TNT knows the formula for making a TNT Drama work by now: Pose an intriguing question in its premise (can a hard scientist take a leap of faith?), weave that question into a weekly case, and cast a leading lady who’s done enough TV to be able to do it in her sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat. Luckily, the Kyra Sedgwick-produced Proof‘s leading lady is Jennifer Beals, and the pilot adds enough grittiness and supernatural undertones to give its otherwise run-of-the-mill drama an added punch.
Take the graphic first emergency room scene, for example. The show introduces Beals as Dr. Carolyn Tyler in a few fast-paced minutes as she cares for a patient with a gunshot wound. She snaps at an intern, gets covered in blood, then fearlessly cuts open her patient to massage his heart. (Gross.) The dialogue flies until she realizes he’ll die, so she says something in Latin under her breath just as the scene begins splicing in a flashback of her near-death experience. She remembers drowning and then seeing a crowd of people hidden in shadows, someone reaching out to her, and a green scarf, before getting pulled out the water. At the same time, in the real world, her patient’s heart beats again after flatlining moments before. “Welcome back,” she says, capping off an intense sequence that demonstrates right away who she is: a brash but determined doctor grappling with a vivid near-death experience she had, during which she saw her dead son.
That vision has haunted her for some time, and has led to her taking risks—and multiple leaves of absence—in her job. Yet, when she’s offered the opportunity to meet a multi-billionaire tech mogul named Ivan Turing (Matthew Modine) about a possible job that could bring the hospital a hefty donation, she bristles. Even though she agrees to visit him in his gigantic campus, she (and we, as viewers) can’t be sure if his intentions are honest. He wants Carolyn to research whether there’s evidence of life after death, because Turing not only has both terminal cancer and the money to invest in solving this final mystery, but also knows that Carolyn does wonder whether the person she saw in her near-death experience reaching out to her was her son. Their discussion grows tense in their first scene together. “I’ve always hated unknowns, and now I’m faced with the biggest one,” he tells Carolyn. “You and everyone else who’s ever lived,” she replies.
From there, Carolyn spends much of the episode wavering between believing she could research what comes after life and trying to stick to focusing on her family (she’s divorced from her husband, who had cheated on her, and her teenage daughter’s struggling to cope with her brother’s death and with, well, being a teen). A series of events starts to convince her to go for the former: First, her patient from the opening ER scene tells her he had a near-death experience, when he saw her operating on his body and could recall everything that happened, down to her Latin muttering. Then, she speaks to her intern Zed (an earnest Edi Gathegi), who says that “anything is possible.” And finally, when Ivan tries to woo her again by sending her the file of a little girl who had a near-death experience after suffering a blood clot in her brain, Carolyn heads to her son’s old room and decides to at least take up his offer for now.
The rest of the hour follows Carolyn as she tracks down whether the little girl, named Lily, did have visions of the dead, including family members she never met. It’s slightly creepy, but it’s offset by Carolyn’s skepticism. She takes the pictures Lily drew of the people she saw, and finds Lily’s grandmother, who can identify a mystery family member. With some clever sleuthing, Carolyn figures out that Lily’s grandfather wasn’t her real grandfather—her grandmother had a one night stand with another man who died in the Vietnam War a few years after they met, and that’s the man Lily saw. But how could Lily have seen him?
When Lily’s blood clot migrates to her brain again and she’s taken to the hospital where Carolyn works, Lily’s parents decline surgery, because they believe Lily wasn’t meant to survive after all. At the same time, Carolyn meets Peter Van Owen (Callum Blue), an author who claims to be a psychic and backs up the parents’ decision to allow Lily to die. Carolyn, thinking of her son, has none of it. “One thing I do know for sure is right now, your daughter is alive, and if you let us try, we have a chance to save her and you have the chance to watch her grow up,” she says. “Trust me, not everybody is that lucky.”
And, well, you can guess what happens next: Carolyn succeeds, Lily’s okay, and Peter tries again to make Carolyn see that near-death experiences are real. She pushes him away after he says her son wants her not to worry, telling him, “I’m a doctor; you do cheap parlor tricks.” When Lily says she’s not allowed to see Carolyn anymore because someone who’s not her grandmother or her parents said so, Carolyn is convinced to move forward with her research for Ivan—at least as a side job. The one catch: If she ends up finding evidence there’s nothing else after life, it would mean the end to a mystery that some have found comforting. Why ruin that illusion? “YOLO, as they say,” Ivan responds. “Either way, we’ll finally know, won’t we?”
As the pilot ends with Carolyn catching a glimpse of a woman in a green scarf—just like what she saw in her vision!—while jogging the next morning, it leaves us with some thoughtful questions to mull over about the show: How will it sustain its premise for more than a season? What if Carolyn does find evidence there’s something after death? What will the larger stories be, and the arcs these characters can follow while tackling such a weighty subject?
Those questions—along with Beals’ measured, emotional performance—left me fascinated by this pilot. Sure, it borrows heavily from medical dramas and police procedurals alike, and could become repetitive in message and in plot if it continues following near-death cases week to week, but the show so far boasts a ready cast and isn’t afraid to have a heroine who doubts her own show’s viability. It makes the story relatable enough at this point. And in the end, even if we’d rather not admit it and even if the show’s answer turns out to be completely impossible to accept in real life, aren’t we all curious to know what’s actually on the other side?