I Like to Watch

NBC's "Phenomenon" makes mincemeat out of magic. Plus: Whose acting is more skilled, Lauren of "The Hills" or Flower of "Meerkat Manor"?

Published November 4, 2007 12:00PM (EST)

Home prices are down, says the New York Times, and so is confidence. Consumers on the street have been spotted slouching, stuttering and staring at their shoes, and experts believe that those indicators will only increase as home prices continue to decline precipitously while adjustable-rate mortgages skyrocket.

In addition to the 15 percent delinquency rate on subprime loans this month, a fifth of people surveyed believe that they are "worthless" and "old" and "fat" and they'll "never amount to anything." And slightly more Americans expect to miss a car payment, gain four to five pounds, get demoted at work or ejaculate prematurely over the next few months.

"I always thought I'd quit this job some day and write a novel," one consumer told this reporter. "But now it's clear that day will never come." When asked about his outlook for the next two years, he responded, "I'm going to be the same loser I've always been, only I'll have bigger love handles, darker circles under my eyes and even more credit card debt."

The share of consumers who believe happiness is just around the corner dropped below 25 percent for the first time since August 2006. Meanwhile, an October survey of consumers indicated that those who believe that "It's all good" fell to their lowest level in two years, while those who believe that "It is what it is" increased by 34 percent.

The cheese stands alone
As the housing market and the U.S. dollar tumble downhill and America's self-confidence plummets with them, how can we boost morale and get our groove back as a people?

The answer is cheese, my friend, good old-fashioned American cheese. If you're feeling blue over your impending foreclosure, go out and buy a massive cheeseburger and some freedom fries and an enormous, icy cola, and stuff it all into your fat face while you enjoy a steady stream of ridiculously stupid shows on TV.

Because a veritable revolution of cheese, unseen since the mid-'70s, is unfolding on the small screen for your viewing pleasure. Perhaps as a result of the uncertainty in the air from terrorism, global health scares and a shaky economy, American pop culture is odd and manic and ludicrous and over the top and deeply cheesy right now, and you really, really shouldn't miss it.

At the very least, sit back and allow me to describe it to you in filthy detail. I personally guarantee you that, for the next three minutes at least, you'll forget about your late mortgage payments, lost as you'll be in a gooey, chewy universe of the rankest, stankiest cheesestuffs.

Uh oh, it's magic!
We begin with the crown jewel, the strangest, cheesiest show to come along since Drunk Asshole Hotel (and that's saying a lot): NBC's "Phenomenon" (8 p.m. EST Wednesdays), a live show aimed at locating the "next great American mentalist."

Yes, mentalist. Even though that sounds about as exciting as a search for the "next great American orthodontist," it seems magic isn't nearly a magical enough word for today's TV magicians. Apparently, when viewers hear the word "magic," they picture David Copperfield in flared polyester pants, glowering and making menacing gestures for the camera while dry ice floats about at his ankles. Or they picture an old guy in a nursing home, boring the hell out of everyone with his long-winded card tricks.

In order to escape such a stigma, "magic" seems to have been recast as some vague paranormal essence, a mix of mind reading and levitation and such. The words "magic trick" and "illusion" and "illusionist" have also fallen out of favor, replaced by a perplexingly imprecise and repetitive vocabulary: What we see instead are mentalists and mystifiers, performing mental feats and using their mystical mental powers to mystify the audience!

To be fair, the mentalists on "Phenomenon" do mystify us, either by molesting Carmen Electra using only their minds or by guessing what Electra or the other C-list guinea pigs have drawn on pieces of paper. But my favorite competitors are the ones who threaten to severely injure or kill themselves on live TV. On the first episode, one of the mentalists played Russian roulette with a nail gun. What better way to amp up the suspense and excitement, after all, than by threatening to shoot a nail into your brain while the cameras roll?

But the highlight of the first episode came when Uri Geller announced his intention to complete an "interactive mental challenge." Aiming to "test the intuitive abilities" of the viewers at home, Geller told the camera, "For this to work, I really need you to focus." OK, Uri! We'll try!

Next, Geller showed the viewers at home five ESP symbols, then secretly drew one of them on a card, which he placed in a locked box not to be opened until the end of the show. After that, he became very, very intense and serious, and pointed at the camera.

Geller: Now, I want everyone to stare into my eyes. (Points at his eyes.) I'm going to say "one, two three," and I will project the symbol into your mind. Now we'll do this three times. Are you ready? And try to use your intuitive abilities to receive it. I will visualize the symbol. (Takes off his glasses.) Stare deeply into my eyes. Here we go. One, two, three! One more time. This time, I'm going to shout out the symbol, from my mind into yours. Ready? One two three! And the last time, one, two, three. Much energy!

Host: Thank you, Uri. So, what symbol are you sensing, America? Is it the square, the star, the circle, the cross or the wavy lines? Let us know now by logging onto NBC.com and tell us what symbol you received. Stay tuned because we'll be revealing the results later in the show. Can't wait to see what you've chosen!

