I've always considered myself a skeptic. I've written about con artistry, I know the basics of sleight of hand, and I'm all too familiar with the tricks so-called psychics use to read minds and "conjure" the dead. I've always figured that, if Houdini's spirit never returned to deliver that secret, agreed-upon phrase to his widow during one of her many seance attempts, it was probably a pretty good indication the master magician had been right about psychics and mediums all along -- they were no more magical than, well, magicians.
But that doesn't mean that a little part of me doesn't enjoy the concept. I've watched my fair share (okay, probably more than my fair share) of "Ghost Whisper" and "Medium." As fiction, the idea of a psychic changing lives (or solving crimes) is an engaging hook. Heck, I'm even game for watching "Celebrity Ghost Stories" and the occasional televised ghost hunt (though in that case, mostly to roll my eyes at the eager believers shrieking, "DID YOU HEAR THAT?" whenever a strong breeze moves through the room).
Still, it's hard for me to fully accept that I'm a little bit hooked on "Long Island Medium
" (Sun. at 10 p.m. on TLC). Maybe it's Theresa Caputo
's yappy, earnest personality, her obviously fake tan and bleached hair. She's so outrageously herself, prone to tears and enthusiastic hoots of excitement, she's hard to resist as a personality. When she says her job is her life, it's not so much that I believe her and her psychic skills -- it's that I want to.
On the show, Caputo goes about her daily life as a working mom, picking up her dry cleaning and stumbling upon people who just happen to have loved ones trying to send messages from the other side. It's a clever approach to creating a show around a psychic -- as she dispenses free (and spookily accurate) advice, it's hard to look for evidence of a charlatan. And she certainly seems to know her stuff -- while we can guess that producers play a role in picking her "accidental" discoveries, the casual quality of these meetings makes Caputo's skill as a psychic seem like something she can no more control or contain than her need to breathe. The show has wisely made reading seem like something she must do, even when her instincts suggest she shouldn't open her mouth.
Of course, there are many, many moments that activate my inner skeptic -- reduced to tears and anxiety when a dead little boy makes it desperately clear that Caputo must contact his mom immediately, the psychic finds the woman's information and gives her a call -- only to book her for an appointment in a week. Yes, passing along messages from the deceased is this woman's bread and butter, but it's hard to ignore that she might be making a buck by giving grieving people messages that are often generic (that person you're grieving? They love you, too!) or are possibly fiction.
Other times, Caputo's ability to pick up on "miraculous" truths about people just seems to be the work of cold reading (something most psychics are accused of at one time or another). She mentions butterflies as a key element to one woman -- who just happens to be wearing a butterfly bracelet around her wrist. In her group readings, it's not hard to find someone whose name starts with an L or an S, for example. What we don't see are the guesses that fall flat -- maybe Caputo and the visiting spirits are that good, or maybe the editors are.
All of that being said, Caputo's impossible not to like. She's bubbly, funny and seems totally sincere. My inner skeptic grumbles that the same can be said of almost every successful con artist, but for the purposes of a television show, I can put my skepticism on hold to simply enjoy a successful formula and an engaging star. I'd like to think that Caputo is checking in with the other side, even if a larger part of me says "not on your life." But hey, wherever the truth lies, "Long Island Medium" probably isn't any more fake than anything else on reality TV.