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June 1998 | Updated Monthly

Psychic TV

I don't watch alot of TV, but when I do it's around 2 in the morning. Unfortunately, and this will come as no surprise to anyone else who watches TV at 2 AM, it's almost all crap. Now I know that 90% of everything is crap, but even I since I got digital cable the late-night crap ratio is high even by TV's rigorous standards. If I got Comedy Central it might be a little different (the animation alone makes it worth while -- "Dr. Katz", "The Tick", the oft-touted virtues of "South Park"), but the mesh-fucking lab monkeys that pass for executives at TCI are so busy trying to pull the 'digital revolution' out of their fissure-pocked asses that they wouldn't recognize the wishes of their customers if a nekkid Shannon Tweed popped off the screen of a Skinemax erotic thriller and gave them the 411 by talking through her vagina.

I do admit that the dial isn't an utter wasteland. I have a weakness for old sitcoms on Nick at Nite, but I've never recovered from them taking "The Donna Reed Show" off the air. And I _want_ the Sci-Fi Channel to deliver, and occasionally it does -- sometimes it comes through with just the right "Twilight Zone" or a letterboxed version of "Silent Running", but again, 95% of the time, it's something like "A Battlestar Galactica Christmas" or "Highlander III: The Blooper Reel".

But sci-fi TV ought to deliver something more. I want robots and gore and special effects both cheesy and astounding, imagery fucked up nearly beyond recognition. I want to see writers, real writers like Bradbury or Sterling or Ellison talking about their passion instead of pushing product. I want to see the archetypically American genres of sci-fi and horror reflected back at me in the funhouse mirrors of other cultures.

Lucky me. Completely unpromoted, a little channel called Psychic TV (Somewhere, Genesis P. Orridge must be preparing a lawsuit) popped up, nestled between the all-Catholic channel and Animal Planet 2: The Seas. In a matter of mere weeks I've come to count on that little crystal ball icon in the corner, even on their oddly CBS-like 'all-seeing eye' promos. I could drone on and on about why I like it, and I will, in fact, spew rationalizations later in this review, but in the tradition of impartial before and after comparisons, here's a two-week late night viewing diary, pre and post Psychic TV. Each entry represents what I consider the best viewing option at the time.

Pre Psychic TV:

Saturday, 11:15 PM. Mildly drunk, I managed to choke down 20 minutes of SNL before giving up in disgust.

Tuesday night, 2 AM: After work, I caught a Mary Tyler Moore show rerun on Nick at Nite. Pretty funny.

Thursday night, 12:30 AM: Lucky me, "Conan the Barbarian" is on TNT. I was reasonably satisfied, modulo the edited beheadings.

Friday night, 3 AM: Post bartime, I caught the tail end of the 'Best of Scrappy Doo', on the Cartoon Network. I went to bed despondent at the depths to which I have fallen.

Post Psychic TV:

Saturday night, 1:30 AM: Stumbled home after work, pulled out some cheesecake and Cab Sav and flipped on Psychic TV for the first time. What do I see? "Inju Gakuen" ("Sex Beast on Campus"), often called the live action equivalent of such anime tentacle porn as "Legend of the Overfiend". Uncut. Uninterrupted. Uncensored. I stand and watch in awe as Gigeresque phallic tentacles crawl all over taught Japanese coeds. Now, I think, now we're getting somewhere.

Sunday night, 11 PM: Lucius Shepard, sitting in an overstuffed chair, talking about bumming around Latin America in his twenties and how those experiences fed into his later short stories.

Wednesday night, 11:00 PM: Psychic TV serves up John Carpenter's first movie, "Dark Star". Unfortunately, I no longer get stoned.

Thursday, 2:15 AM: I checked to Psychic TV and stumble into a full hour of computer animation highlights from Siggraph (the biggest computer animation conference in the world). Much of it is like MTV's Amp, but with stilted grad student narration instead of music. But the visuals are stunning; I was mesmerized until 3.

If that anecdotal evidence isn't enough to convince you that Psychic TV is a good thing, you're just not someone who'd appreciate it. But I'll lay down some arguments anyways, so all you budding cable executives out there can learn something.

1) Psychic TV understands its target audience. They know to put on their best programming between the hours of 10 PM and 3 AM. Watching the Sci-Fi Network, one gets the impression it's run by suits who occasionally consult focus groups of nerds they pull out of Star Trek conventions by finding the guys with the most Dorito crumbs stuck in their beards. Watching Psychic TV, you get the impression that it's run by failed sci-fi writers, doing it on a lark to meet their heroes. My kind of people. It's a difference that might be lost on, say, my mother, or the inhabitants of sororities, but to me it's as clear as the exit wound left by a 12-gauge slug gun.

2) They care about the creative process. They have a regular interview show, "Behind the Dreams" (bad title, I know) where they sit down with writers & directors and talk for an hour. It reminds me a little bit of the old "Later", before it got hijacked by Greg Kinnear's asanine, short-circuited robo-Letterman act, when Bob Costas would sit down and talk with his guests. Not push product, not throw them setups for their funny stories, but talk like real live human beings. I've gotten to see Kurt Busiek (of Astro City fame), Wes Craven, Lucius Shepard, Richard Matheson, and Tim Burton talk about what they love doing -- writing, directing, creating. I've learned something every time.

3) They operate like a 'premium' network. No commercials. Letterboxing. They don't cut out the sex. It's amazing how much difference that makes in the enjoyment of a movie, even when they're just showing B-movies/classic sci-fi (take your pick) like "Them" or "Forbidden Planet" on 'Friday night drive-in' or their Tuesday 'Cormanpalooza'. And they sure do take the no-censorship policy out for a spin, mostly with weird Asian sci-fi/sex films. Millions of 12 year old boys are developing life-long Asian bondage fetishes as I write.

4) They reach out to other cultures for material. In addition to the Saturday Asian Trash Cinema night, they've got a few regular series from around the world (and by 'around the world', I don't just mean the BBC). The most notable one is "Agent Pylyshyn", which sometimes (unfairly, I think) gets called the "Russian X-Files". It does share the central conceit of a federal agent (Piotr Pylyshyn; sort of like Fox Mulder, if Mulder liked torture instead of pornography) investigating mysterious events in the former Soviet Union (the show's run actually goes through the end of the cold war). Granted, not all the foreign shows are winners -- for every "Rancho del Diablo" (sort of a cross between "Dallas" and "A Hundred Years of Solitude", but better than you'd expect) there's a show like the Phillipino "Monster Hunter", which makes early "Doctor Who" special effects look like "Terminator 2" in comparison.

Remember the old Saturday Night 'creature feature' shows that had old black & white horror films with some local cheeseball hamming it up during the commercial breaks? When I was a kid, they were the coolest thing in the world. There was the raw, new thrill of being an 10-year old kid up past midnight, and all that sci-fi/horror imagery -- Godzilla, vampires, zombies, aliens -- was strange and scary, but fascinating too, and those nights were one of the few places that felt like home to me. In our post-cable and post-VCR world, those shows are gone, and I think that the world has lost something real. Psychic TV is the closest I've come to getting it back.

-- Monica Arnzen


Copyright 1998
James D Thomas