I don't know about the rest of America, but personally, I'd chosen to watch every second of this show until it's off the air.

At the end of the show, 28 percent of viewers chose the star symbol, which is the one Geller chose. Twenty-seven percent chose the circle, 16 percent chose the wavy lines, 22 percent chose the cross and 7 percent chose the square. Statistically, not exactly a home run, but hey, wasn't that cool when he took his glasses off and his eyes bugged out of his head?

Sadly, on the second episode of "Phenomenon," Geller presented a much less intense "interactive challenge" that involved spelling out planet names. The trick clearly had nothing to do with psychic powers or the paranormal, and could easily be solved afterward using simple math. After offering up such passionate weirdness the week before, how could Geller retreat into a trick about as mind-boggling as one of those forwarded e-mails that ask you to choose between a limited set, then tell you what your choice was?

But luckily for Geller, most Americans don't know simple math. They can see, however, so like me, they probably spotted the shiny string above the pair of sunglasses one mentalist was "levitating." Even though these are just magic tricks, trussed up in the paranormalist's black cape, I was still a little disappointed. Can't they do better than that?

Perhaps sensing impending defeat, the host seemed determined to regain our attention: "Our next competitor is going to stop his heart using the power of his mind and die for your entertainment!"

Hey now, that does sound entertaining! Before his suicide attempt, Guy Bavli told the audience, "I am nervous because I have my lovely fiancée and I will attempt, in front of her and America, to stop my heart and put my life on the line. In other words, ladies and gentlemen, I will try to die tonight, for your pleasure." When you say things that stupid, it's hard for other people not to take pleasure in your death.

So a nurse hooked Guy up to a heart monitor, and guinea pig Raven Simone (who really is sooo Raven) was asked to verify his pulse by holding his hand. "Please, please do not try this at home," Guy pleaded with us, as if we were poised and ready to will our own hearts to stop at any moment. After a few minutes, Guy's pulse slowed until he was slumping in his chair, and then there was a flat line on the heart monitor. Raven scampered away, perhaps to demonstrate that she was creeped out to the max. Guy's fiancée emoted convincingly, the camera zoomed in on some concerned faces (cleverly avoiding snickering, heartless children like myself), and you could almost hear Criss Angel distractedly flicking lint off his pleather pants.

But then Guy came back to life! Hurray! The audience erupted into applause, and Raven was more Raven than ever, gasping and shaking her head, seeking solace among her squealing, chattering guinea pig colleagues.

Time for judges Angel and Geller to weigh in. "Your demonstration looked and felt genuine, but if it wasn't, you still had me sitting on the edge of my seat," offered Geller. What, is he implying it was a trick?

"I thought he was very intense. It was dramatic," said Angel. "I don't know if it was the right performance for this spot, because of the time restraints." Time restraints?! Performance? Spot? How dare he use such terms to describe a mystifier who just died for our pleasure?

But Angel really killed the golden goose after paranormalist Jim Callahan drooled and groaned on the stage for several minutes in order to receive messages from some dead guy named Raymond.

Angel: I just think it's comical, quite frankly. Before I even move ahead now I'll invite Uri and your friend Raymond right now, I have two envelopes here. I will give you a million dollars of my personal money right now if either one of you can give me specific details of ... Now don't tell me about the energy or that it's not the right time!

Callahan: (Getting angry) I find you an ideological bigot, that's what I find! You claim that ...

Angel: Blah blah blah. Tell me what's in the envelope!

Sweet Jesus, is it really wise for the Mindfreak to call another illusionist's bluff like this? Why didn't Criss just bum-rush the stage and show everyone the string attached to the sunglasses while he was at it?

Soon, Angel and Callahan are chest to chest, "Jerry Springer" style, and have to be held back from beating each other's faces in by the show's host and Geller. Sadly, all the moment proves is that it's not the age of magic anymore, it's the age of YouTube, and this act is not only intense and dramatic but exactly the right performance for this spot, given the time restraints. This is a pitch-perfect stunt sure to create controversy, boost ratings and be replayed on YouTube over and over again.

But then, this cheesy three-ring circus is at war with itself, and doesn't know what it should be. What are we seeing anyway, mental powers, or tricks with smoke and mirrors? Mystical psychic feats, or savvy performances? Maybe the producers should choose one and stick with it. Forcing the audience to alternate between suspending its disbelief and analyzing the nuances of each performance doesn't make any sense.

Criss Angel himself summed it all up best after the next performance, when he blurted out, "Thank God you didn't claim you had psychic ability!"

Wii the people
This is the paradox presented by the latest wave of reality competitions: Live shows and opinionated judges are trotted out with hopes of big ratings, but the performances aren't that entertaining (nail guns to the temple aside) and the judges aren't sure what they're supposed to be judging.

