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The next medium thing

It’s a well-known fact that psychos make for great reality TV. But how about psychics? Apparently, the nation’s reality TV producers gazed deep into their crystal balls and decided it was time to explore the world of competitive clairvoyance. On Lifetime’s America’s Psychic Challenge, 16 supernaturalists try to out-perceive each other in head-to-head challenges. On NBC’s Phenomenon, 10 mentalists perform their acts live on stage, with viewers voting for their favorite.

Everything about the latter is bigger and splashier. America’s Psychic Challenge has a suave, unflappable host; Phenomenon has a suave, unflappable host with a British accent. America’s Psychic Challenge features a $100,000 prize for the winner; on Phenomenon, the prize is $250,000. On America’s Psychic Challenge, a couple of the competitors look as if they might be smokers; the glitzy Phenomenon stage is choked with more smoke machines than a Motley Crue reunion tour.

On Phenomenon, danger lurks. One mentalist stuck his hands into the jaws of a spring-loaded animal trap and didn’t even flinch as they clamped down hard on his fingers. Another played Russian Roulette with six nail-guns, relying only on celebrity guest Carmen Electra to telepathically convey to him which one was loaded. (Given Electra’s questionable mind-power, this may have been even more dangerous than it seemed.)

On America’s Psychic Challenge, the stunts have included things like trying to identify what happened at a crime scene, or matching five dogs with their owners. But if none of the show’s contestants expose themselves to a potential spontaneous brain-piercing, they’re courageous in their own way. While the Phenomenon contestants know exactly what they’re in for -- they’re performing their own well-rehearsed acts -- the Psychic Challenge competitors have no idea what sorts of feats they’ll be asked to perform.

Theoretically, of course, the more gifted ones ought to have some idea -- they’re psychics, after all -- but, so far, at least, many have been caught by surprise. In one instance, they are asked to intuit details about a celebrity hidden behind a wall, simply by looking at the celebrity’s watch. One of the psychics protests that that isn’t how she does readings, but she’ll try to make the best of it.

The Phenomenon contestants, meanwhile, are given to theatrically hypnotic stares and over-the-top boasts about their remarkable mental prowess. Every one of them is a slick, assured stage presence -- there are no underdogs here. On America’s Psychic Challenge they’re all underdogs! And, thus, while the show won’t dazzle you in the same way that Phenomenon does, it has its own appeal. Instead of blowing your mind, it tugs at your heart.

In one instance, when a psychic correctly divines which one of five men presented as "prison inmates" actually is an ex-con, he responds more ecstatically than most lottery winners. Such unbridled enthusiasm makes you question his abilities -- should a professional psychic be getting that excited about nailing a challenge where the odds of getting the right answer are a healthy 20 percent? But perhaps because he and the other contestants on America’s Psychic Challenge seem to be remedial mind-readers at best, they come off as a modest, persevering, likable bunch -- and who doesn’t want another psychic friend in their lives?

A frequent contributor to Las Vegas Weekly, Greg Beato has also written for SPIN, Blender, Reason, Time.com, and many other publications. Email Greg at gbeato@soundbitten.com

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