Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Syfy's 'Deep South Paranormal': Paranormal culture on the skids or spectral Southern comfort?

Fortenbery and his gris-gris stick...on an airboat.
Courtesy Syfy

There are some spooky happenings in the woods down in the South, and no ordinary group of specter-seekin' paranormal investigators are quite the right fit for the job. I reckon that's the conceit behind Deep South Paranormal, the new ghost hunting reality-TV series that debuts tonight on Syfy at 10 p.m.

The show is a natural mash-up (or would you prefer gumbo?) of Syfy's long-running program Ghost Hunters -- now in its ninth season and the first of the modern wave of paranormal investigation-style shows -- and the mega, mega successful Duck Dynasty, which airs on cable network A&E (also on Wednesdays at 10 p.m.) but is drawing broadcast network numbers in the neighborhood of eight million viewers.

Described as a "hunt for evidence of restless souls in Dixie's most haunted locations," Deep South Paranormal is produced by BASE Productions (who were also behind Fact or Faked) and features a group of "born and bred Southerners, Cajuns and self-proclaimed rednecks." In addition to the typical ghost hunting gadgets of a K2 meter, REM-Pod, thermal & nightvision cams and digital audio recorders, the DSP crew also uses music and some Cajun gris-gris to stir up spirits.

Read more after the jump...

In tonight's premiere, the team investigates an abandoned sawmill and train depot at the Southern Forest Heritage Museum in Long Leaf, La. The episode synopsis states the area is "said to be haunted by the spirits of workers killed" on the job.

And Spoiler Alert, but there are Southern colloquialisms, wagers, fishing and two big beards involved in the process.

The early reception DSP has been receiving is split into a couple different groups: Those that are intrigued, those that dismiss it outright as stupid, and those who are paranormal investigators concerned about the damage these bunch of rednecks and hillbillies might do to "the field." And this is an argument that will arise a few more times as at least three more redneck ghost hunting, or culture/ethnic group ghost hunting, shows are in the works. [Side note: As someone raised in the South, yeah, I say "redneck."]

Well, the good news to investigators is that the field is left pretty much as it was before DSP. For better or worse, it still looks and feels a lot like other paranormal reality shows out there. They investigate; someone gets scared; someone else protests; perhaps one person is skeptical; they run around at night, etc. Will there be room for purists to hit them on incorrect tactics or for not debunking enough? Sure. In fact, they hardly debunk at all, and the evidence they gather isn't really meant for the audience to hear so much as it is meant for the "client."

This is a television show driven by interesting characters gathered around an interesting activity. It is not a Ghost Hunting 101 academic course any more than American Idol is a guide to making it in the music biz. Like every other show out there, it is produced, edited and packaged to attract viewers and advertisers. It is an entertainment product.

Still, it could be better.

Having seen so much of the standard paranormal show where investigators hunt, debunk, analyze and present evidence, Deep South could secede from the genre and do something different: focus more on the characters and less on the investigation. After all, the reason Duck Dynasty is entertaining is not because of the detail that goes into making a Duck Commander duck call, but the wacky folks behind it.

For that reason, Deep South Paranormal has some genuinely fun moments in it. And "fun" is not something the paranormal reality genre has shown off in spades. Sure, this is clearly produced (there are moment where it feels painfully scripted) but it has "hit" potential. The fishing scene is pretty goofy, and head redneck Hart Fortenbery is a damn amusing character straight from the bayou with the speech patterns of Boomhauer from King of the Hill. I would love to see more of Hart, especially this old-school gator mixes it up with Randy Hardy, the tattoo-covered bad ass from New Orleans. It would be cool for the team to break out the moonshine, get drunk and sing songs in a haunted house. If a ghost scares them, great. If not, you still get to watch the characters bounce off one another.

So at its best, Deep South Paranormal is silly entertainment. At its worst, it's just very familiar.

However, if the specter of the paranormal is allowed to fade somewhat to the background -- with the audience getting more time with these Southern folks -- then darn tootin' I might tune in for more.