Sunday, June 11, 2006

REALITY-BASED UFO SHOW: Brain rots on contact

Halfway through last month I was contacted about a new show in development for cable. Hold your breath at the novelty -- it was supposed to be a reality-based take on The X-Files. It came about because I'd written a column for the Village Voice called "Weapon of the Week" during the "whoopie" phase of the Iraq war.

(See here. They remain entertaining and I'm still proud of them over three years later. Read this one for a good example of the why's and wherefore's.)

Since the column was sometimes about weird semi-secret weapons and useless gee-gaws the military was infatuated with during the two-week wow-look-how-great-we-are stage of the war, it stayed in some people's minds and apparently was the reason I'd been contacted, given a feeler as it where, over whether I wanted to be or would be suitable to a part of the thing. No working title was given and it was described in a hush-hush way. The development project was looking to assemble an "investigative team" to look into UFO videos and photography. For each episode, the team would endeavor to divine the truth of such matters.

At the root, it's one more potential intelligence-insulting piece of TV among many on cable pandering to ignorant Americans and their love of conspiracies and the paranormal. And one sees the pitiless logic of making entertainment dollars on these gullible and benighted audiences .

I watch the Sci-Fi channel regularly, by way of example, and one of its popular shows is called Ghost Hunters. It's an unwatchable "reality-based" (unwatchable unless you're an idiot) show in which a team of intrepid white-trash guys in baseball caps, armed with worthless electronic junk from the Spy Store and Radio Shack, go out and investigate ghosts in the homes of others.

Bryant Gumbel -- slumming from dealing with cretins in pro sport, was also a whore for the paranormal, hosting an especially atrocious vehicle on UFOs, the military and a coverup in Pennsylvania called The New Roswell: Kecksburg Exposed for Sci-Fi. And one the network is now shilling for summer features Matt Lauer, pretending to be a simpleton, so that it can be determined whether or not the world is about to meet a variety of Biblical calamities -- like blowing up!

Did I make it clear these are beyond awful -- lacking even the small guilty pleasure that can come from watching a movie on the same network on Saturday night in which Judd Nelson fights a black hole that's eating St. Louis?

So I told the fellow in charge of the search -- a good journalist by the name of Roger Trilling -- that I didn't believe in UFOs, which more or less destroys the point of such a reality-based television show. And I answered a number of progessively more foolish questions.

"What would I do with an air force man or a civilian who had a UFO on film or in a photograph that was not explained away by reflections and optical phenomena?" Besides roll your eyes? Answering the truth, of course, would have been impolite.

Such questions made me feel dumb. And it wasn't the interviewer's fault they were idiotic. Anyone having to actually find a team of serious people with more than half a brain for such a project is going to be hard put to avoid the ludicrous.

It is possible to envision a show in which the point is to make fools of the people who turn up "evidence" of the paranormal, but I've never seen anything like that on television as a series. The Amazing Randi has never been a hit in TV-land.

I was told many of the ideas were being built around the research efforts of someone who runs a website called (No link provided for obvious reasons.) The intellectual currency of the show and site, it was said, was derived from years of retrieval of government documents through the Freedom of Information Act. And to this it can be said that a mountain of FOIA paper or the will to accumulate isn't automatically worth something, as anyone who has done it for a long time will tell you.

The X-Files, in fact, once made a small joke of this, one that had meaning on a couple levels.

The nerds who were the Lone Gunmen had just received a heavy carton from the government, one thought to contain a stack of sensational and invaluable information released by FOIA. They open the box and find a cinderblock.

It's a shame you can't get paid in cash upfront for consultations of this kind. If I ever recognize the show on cable, I'll let ya know about it.


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