Take "The Next Great American Band" (8 p.m. EST Fridays), Fox's attempt at a band version of "American Idol." You've got John Rzeznik, lead singer of the Goo Goo Dolls, drummer/pop performer Sheila E. and Ian Dickson, the Australian Simon Cowell, and they're supposed to help America decide which bands are truly great.

Sadly, though, not only are very few of the bands all that good, but their styles are so diverse that the voting boils down to personal taste. Obviously America votes for cute guys with crappy voices on "American Idol," but generally, that show is about vocalists who take similar material and perform it as well as they can. That's very different from asking a swing band, a preteen heavy-metal band, a bluegrass band and an all-girl punk-pop band to compete against one another, performing a Bob Dylan cover and an original song.

You heard me right: A Bob Dylan cover. Yes, the countercultural revolution is officially dead and buried, replaced by shiny plastic puppets and text voting and faux-critical celebrity judges who pretend to disagree and bicker adorably on command. Isn't it all more than a little tedious? And doesn't true representative democracy in the consumer-friendly universe of high capitalism mean that we should be able to control John Rzeznik™ and Sheila E.™ with our Nintendo Wiis? For that matter, shouldn't we be able to change that drippy host to Cat Deeley with the flip of a button? And why can't we just choose to watch/control "The Next Great Alternative Pop Band" or "The Next Great Emo-Prog Band," since most of us find bare-chested tweens rocking out to a hair metal version of "All Along the Watchtower" about as enjoyable as tweezing our nose hairs.

That said, the lead singer of Franklin Bridge is hot, and so are those cute, violin- and mandolin-playing Clark Brothers. Maybe the answer is just "The Next Really Hot American Band." After all, wasn't it that Flock of Seagulls hair that made John Rzeznik the swoony balladeer we've all come to know and vaguely dislike?

Spent my days with a woman unkind
Speaking of knowing and vaguely disliking, how bad was the season finale of "Californication"? (Yes, I'm about to spoil it if you didn't watch it last week.) Hank Moody (David Duchovny) spends the entire half-hour showing us what a stand-up guy he is, allowing his ex, Karen, to marry that bland Bill; Karen (Natascha McElhone) spends the entire half-hour showing us what a stand-up woman she is, marrying the loyal guy instead of that drunken weasel Hank; and then in the last few seconds of the show, Karen jumps into Hank's car in her wedding gown, and she and Hank and their teenage daughter, Becca, drive away, laughing their asses off? Ha ha ha, smell ya later, sucker?!

I love strange, unexpected, mean-spirited endings, but this one made me feel sorry for Becca, then Karen, then Hank and, last of all, Bill, who should feel pretty thankful to be free of that whole sorry lot. It's impressive, really, how they managed to take a somewhat promising show and drive it into the ground in just under five episodes. That has to be a record.

Next time you can't think of a good way to end your bad show, let the kids at home with their Wiis come up with the ending.

Desperate thespians
As usual, I'm running out of time and space, but I still need to address another very important subject. Is it just me, or has the acting on TV really gone downhill lately? I was watching "Meerkat Manor" a few weeks ago, and I totally didn't buy that scene where the lead female character, Flower, is all "Ooh, a cobra! I'm sooo scared!" What happened there? It was like she didn't even glance over the script before they started shooting. Her life was supposedly on the line, but she just looked distracted and blank, like she still had half a brownie waiting for her back at the craft services table.

The way her face puffed up was so fake, too. I know it's just the Animal Planet, but can't they get some serious makeup artists and stylists on the set to make that shit look real?

Meanwhile, Lauren Conrad on MTV's "The Hills" hasn't brought her A-game in weeks now. She has always been a little low-key and unconvincing with her deliveries, but these days she doesn't even bother to read her lines. She just stares blankly at whoever's talking until he or she starts talking again.

Plus, who blocked that scene where Lauren met fashion designer Marc Jacobs? Lauren's character supposedly la-la-loves Jacobs and all of his overpriced clothes, but when she met her so-called idol, she just sat there like a lump and draped a limp hand in his direction. She didn't even stand up! She didn't even deliver her greeting from the script, something about how much she adores his designs, leaving Jacobs nervously glancing around the room for the script supervisor. And who let Jacobs onto the set in those droopy sweatpants, anyway?

Drawing conclusions
Listen up, America. Your confidence may be down, but don't join Lauren and the Meerkats in slouching, stuttering and staring at your shoes. Even though you know that over the coming years, you'll just get older, fatter, less cool and far less financially solvent, the key to happiness lies in accepting yourself for the old, fat, uncool, broke, powerless chump that you are. Remember: It's not all good, it is what it is! Now focus, and on the count of three, I will shout that message from my mind to yours! One, two, three! Much energy!

Next week: More shows with "America" in the title, from "Aliens in America" to "America's Most Smartest Model." Plus: Why can't the heroes of "Heroes" stand to fly?

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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Californication I Like To Watch Mtv Nbc Television The Hills