Room for Doubt? There Ought to Be

Los Angeles Times/September 4, 2002
By Brian Lowry

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and director of the Skeptics Society, has an idea for a TV show that would debunk psychics, faith healers and other mysterious phenomena that he deems a fraud or simply explainable in less-than-supernatural terms.

So far, no one has bitten. And surveying the TV landscape, it's not hard to understand why--the strange and unexplained having been very, very good to television, providing scant incentive to suggest otherwise.

"Crossing Over With John Edward," whose host purports to communicate with the dead, is a modest hit in syndication and on the Sci-Fi Channel. Last spring, ABC ran a similar prime-time special, "Contact: Talking to the Dead," and CBS did well ratings-wise with the miniseries "Living With the Dead." Finally, let's not forget Miss Cleo, Kenny Kingston and other late-night TV psychics who must generate plenty of calls, at $3.99 a minute, to justify all those commercials geared to advice-seeking insomniacs.

CBS' miniseries was very loosely based on spiritual medium James Van Praagh, the latest paranormal practitioner to follow Edward into the mysterious but potentially lucrative dimension of TV syndication. "Beyond With James Van Praagh" premieres Sept. 16, courtesy of Tribune Entertainment, which has placed the show on many Tribune-owned TV stations, including KTLA in Los Angeles. And yes, sweet spirit, that would be the same Tribune that owns the Los Angeles Times.

As I learned after writing about "Crossing Over"-- and nasty e-mails are still dribbling in, almost a year later--believers in psychics cling passionately to that view, and I wouldn't expect or wish to shake their faith even if I could.

Still, one would think, or at least hope, there would be room on TV for naysayers, for those willing to propose alternative theories that don't require opening up your mind--and pocketbook--to someone relaying messages from a father figure who might be Uncle Ralph gabbing from the grave.

Shermer, in fact, was briefly associated with such an enterprise--a since-defunct series for the then-Fox Family Channel titled "Exploring the Unknown." Featured among the segments was a bogus psychic who admits his "abilities" are a con, impressing subjects by asking earnestly during every reading, "Who's Charles?" As he later explained, if it's a miss, keep talking fast and press onward, but almost everyone comes back with, "My sister's husband" or "My brother's best friend."

It was hard not to think about that while previewing episodes of Van Praagh's new program, especially when he asks actor Wesley Snipes during a celebrity segment, "Who's Jimmy?" Snipes identifies the name as his late grandfather, and in a subsequent interview says he's convinced.

Sorry, that wouldn't do it for me. I know a Chuck or Charles and a Jimmy or James, and my guess is you do too.

"I'm pretty sure they won't have any skeptics on the show," Sher- mer said.

Based on an initial sampling, no, they won't. The opening credits certainly make no bones about Van Praagh's being able to do precisely what he claims, touting his "extraordinary psychic ability" as "your connection to the world beyond." If that isn't enough, during readings text along the bottom of the screen says definitive things like "James is communicating with her deceased father" to help the TV audience keep up.

Donna Harrison, Tribune's senior vice president for unscripted and reality programming, says most of the staff, herself included, was skeptical going in and that she has since been won over. Still, she said, "We're not out to preach or convert anyone."

Although episodes are edited for time, Harrison maintains the program takes pains to ensure that Van Praagh doesn't receive information in advance. What the show does offer is a lot of maudlin music and a torrent of tears, as Van Praagh talks to dead spouses, children, even one fellow's deceased German shepherd ("He misses the car rides," Van Praagh tells him).

"It's obvious that it's canned and edited and staged," Shermer contends, noting that Van Praagh deftly covers up incorrect observations and makes statements "that can mean any number of things," such as saying a woman's late mother is "larger than life."

In one episode, Van Praagh delves into a triple-homicide before engaging in a reading with the teenage victims' distraught relatives. "Unsolved murder mysteries are great, because he can say anything and they don't know," Shermer said.

Given all the tears shed, subjects clearly draw comfort from feeling their loved ones are somehow with them. In that respect, "Beyond" may intrigue men with its paranormal elements but principally aims at women accustomed to absorbing personal stories of loss and grief in soap operas, newsmagazines and talk shows.

"This is a lot of the emotional storytelling that women are used to seeing and want to see in daytime," Harrison said.

Yet even if it's a performance--a stage show by someone who admits to having a theatrical background--many will doubtless say, "Where's the harm?"

"What's the harm with alcohol and drugs, and removing yourself from reality with a fantasy just to make yourself feel good?" Shermer said. "In my opinion, it's a scam.... He's playing with people's emotions. I think it's deplorable--an insult to the dead and the living."

At the least, programs such as "Beyond" and "Crossing Over" provide hope to people desperate to contact those who have "passed over"--potentially bolstering their belief in others who might offer the same service for a fee. From that perspective, stations airing these programs would seem duty-bound, in the interest of fairness, to cultivate dissenting views.

Don't look for equal time, however, within "Beyond." "There are a lot of fakes, there are a lot of charlatans out there.... I can't control the rip-off artists," Tribune's Harrison said. "I can only control the integrity of this program."

Van Praagh, meanwhile, seeks to dispel any doubt as to his legitimacy, reminding viewers at each show's close to "forget what you know and believe what you see."

Perhaps it's just my cynical nature, but all I can see beyond the tears and piano music are dollar signs, and all I know is that as a Tribune employee and stockholder, I couldn't be prouder.

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