Favorite Cancelled Shows: Tru Calling

I really loved Tru Calling, starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel‘s Eliza Dusku, White Collar‘s Matt Bomer, and Beverly Hiils, 90210‘s Jason Priestley.

According to the Examiner.com review of the DVD release of the Complete Series Boxset:

If you really stop to think about it, very few shows become long-running series. Every year, networks have programs that only last a few episodes and fade away into obscurity. If you factor in all of the pilots that have been developed, shot and rejected, those are a lot of potentially great ideas that, for one reason or another, just don’t happen. Then there are shows that get half a chance, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. ‘Tru Calling’ falls into that last category.

Tru Davies (Eliza Dushku) is a college graduate who takes a job a a local morgue after her medical school plans are put on hold. Her boss is a perpetually shy man named Davis (Zach Galifianakis).

Things start off as expected until a dead woman asks Tru for help. Immediately her day reverts to back when she wakes up. Armed with only the few clues she was able to learn before the victim sent her back in time and the help of Davis and her brother Harrison (Shawn Reaves), Tru tries to right the wrongs of the past and save a life.

Repeat this twenty some-odd times, and you have the gist of the series. Things do get a little more complicated as the series goes on and a few more vital characters do come into play, but that’s still basically it.

It starts out as a reasonably interesting concept, but after awhile, the patience one has with an incredulous Harrison starts to wear thin. Tru has explained this to you for half a dozen episodes already! Why don’t you fully believe her yet? Thankfully, this corrects itself before one might be incline to give up. It’s also as if the series acknowledges the fact that the straightforward structure of the episodes will only go so far. It can be boiled down to a simple science as far as when certain revelations will come to light in the episode going by the runtime. To change things up after a bunch of episodes, you start to get some fakeouts and double or even triple restart days.

It’s a shame that the time travel ability is never fully explained.

The first season had a nice buildup after a slightly rocky start. It got better as it went along, mostly because we learn more about the main characters and have some more antagonists to deal with. Until late in the first season, there isn’t really a yin to Tru’s yang. That changes in the form of Jason Priestley whose character, thankfully, isn’t really all bad, though his role is complicated and viewer sentiment may vary on perspective.

The tragedy of the second season is that it was canceled after six episodes. The last episode on the DVDs takes place during Christmas which is a strange way to leave things, but it does offer a nice open-ended cliffhanger, if that’s your thing. Some people might want a little closure and could have trouble starting a series that doesn’t have an ending. As long as you know that going in, then you’ll be fine.

Special features include: deleted scenes, commentary, a few featurettes, music video and a promo for the much more successful ‘Arrested Development.’

‘Tru Calling’ was a pretty decent network show that suffered a fate common amongst network shows: the abrupt cancellation. Given a little more time to unfold, the series’ true potential could have been realized. Instead, we are left with a decent idea that is executed fairly well.

Eliza Dushku fanatics have no excuse for missing this. Anyone else who likes middle-of-the-road network television science fiction/youth-oriented dramas that get conveniently wrapped up each episode by the above-average looking cast, would be happy with this as well.

According to Den of Geek‘s article “Did Tru Calling deserve to be axed?“:

Science fiction and fantasy television has never been the luckiest of genres when it comes to yearly renewal decisions, and we can all agree that there are far too many shows pulled from the air before their time. Sometimes, though, fans can completely understand why their weekly pastime is disappearing and accept that a crowded market has no room for mediocrity. Sadly, Tru Calling, running from 2003-2005 on FOX, fits into both of these categories, and is all the more frustrating for it. It’s a show that began as annoyingly flawed and redundant as the worst debut series, but one that soon turned into something pretty special towards its end.

Of course, a lot of series considered cancelled ‘before their time’ are cut down some time during their first season, but instead Tru Calling had plenty of time to build a cult following and enough space to iron out almost all of its less credible quirks. A lot of people reading this will have started watching back in 2003 simply because the show starred Eliza Dushku and Buffy The Vampire Slayer had just wrapped up. In fact, Dushku effectively turned down a prospective Faith series in favour of doing something new with Tru Calling, and this may well have caused Buffy fans to judge it more harshly in comparison to the scrapped Joss Whedon project.

But the series didn’t do itself many favours early on, and feels like half an idea when looking back at the complete package. The first thirteen episodes are what I assume led to its premature cancellation, since each weekly adventure comes across like the most by-the-numbers fantasy procedural you can imagine, and they’re a slog to get through even when knowing how much better the series would become. The premise is simple; Tru is a medical student interning at the morgue where dead bodies start asking her for help. When this happens, which is every week, her day rewinds and she must find a way to save them before time runs out.

