jones of Monarch of the Glen and Hex, here beatifically pregnant and haunted. (Is Wilson-Jones never haunted or harried? She's made a cottage industry of playing shrews and haranguing harpies, but here she seems... coolly otherworldly.)

These two meet when Robert takes some of his prized students to a platform show were Alison reluctantly appears. There, she claims to see the spirit of the mother of one of Robert's student. While Alison's claims ring true (she certainly has enough concrete description of the spirit, including an overwhelming lavender scent hanging in the air), Robert quickly denounces her as a fraud... except for the fact that everything Alison says is true. But only Robert's student, Veronica (Cara Horgan) knows that. She was the sole survivor of a suicide pact that killed her entire family, plotted by her dying mother and grieving father. The scene plays out as the opening teaser of the premiere episode and it is as shocking as it is haunting.

If this were a happy-go-lucky show, Alison would have showed Veronica that she has to go on living and forgive her mother for what happened all those years earlier... but this is not that show and instead, Alison catapults Veronica back to the trauma in her past, where Veronica chooses not to live, but to die and join her mother. It's a nice twist in a show that's already been filled with quite a few unexpected ones. Alison might be the hero in this story, but to those around her she's definitely the villain of the piece: between Robert's denouncement of her gift and a hospital slap across the face from one of Veronica's friends, Alison keeps on trudging through (after)life, perhaps numbed by what seems to be a preoccupation with alcohol.

The weakest element of Afterlife is the clunky solution of keeping believer and skeptic together past the first episode. Series creator Stephen Volk achieves this end by having Robert's department head (and friend) suggest that he write a book about Alison. For Alison, she hopes that it's an opportunity to exorcise some of the demons plaguing her. It's not exactly the most elegant (or believable, even) of solutions, but it will work for now to keep these two at each other's throats.

Unlike their American counterparts, Alison and Robert seem to have not even a whiff of frisson about one another. So far, there's no hint of sexual tension here and I have to say that it's one of the things about the series that's so refreshing. These are two very damaged individuals who might just help one another find their way again but it's not going to happen in bed and there aren't going to be long looks from across crowded rooms to keep these two meeting up again and again.

No, like the spirits that haunt Alison, these two are stuck together for the time being. And for those of us at home watching this clever, dark, and at times genuinely poignant series, that's a Very Good Thing.

"Afterlife" airs Thursday nights at 10 pm ET/PT on BBC America.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: NCIS (CBS); Friday Night Lights (NBC); Gilmore Girls (CW); Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (ABC); Standoff (FOX); Desire (MyNet)

9 pm: The Unit (CBS); Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC); Veronica Mars (CW); Big Day/Help Me Help You (ABC); House (FOX); Fashion House (MyNet)

10 pm: The Victoria Secret Fashion Show (CBS); Law & Order: SVU (NBC); Boston Legal (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Gilmore Girls.

I'm really ready to give up on this show now. I miss the old Gilmore Girls, and, no, I am not talking about last season. On tonight's episode ("Merry Fisticuffs"), Luke and Lorelai share a (gasp!) tender moment together, while Chris worries that Lorelai isn't completely committed to their new marriage (gee what makes you think so?)... leading to a nasty confrontation between the two men in Lorelai's life. Yawn.

9 pm: Veronica Mars.

On tonight's episode, it's a repeat of the third season premiere ("Welcome Wagon") where Veronica, Wallace, Logan, and Mac head to Hearst College and Veronica must solve the mystery of the disappearance behind new friend Piz's belongings. Ah, memories.

10 pm: Doctor Who on BBC America.

While Sci Fi might be airing Season Two of the newest incarnation of Doctor Who (complete with another new Doctor, played by David Tennant), catch up on Season One, beginning anew tonight on BBC America as the Doctor (played by Christopher Eccleston) first meets Rose Tyler for the first time. On tonight's episode ("The Unquiet Dead"), the Doctor and Rose travel to the Victorian era, where they team up with Charles Dickens to battle an ethereal villain. What other show could boast that as an episode description?


Anonymous said…
I was pretty impressed by Afterlife too, first by Alison's unconventional (for the American TV I'm used to) appearance, second by Veronica's suicide. That was a great twist that, as you mentioned, we probably wouldn't get on an American show. Bring on the dark!
Leave it to the Brits to breathe new life into an old genre. Being no fan of "The Ghost Whisperer" (or Jennifer Love Hewitt, for that matter) I was surprised by how much I liked "Afterlife." It was very atmospheric with enough twists and turns to keep you thoroughly engaged. While the character of Robert was a little flat, the troubled Alison was a joy to watch and will most likely bring out a more complex side to Robert...whether he likes it or not.
Jessie said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jessie said…
Very refreshing and original. I was very impressed by the show, and, being a fan of the genre, was glad to see a different view of the 'gift'. It'll be interesting to see how Alison and Robert's relationship progressess too, it seems as though it has the potential to be quite platonically intimate.

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