You know something weird is going on in the afterlife when the dead get their own talk show. But there they are, twice a day, on Sci-Fi's new Crossing Over with John Edward, using the host, a regular-Joe medium, to greet, reminisce with and bust the chops of loved ones in the studio audience. Nor do the dead walk only on basic cable. On series as disparate as Providence, Ally McBeal, Soul Food and The X-Files, apparitions of departed loved ones offer advice and solace. On the WB's Dead Last, scheduled for next year, a rock band will spend its offstage time crisis counseling troubled ghosts.
Chalk it up to The Sixth Sense or the spiritual-supernatural drama Touched by an Angel, but the departed are no longer taking death lying down. And the spirits of TV present are no longer mere bogeymen or punch lines. They're, well, spiritual spirits: kindly characters, cast in emotional plots, who succor more than scare.
"One of the first tenets of network TV is don't do anything that is faintly religious, and spirituality gets lumped into that," says Jeff Sagansky, CEO of Pax, a fledgling network specializing in spiritual, "family-oriented" programming like Twice in a Lifetime, in which departed souls get a second crack at life. Sagansky, who helped develop Touched and Highway to Heaven, remembers the cynical reactions: "One executive turned to me at a [Touched] screening and said, 'Fly, Dumbo, fly.'"
Those attitudes may be weakening, if slowly. Another of Sagansky's pet projects, Mysterious Ways, had the strongest debut of a nonreality series this summer when it began a seven-week intro run on NBC, Pax's sister network (it starts on Pax Aug. 22, 8 p.m. E.T.). A drama about a duo (Adrian Pasdar and Rae Dawn Chong) who investigate suspected miracles--largely involving visitations from the dead--it's X-Files with a halo. But where The X-Files teased us for years about its alien conspiracies, the feel-good Ways is unabashedly pro-miracle. Chong is introduced as a Scully-like skeptic; by the second episode, she receives a message from her late husband. Sagansky distinguishes Ways from "paranormal" shows like The X-Files--but even that series featured the cathartic reunion of Mulder and his sister's spirit.
These recent, friendly ghosts are part of a new pop-cultural conception of the afterlife, heavily laced with therapy-speak and a certain bias toward the living. Today's deceased don't rattle chains or sit on clouds strumming harps. They work out issues, as in the ghostly psychoanalysis of Sixth Sense or Edward's Oprah-meets-Orpheus sessions. They meddle, like the counsel-giving mothers on Providence and Soul Food. They have one primary job: thinking about us. In the best seller Life on the Other Side by TV psychic Sylvia Browne (a talk-show and pay-per-view fixture), spirits monitor the living from an afterworld where there are no clocks, it's always 78[degrees] and clear, and there are flawless versions of the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal. (That's right--heaven is the Vegas strip.) On Ways a father's ghost saves his son from drowning. On Edward's show the departed promise to appear at birthday parties and family reunions; one even asks a relative to get her blood-sugar level checked.