Helping her in this mission is her boss, Davis (an almost entirely straight-faced Zach Galifianakis), and her brother Harrison (Shawn Reaves), both learning of her secret in a relatively fast and believable way. Her mother was murdered when she, Harrison and her sister Meredith (Jessica Collins) were children and an absentee father hovers over their relationship with each other. White Collar’s Matt Bomer also pops in and out as the unsuspecting boyfriend, adding to the grounding forces in Tru’s life. In these early episodes, it’s the cast and their undisputable chemistry that saves the show from being simply dire, and fans can still enjoy the forming of those core relationships against the backdrop of such pedestrian plotlines.

Harrison, Davis and Tru in particular are a joy to watch, and form an endearingly familial bond over the 26-episodes. Other less entertaining or vital characters are, to the show’s credit, phased out pretty seamlessly. The sister, for example, simply disappears one day and is never verbally written out. The best friend and on-off girlfriend to Harrison also departs after the first season, marrying a random guest star and moving to Europe in an hilariously unbelievable way. Rules of the day-rewinds themselves are tested and stretched, causing great episodes and terrible ones in equal measure. The show can always be seen experimenting and changing in these early stages, but it sadly might have proved too little, too late.

But the writers were hiding some pretty big ideas, and would only delve into the central mythology, and thus the compelling drama, after they brought in new character Jack Harper. Though always intended as a character, boyfriend Luc was originally supposed to become a mythical antagonist for Tru, before the network apparently asked for a big name to fill the role instead. They got their name with the casting of Jason Priestley, 90s teen pin-up and star of Beverly Hills 90210, and fans were treated to a brand new show with his arrival. It’s unclear why the writers waited quite so long to introduce viewers to the central motif of the show, and it probably would have done better had they introduced it a little earlier.

Jack was the antithesis of Tru, the opposing force whose mission it was to retain order in the universe. Those who died on day one were supposed to in his opinion, and Tru was messing with the rules for her own moralistic satisfaction. He was not a cackling villain, but a hero in his own eyes, and Priestley’s unexpected casting does wonders for the part. He’s charming and appealing, and has some cracking monologues in his arsenal. With his appearance in episode fourteen, and slowly teased reveal thereafter, Tru Calling became a proper genre show with big, universal themes and something compelling to say. Almost all of the episodes thereafter were great, making it a crying shame that this improved quality wasn’t enough to save the show.

It was cancelled after only five episodes of season two had aired, with a sixth subsequently included on the DVD. Plans for the rest of the year don’t just read like an improvement on season one, but an incredibly entertaining show building on its ideas and seeking new things to do with existing characters. For those who haven’t read the outlines for season two available online, the mythology of Tru and Jack went much deeper than the series was ever able to explore, with two ancient powers battling for the fate of the universe. One having established a set path for the future, in terms of who would die and when, then came a rebellious element that sought to make things better.

We would never be told which path would lead to a better or worse end, but wouldn’t it have been interesting to see? Without these big questions in place, the show would have dug its own grave with repetitive stories and an unwavering formula, but suddenly things got interesting. Tru’s new boyfriend, whom she saved on someone else’s rewind day, was eventually meant to become a serial killer, dangerously fascinated by death at the heroes’ own hand. Tru and Jack would have continued their battle for fate’s outcome, but the line between light and dark would become much less clear, and the audience would be forced to question which side was the right one.

The show’s best episode, according to most fans, is The Last Good Day, in which the drama follows Jack on his mission to ensure death, rather than the other way around. The nasty moral implications of both sides are brought to the forefront in a frank and honest way, and the episode (only two weeks before the end) is a shining example of what Tru Calling could have been. So many series start out strong only to fizzle out within a couple of seasons (Heroes, I’m looking at you), but this was a show that did the opposite. Without the fan favour that comes with a cracking first season, however, not many viewers were still around by the time Priestley wafted in to save the day.

Watching it all the way through, the first half feels like an out-of-touch post-Buffy knockoff, while the second half wouldn’t be out of place on today’s schedules. But knowing what would happen, the show is still a rewarding one to visit on DVD. Frustrating as it is to witness the cliffhanger-filled final episode with the knowledge that nothing would be resolved on screen, information provided by the writers online goes some way to repairing the damage. Matt Bomer fans, or fans of Zach Galifianakis’ comedy work, would also do well to see the stars early in their careers, and the quality of the cast is something that never wavered from the first episode until the last.

Tru Calling is one of those forgotten series that’s judged by its early mistakes, and maybe good intentions really aren’t enough to recommend it. For a small group of fans, though, it definitely belongs in the ‘cancelled too soon’ box, and sadly existed in the days before networks felt it right to grant struggling series a half-season to wrap things up. Should it have been given more time? Probably, but there’s also a case for cancelling it long before the decision was made. But for fantasy fans, and Dushku fans, it’s still an entertaining slice of television that comes recommended even though, like so many creative ideas, the story remains unfinished.

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2 thoughts on “Favorite Cancelled Shows: Tru Calling

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda: Season 1 | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: Favorite Cancelled Shows: Dollhouse | The Progressive Democrat

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