There are a few different likely formulas when the makers of a long-running TV series get the word that the end is near and the opportunity is there to craft a finale that will wrap up the show, instead of letting things come to an arbitrary stopping point. They may flail around, trying to tie up every loose end, or they may bubble over with protective sentimentality and line up as many characters as they can and start doling out the happy endings. The series finale of Medium had a little of both, but it mainly got metafictional and freaky. That's probably the most ambitious way to go, and after the final season of Roseanne, it takes a certain amount of brass to go there at all.
Medium's final hour brought it off pretty well, with an episode that began by seeming to kill off Jake Weber's Joe in a plane crash, then leaping ahead seven years to catch up with Allison (Patricia Arquette) after her graduation from law school as she tackled a major case against a drug kingpin, a case that began to fold into the dreams she'd begun having that suggested that Joe was still alive out there someplace and waiting to be rescued from the kingpin's clutches. There was a big twist at the end, of course, one that had the effect of turning everything that was especially silly and improbable about what had come before into a testament to how badly Allison's subconscious was prepared to bend itself into a pretzel to keep her husband in her life. Meanwhile, the "real" Allison Dubois, the self-promoting, self-proclaimed psychic whose existence "inspired" this show, is still out there somewhere, plugging her exploits and doing guest spots on reality series like Ace of Cakes.
It all worked pretty well because it scrambled the characters' universe in a way that emphasized what always worked best about the show: its depiction of a likable, loving, but often frustrating married family. It's often a shuck when creators (or reviewers) say something like that about a show with a crime- or supernatural-related hook, a way to give yourself credit for not being so vulgar as to watch a thriller for its thrills. It was true in the case of Medium, and if that's partly because the alleged thrills were often the dullest part of the show, it's also a tribute to what the show's creator, Glenn Gordon Caron, and his crew were able to pull off with the body of the series. (The script for the finale was credited to Craig Sweeny, Robert Doherty, and Caron, making it the first time in three years that Caron was officially listed as a writer on a Medium episode.)
Pulling the rug out from under his own characters is old news for Caron, who's developed a few highly recognizable quirks despite having a surprisingly short list of series credits for a well-known writer-creator who had his first major success twenty-five years ago with Moonlighting. On that show, the spoofy meta-textual gamesmanship—the talking to the camera, the film noir parodies, and the deliberate confusion between the characters and the tabloid lives of the actors who played them—sometimes made it feel as if you were being absolved of the responsibility of caring about what was going on, but Medium was able to use its tricks to deepen its emotional pull by threatening to force you to consider a world in which that family was broken up.
It was something the show had in common with my favorite of Caron's shows, Now and Again, which also used a sci-fi premise and the casing of an action show to show a happy, imperfect family trying to maintain some version of itself in the face of death, financial hardship, and the occasional invasion by a government black ops team. Less lucky than Medium, which survived many a threatened cancellation and even jumped networks at one point, Now and Again lasted only one season, ending with a bang-up, never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger. I can see how a network programmer might have seen Medium as the show more deserving of one more chance, because for all its wild storylines it was the more firmly grounded show, the one where Caron's trademark mixture of tones gelled better than before. Next to it, Now and Again, which could be fairly erratic from week to week, could feel sort of unstable. But next to Now and Again, which was sometimes brilliant and always unpredictable, Medium could feel pretty mediocre.
Much of the credit for the moments when it feel like something more has to go to Sofia Vassilieva and Maria Lark, who will go down in the annals of believably human TV kids who you don't want to strangle, and to Jake Weber, who has made me mildly ashamed for all the years I persisted in referring to him as the made-for-TV Tim Roth, a category that Tim Roth has since decided he can do a peachy job of filling all by himself. As for Patricia Arquette, her flat affect and little-girl voice used to drive me up the wall when she was starring in movies, and I can't say that I think her acting has really improved, but her sweetness and warmth translate better to a show like this than they usually did to the big screen, and in the context of network TV, her unapologetically non-anorexic figure almost counts as subversive. Suffice to say that she made a much better TV mom than she ever did a movie star. But it's Caron whose next move I'm curious about. I hope to someday see a new show from him that will feel stable enough to last a while on a network while partaking enough of his weirder, crazier side that it'll feel fresh enough to rate higher than, well, medium.