No extraordinary powers are required to visualize the drool puddle that formed when A&E was pitched “Paranormal State” — a series about investigators of the paranormal who happen to be (wait for it) college students at Penn State. It’s a demographic bull’s-eye, which is hardly the only bull in these heavily produced half-hours from the producers of “Laguna Beach,” including a first episode about a kid who sees dead people not-so-subtly subtitled “Sixth Sense.” Another eerie dose of unscripted hokum, this series should nonetheless find an audience alongside cable’s teeming ranks of psychics, seers and ghost hunters.
Ryan Buell founded Penn State’s Paranormal Research Society six years ago, claiming a relationship with strange phenomenon extending back into his teens. Unfortunately, his craft doesn’t include smoothness, delivering stilted direct-to-camera confessionals as part of his “director’s log,” as in “Mat-thew … is … a … trained … specialist….”
Despite their youthful appearance, Buell and his team of fresh-faced researchers employ all the usual tricks of the genre. Invariably, they begin by meeting with people who cite peculiar goings-on that are never entirely documented, despite the spooky music, even spookier night-vision photography and portentous dialogue about “dead time,” hearing “strange noises and breathing” or a spirit “obviously trying to play games with us.”
Enlisting priests and psychics to aid in its endeavors, the PRS group performs a half-assed exorcism in an effort to help the family in the first half-hour. In the second (which A&E will schedule back to back), Buell ominously gets “prepared for war” with a “dark spirit” that he encounters — one so evil that (drum roll, please) He Dare Not Speak Its Name.
Given that Penn State’s football team has been decidedly mediocre in recent years, students are to be forgiven for finding alternatives to pass the time, and let’s face it, scaring classmates witless is a tried-and-true method for attempting to get laid.
The same excuse hardly applies to A&E, which continues to drift further toward TV’s dark side in its endeavors to entice younger viewers. Even with a regular pre-episode disclaimer, the channel lends credence to paranormal poppycock that consistently generates just enough of an audience to prompt every demo-chasing basic cabler to weigh in with its own straight-faced reality variation on the theme.
“We are students. We are seekers. And sometimes, we are warriors,” Buell says earnestly in the opening credits.
That’s right: The ghost-busting Penn State Nittany nitwits. Hear them roar.