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Sound, Fury, Less Than Nothing

Tom Flynn

December 8, 2009

I didn't think it was possible, but last night pseudo-documentary television reached a new high in seeking new lows. I speak of the premier of TruTV's Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern). Think of the worst bottom-feeding show you've ever seen whose sole reason for being was to cloak regurgitated paranormal pabulum in half-truths and innuendo. No matter how bad that show was, Conspiracy Theory was worse. Think Dog the Bounty Hunter meets Ghost Hunter Academy. On angel dust.

The concept: Having grown tired of the Navy SEALs, pro wrestling, and governing a state revered for its lutefisk, Jesse Ventura has created one of those ill-defined research institutes consisting mainly of a meeting room with cool lighting. Its goal: to finally get to the bottom of all those pesky conspiracy theories. Ventura has surrounded himself with young, geeky-looking "investigators" whose credentials aren't even hinted at. (One thing's for sure: acting is not among them.)

Come to think of it, neither is investigating. If the pilot episode is typical of what's to come, Conspiracy Theory will begin each episode by choosing an event or phenomenon worthy of conspiracy theorism (is that a word?), spinning out every ludicrous claim that any crackpot has ever connected with it, assume they're all true, and set out to prove it all. Sharp-eyed readers will note that I completed the preceding sentence without once using the word "investigating."

For the pilot episode, Ventura and his geek squad took on HAARP, the High Altitude Aurora Research Project in Alaska. This is a big antenna farm designed to pump powerful low-frequency radio signals into the ionosphere to stimulate unusual aurora which researchers can then study. A low-frequency radio installation that size (more than a billion watts of power) almost certainly lends itself to some military applications such as communication with submerged submarines. But beyond that...

Hey, this is Conspiracy Theory, and "beyond that" is exactly where Jesse and his Gang That Couldn't Think Straight will go. Apparently possessing an unlimited travel budget, squad members and camera crews fan out across the continent. One interview subject demonstrates an apparatus in which an electric arc in an enclosed tube causes vapor to rise. This of course proves that the real purpose for HAARP to beam a billion watts of radio energy skyward is to control the weather. Another interview, with the disaffected son of a deceased HAARP scientist, lays it all out. HAARP is good for shooting down missiles, controlling the weather, and messing with people's minds. Did you know that when coalition forces liberated Kuwait during the Gulf War, Iraqi soldiers surged out of their hiding places to surrender without firing a shot because HAARP had sent a signal halfway around the world to jangle their brains?

The interviews that support the show's agenda are ridiculous enough. Far richer in unintentional humor are the interviews that don't. One "investigator" tries to pry something incriminating out of two former HAARP scientists, hits a brick wall, and doesn't notice. Weather control? "Nope." Antimissile defense? "Nope." The segment ends with the voice-over narrator wondering why they won't tell what they really know. Finally, Ventura himself simply shows up at the gate of the scientific-military facility to be told that even though he's a former SEAL and a former governor, he still can't come in for a tour. The encounter ends when the videographer starts getting mysterious digital "hash" in his viewfinder. We are left to assume that HAARP's mad scientists diverted a few megawatts of their awesome evil power to tamper with the Conspiracy Theory crew's equipment.

Production values are state-of-the-art for this kind of show: much rapid cutting, repeated flashes of stock shots and effects shots that seem to "prove" the program's contentions. When it's over, the uncritical viewer will be scared to death of an innocuous scientific facility, and yet the producers will be able to deny most of the blame they deserve because their most ludicrous contentions were never actually proven onscreen, merely implied through leading narration and misleading cutting.

TruTV and this show's producers can be proud of themselves (they're obviously the sort who would take pride in such things). They've managed to take crappy pseudoscientific pseudo-reality TV to a whole new layer of sliminess. And don't miss next week's episode, in which Jesse and his gang will reveal what really happened on 9/11.

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Tom Flynn is executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and editor of its flagship magazine, Free Inquiry. A founding coeditor of the newsletter Secular Humanist Bulletin, he designed and directs the Council's museum at the Dresden, N.Y., birthplace of 19th century agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll. He is also vice president for media at the Center for Inquiry and director of its audio-visual production arm, Inquiry Media Productions. He has written or edited four books including The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Prometheus, 2007). He is executive producer of the Council for Secular Humanism's 2013 video miniseries, American Freethought.