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Medium Well

Saying goodbye to Medium, the surprisingly Jewish television show that perfectly captured the realities of parenting, the depths of grief, and the joys of everyday life

Marjorie Ingall
February 01, 2011
Maria Lark, Jake Weber, Patricia Arquette in a scene from Medium.(Michael Yarish/CBS TV Studios)
Maria Lark, Jake Weber, Patricia Arquette in a scene from Medium.(Michael Yarish/CBS TV Studios)

Medium, which ended its seven-season run last week, was a show about ghosts, the afterlife, and general spookiness. But what it was really about was the messiness of family life. It presented the challenges of parenthood—funny, irksome, intimate, quotidian—as worthy of attention. “Can you make it to make our daughter’s soccer game?” was as important as “Why has the ghost of a murder victim taken possession of our video camera?”

If you weren’t a Medium watcher, let me fill you in. The show’s heroine, Allison (Patricia Arquette) was a psychic in Arizona who worked for the Phoenix District Attorney’s office, helping to solve crimes. She had to juggle her psychic visions, her relationship with her engineer husband, Joe, and the needs of her three quirky daughters.

It’s ironic that a show about the paranormal was so, well, normal. Allison didn’t look like the cookie-cutter starlets populating the TV universe. She wasn’t a size 2. She never wore spike heels to a crime scene. Her house looked like a real home, with unfortunate blue-and-yellow kitchen tiles I’m certain she hoped to replace as soon as they could afford it. Her girls squabbled at the breakfast table, and not in an adorable smart-assed sitcom-sassy way. I loved the show’s depiction of a loving marriage in which the partners fought and made up and had the same arguments over and over. (“Allison! Maybe that was just a regular dream, not a message from beyond the grave!” Oh, Joe.) Sure, the plot holes were so big you could drive an SUV that belonged to a dead woman now sending Allison messages about her murderer through them. But even though I didn’t always love the show, I always loved the show. It was like a beloved, sometimes maddening friend.

Parents don’t get a lot of televised validation of our lives. TV is escapism (and, indeed, Medium was great at deploying creepy music and creepy visuals to deliciously jumpy unreal effect), but TV can also make us feel pretty crappy about not measuring up to its fabulous artificiality. Not Medium. Medium was sisterly. It applauded us for making our marriages work. It knew how hard it can be to get dinner on the table when both parents work. It spotlighted the special-for-being-not-so-special moments real parents share—when we sit down on the porch or on the couch with a beer and a sigh after the kids have gone to bed, happy to slough off the day and reconnect with each other. Joe and Allison loved each other, entertained each other, and teased each other, but sometimes they went to bed without having sex, because they were tired.

They fought about childrearing. In one of my favorite early episodes, Joe was embarrassed that their oddball middle daughter refused to take off her new red bike helmet, sleeping in it for days and insisting on wearing it for her school picture. Allison reminded him that the school photo was a portrait of who the kid was at that moment, and that right now she was a little girl who loved her bike helmet beyond all reason. That’s familiar to a parent, and so were the fights about money, like when Joe wanted to tap into their daughters’ college savings accounts to fund a new business and Allison said no and Joe worried that Allison didn’t believe in him.

Medium was suffused with the dread of not being able to take care of your children—not being able to keep them safe, not being able to send them to an expensive camp, not being able to keep them from dating bad boys, and not being able to prevent them from being murdered in terrifying ways. Real-world fears and fantasy fears were smooshed all together in a great miasma of parental anxiety.

It’s hard to argue that a show about a family named Dubois was at all Jewish. But I’ll try. As the writer Rebecca Eisenberg posited on Facebook, the DuBois family, like Jews everywhere, share a tradition they inherited from the mother’s side of the family, one that is based largely on faith and is often questioned and misunderstood by others in the community. Remember in the first few seasons how Allison hid her talents? Towards the end of the series, her special qualities were well-known, and she exuded pride in them. That is a nice arc of assimilation to acceptance. And of course, the fact that a show about the afterlife never actually professed to know what happens after death felt very Jewish.

Of course, the main reason for Medium’s success is that the notion of being loved and cared for from beyond the grave is powerful. The day I gave birth to Maxine, shortly after my dad died (Maxie is named after him), my ultra-rational, non-woo-woo mom told me a story. As she entered the subway to come meet the baby for the first time, a Latin musician was playing “Moscow Nights” on the guitar. It was one of my dad’s staples when he was in a folk-acoustic combo in college, a song he played every time he picked up the accordion at home when I was little. “Moscow Nights” is not exactly a fixture in the subway music world. Then when Mom arrived at my apartment and started to clean (moms!), she picked up two plastic magnet letters that had fallen off the fridge. The letters were M.I.—Michael Ingall.

Of course neither mom nor I think my dad was throwing magnets on the floor to remind us of his presence. We felt his presence all the time ever since he died. Or maybe that was his absence. It can be hard to tell those things apart. And that, too was part of the appeal of Medium: the show’s constant reminders that there is no love without loss. How can I not think of the Yehuda Amichai poem, “Near the Wall of a House,” which reads: “Love is not the last room: there are others / after it, the whole length of the corridor / that has no end.”

I hope so. And Medium let me believe it—for an hour a week, anyway—literally as well as figuratively.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.