TV GEMS #26: Tru Calling

Eliza Dushku saves the day thanks to an unlikely gift and Zach Galifianakis in this overlooked sci-fi/drama.

Time travel is a tricky business. Ray Bradbury’s classic short story A Sound of Thunder is most memorable for its treatment of the subject, particularly its theories on cause and effect. Changing an event in history, no matter how small, could have serious ramifications on the present. In most respects, the idea has been done to death, yet storytellers strive to add new elements to the mix. Recent examples include the grossly underrated The Butterfly Effect and Bill Murray’s comedic classic Groundhog Dog (granted, the latter was simply the same day on repeat, but Murray’s character took the opportunity to change his fortunes). Or how about Marty McFly in Back to the Future? If anything, the Delorean was a curse!

Short-lived American drama series Tru Calling takes a much more positive look at the concept. If travelling into the past was at all possible, would you choose to help others or run down to the bookies to make a few bets? The heroine of this series chooses the former, yet her time-travelling is not through her own means. As the title may imply, there’s an otherworldly force sending her into the past. It’s her destiny to help others from nasty ends, and her meddling in the universe appears to be beneficial. Or is it?

Eliza Dushku plays college graduate Tru Davies who is trying to put her turbulent youth to rest. At age twelve, she witnessed the murder of her mother. During the funeral, the poor girl was convinced that her mother’s corpse spoke to her. Later her father left, leaving Tru and her siblings – Meredith (Jessica Collins) and Harrison (Shawn Reaves) – to rely on each other. Now Tru looks forward to her dream of medical school, but her internship falls through, forcing her to take a job at the city morgue for the mysterious Davis (Zach Galifianakis). She thinks the work experience will provide her with a decent resume, but there’s something else in store for Miss Davies. On her first night, Tru is disturbed by strange sounds in the mortuary. Going for a closer look, she finds a corpse which springs miraculously to life and asks Tru for help. Somehow, time rewinds and the day restarts, allowing her to save the life of that unfortunate who crossed her path…

Tru takes this divine intervention in her stride, and with each new body she is sent through time to change the future. After harnessing her “gift,” she soon confides in Harrison and Davis, who are hesitant to believe her at first, but later become entangled in her endeavours. This forms the backbone of the entire series, making Tru the most altruistic person in the world, never using her power to attain wealth or success! In other words, it’s Quantum Leap with death (with a dash of Early Edition, too).  It’s hardly an original series but creator Jon Harmon Feldman treats these well-worn conventions with affection, forming an intriguing mix of fantasy and drama. But it wasn’t enough to snare American audiences, with Fox cancelling Tru Calling early in its second season. The reason was probably due to ratings and a lack of widespread support. That said, the show possesses a small and devoted fan base, and despite its numerous flaws, Tru Calling is an entertaining diversion, treating its geek-friendly leading lady to several engaging stories.

The most notable fault with Harmon’s series is how repetitive the formula is. The show sticks doggedly to its concept for much of the first season with few surprises as far as the plotting goes. There’s a body in the morgue, it asks for help, Tru goes back a day and investigates, she finds the cause of death and finally saves the day etc. It’s a formula that works very well indeed, but when you view multiple episodes in one sitting, it can become a little tiresome. The same problem followed Quantum Leap, but at least the Scott Bakula series had the novelty of a new period and new location every week. Tru Calling is mostly predictable. That is, until the latter half of Season 1. The writers – acknowledging the gimmicky nature of the material – begin tweaking the formula, tossing in more red herrings and problems for Tru to face. They also concentrate on developing the characters accordingly. Harrison often complicates matters for Tru with his gambling ways. Yet, the biggest revelation comes pretty late in the game…

Entering the series with a few episodes to spare is Jason Priestly as the enigmatic Jack. Usually, the notion of Priestly “acting” would be enough to make me give up on a series, but he was exactly what Tru Calling needed. He allows the show to branch out into other areas, and Feldman develops the character well, as it slowly dawns on the audience that Jack isn’t a force for good. Priestly is great in the role, matching his talented co-stars. In fact, the acting helps to make the sloppy writing seem better than it actually is (a shame, considering Buffy the Vampire Slayer veterans Jane Espenson and Doug Petrie penned several episodes). Reaves is great as Harrison, adding some much-needed comic relief to the series, even if he’s only a foil for Tru. Also great is Galifianakis before his comedy career rook flight. He is immensely likeable as Davis and has many layers that are slowly peeled away. The actor runs the gamut from mysterious to sympathetic. However, the rest of the supporting cast are given little to do, with A.J. Cook (Final Destination 2) and Matthew Bomer (as Tru’s sometime-boyfriend) merely there to get in our heroine’s way.

As Tru, Dushku reveals why so many adolescent boys fell in love with her during her stint as “Faith the Vampire Slayer.” She convinces as a self-sacrificing woman who really cares for those around her, and she has the athletic grace to carry the show’s frequent bursts of action-drama. More importantly, she is a gifted actress who is able to project many emotions (most of which are shown throughout Tru Calling‘s run). Unfortunately, it seems her efforts were all for nought when the show bit the dust, a fate that was echoed when she went on to star in Joss Whedon’s similarly-cancelled Dollhouse.

The final six episodes were never broadcast in the UK to my knowledge and that’s a damn shame. They show what Tru Calling could have become – an interesting and occasionally daring series which was willing to move beyond its formula and better itself. Its one of the many cancelled shows that were cut before their time.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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