‘Proof’: TV Review

Hit the sweet spot between silly and sublime

Jennifer Beals and Matthew Modine star in a series about the search for an afterlife.

On paper, frankly, it sounds like a disaster: A new hour-long dramatic series starring Jennifer Beals (she of the Irene Cara-accompanied frolic in Flashdance) as a chilly, tormented physician tasked with searching for evidence of an afterlife. In execution, however, the bluntly named Proof reveals itself as a highly beguiling object — an unabashed melodrama that, based on the three episodes sent out for review, uses its high-concept hook as a way to explore some all-too-earthly longings.

Beals’s Dr. Carolyn Tyler is a brilliant surgeon coping with personal tragedy. When we first meet her, she’s a year removed from the accidental death of her teenage son. Her marriage to fellow doctor Len Barliss (David Sutcliffe) didn’t survive this bit of bad fortune, though they remain on friendly terms as colleagues (even working at the same hospital) and shuffle their moody surviving child, Sophie (Annie Thurman), between their homes. One day, Carolyn’s boss, Dr. Oliver Stanton (Joe Morton), asks her to visit billionaire Ivan Turing (Matthew Modine), who’s thinking of making a charitable donation to the hospital. In truth, he wants to meet Carolyn because he believes she is uniquely qualified to investigate near-death experiences and uncover proof of an afterlife. He’s especially interested in what she finds because he himself is slowly dying of a terminal illness.

There are further complications, the most mysterious of which is Carolyn’s own near-death experience (she almost drowned in a tsunami while working abroad), which the initial episodes tease in strikingly composed, shock-cut flashes. (One image of a semi-capsized ocean liner on the horizon is the stuff of nightmares.) So there’s a personal stake in her search, one which she undertakes with the help of her whip-smart African intern Zed Badawi (Edi Gathegi, lending complicated shades to a stock role) and Turing’s own protégé, the eager-to-please Janel Ramsey (Caroline Rose Kaplan, irritating in both intentional and unintentional ways). 

All of this could play like an insufferable new-age soap opera, and, when the focus is off of Beals, occasionally does. But from the first scenes, it’s clear Proof is trying to tweak convention wherever and whenever possible. Cinematographer Bernard Couture is the series’ MVP, lighting and shooting each location with a moody evocativeness (like the operating room illuminated entirely in blue, with distant beams of light that continually flare in the lens) that implies a divine presence without ever concretely confirming it. The visuals seem informed by Carolyn’s own anguished perspective: outwardly confident, yet tumultuous underneath — always wrestling with uncertainty.

The uneasiness doesn't extend to the lead actress: Beals is excellent as Carolyn, soulful and open even in her character’s most frigid moments, and she’s well guided by executive producer/director Alex Graves (veteran of Game of Thrones, among others) who helmed all, and also wrote one, of these initial episodes. The first two installments have their fair share of awkward exposition and structural uncertainty amid all the gorgeous image-making, as well as a potential long-term antagonist — popular psychic Peter Van Owen (Callum Blue) — whose ambiguous villainy so far seems more informed by his British accent than anything else. But the third installment (entitled “Showdown”) reveals what Proof could be.

It’s a case of the week dealing with a past-life experience shared by an Iraq war soldier and a comic book artist that also acts as a penetrating character study of Carolyn. There’s some beautiful work by Graves and Couture here, notably a snowy battle sequence filmed from multiple vantage points, and a sex scene between Carolyn and a former lover that is shot with elegant, abstract eroticism. It all builds to an audaciously emotional resolution that embraces, and thereby transfigures, any inherent corniness.

Whether Proof can continue to walk this fine line between the silly and sublime remains to be seen, especially as Carolyn gets closer to the answers (sure to be unsatisfying) that she seeks. But so far, so good.

Twitter: @keithuhlich