At the opening of the earnest hour-long CBS drama "Ghost Whisperer," a nervous-looking little girl takes her seat at a funeral next to an older man. Then her grandmother leads her by the hand to the open casket, where the very same older man lies dead. The girl looks from one to the other, quite perplexed: He's lying in the casket and he's also sitting in the congregation. Then the seated man rises to join them.
"You and your grandmother are the only ones here who can see me," he says. "Will you help me?"
The help he needs involves telling his wife of 26 years that he loves her and wants her to go on with her life, and the girl obliges.
Ignore the obvious questions -- since Granny is in on the joke, why the deuce can't she pass on the message? Why lay this chore on a kid? The point is that the scene perfectly encapsulates the premise of the series, which debuts tonight at 8 on Channel 9. "Ghost Whisperer" takes the notion of spiritual assistance to a whole new level. (The show is based in part on the work of the well-known medium James Van Praagh, who is listed as a co-executive producer.)
In the very next scene the girl, Melinda Gordon, has grown into lovable Jennifer Love Hewitt, and she's just gotten married to handsome paramedic Jim Clancy (David Conrad). She runs an antique store. But her true vocation, like it or not, is addressing the needs of lost souls who walk the Earth, looking for things they often can't name or identify.
This is an 8 o'clock show? In fact, some of the ghosties that pop up without warning to plead for Melinda's aid ("I don't know where I am. I need you to help me. They told me you could") are pretty darned creepy-looking. But apparently none of them is threatening, just sad and frustrated -- think Casper on an especially friendless day.
Tonight's episode is primarily devoted to the case of a bewildered soldier who finds our heroine and tells her he has to go home, his wife is pregnant and he doesn't know where he is. Melinda performs a little intuitive research and learns the poor guy went missing in action in Vietnam in 1972. Then she finds his adult son, born that very year. Of course, the path to spiritual resolution is a rocky one, on television as in life, and it'll take her the whole hour to work things out.
Melinda sees ghosts wherever she goes: a mother barking to her unhearing grown-up son that he should pursue a young woman, a father deploring the way his oblivious son is running the family business. She also performs small spiritual favors on request. While she's seeking information about her soldier from a VFW official, the man's long-dead wife sidles over to ask that she tell him that he can find a lost article if only he'll look in her coat. Once the message is conveyed, the wife gives out an exultant "Yessssss!" -- thus proving that at least some ghosts stay hip to popular parlance.
Hewitt is very sweet throughout; if you were going to receive a message from the great beyond, she'd be as good a conduit as any. She's so earnest that you might even hear her out if she came knocking at your door with unsettling spiritual news. "Tell him he grew up real good," the ghostly father instructs her at one point, his son standing right there, and she does just that, even tidying up the grammar.
There's a constant hunger for this kind of story, however loopy and far-fetched. If you have lost a love, then you may well have fantasized about constant proximity, future contact, the chance to say things that went unsaid in life. "Ghost Whisperer" takes you there, baldly, in a way that no mere seance could -- complete-sentence conversations, eyes overflowing, regret and longing mixed in a tantalizing brew. It's utterly manipulative, but if you like this kind of thing, you'll probably go for it.
Ghost Whisperer (60 minutes) airs tonight at 8 on Channel 9.