Mary Knows Best debuts tonight on SyFy at 9 p.m. Eastern.
The reason I'm pretty sure there are no psychics is because all of the psychics out there mostly just use their powers for stupid shit. I can totally see some really limited "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" style psychics being out there, folks who can only see one particular facet of the life to come and really hone in on that. But such a person would also, necessarily, be under the radar, because nobody wants someone who can predict how you will die or what the dew point will be in six months' time. What they want is someone who can make you big money or figure out just why the dead are still walking the Earth or uncover hidden family treasures. And yet, most of the psychics out there just toss out vague platitudes from the beyond and wander around empty houses, talking about moments in history that don't require them to really stretch all that much.
But even those psychics are much, much more interesting than the psychics on Mary Knows Best, SyFy's new reality show about a radio psychic and her crazy family. These psychics are quite possibly the most boring people to have ever had a television show built around them, much less the most boring psychics. The show is pretty much SyFy's attempt to have something like the celebrity-based reality shows on E! or the "Look at all of the crazy housewives!" reality shows on Bravo. Honestly, when I first heard the premise - "She's a psychic but she also has a home life!" - I figured the show would focus a hell of a lot more on the psychic stuff. At least that would have been kind of cheesy and entertaining. Instead, there are lots of scenes of the family being a family. They are not that fascinating, not really. They're, in fact, like most other families. And on a show about a FAMILY FULL OF PSYCHICS, that hardly seems the best tactic.
Mary Knows Best stars Mary Occhino, who apparently hosts a psychic talk show on Sirius XM Satellite Radio (one that I've never heard of). It follows her at her work life and in her home life. This means that roughly half the show is just her wandering around houses and making vague pronouncements about the kinds of people who used to live there and caused the psychic distress troubling the new owners. (In one of these segments, she's talking to some construction guys, and these guys couldn't have any less idea what the history of the house is, which probably makes it that much easier to just keep things decidedly vague.) Then she does her radio show, where it's time for more random statements, like, the dead are trying to make contact or your house is probably haunted or you need to relocate that Indian burial ground (that last one is an actual, actual one). Also she'll occasionally wander around Long Island and talk to other people about her psychic powers.
All of this could be forgiven if the show just lived up to its one can't-miss proposition: This woman is in a family that has any number of crazy characters, and she has a daughter who's psychic but in denial about it. This, honestly, should be golden. You should be able to just plop a camera in the corner of the family room and watch these kids interact and get hours of material from it. But it somehow doesn't work. Everything feels forced for some reason, as though everyone is too acutely aware of the cameras in their house at all times. (In this regard, at least, shows about celebrities are better off, simply because the celebrities are better able to ignore the cameras living in their midst. At least usually.) These people just feel awkward on camera, for the most part, and it makes stuff that should be entertaining feel forced.
But the show messes up a lot of basic stuff. Mary's daughter Jackie also apparently has psychic powers, but she's ashamed of this fact and tries to cover it up, even though Mary keeps goading her about this fact. This, honestly, should be so easy to make a generator of drama or comedy or … something. Instead, it just kind of sits there and the show rarely returns to it. The show also portrays having psychic powers as a way to endlessly badger your friends and family, which is basically what Mary ends up doing, at least in the memories of everyone around her. There are folks who remember her tattling on them before they did anything as a child because she just knew they were going to do something, and there are other people Mary will just bother with random inquiries, such as asking if they hurt their finger (the respondent babbles that he scratched his finger while working on the truck - that's a hit!). She also diagnoses a secret Indian burial ground for pretty much fucking everything. Really, this should all be a lot more comedic or a lot more tragic than it is. Instead, it's just kind of there, captured via the subpar production values.
By far the only thing in the show that comes close to working is the character of Mary's son, Chris, an apocalyptic egomaniac paranormal phenomena expert who constantly wears a jaunty hat. It's such a great combination of character traits that the show can't really mess it up, even as it tries desperately to do so by throwing Chris on in just about every scene, even when he has basically nothing to do with anything. Chris is the ne'er-do-well of the family, and he's a braggart who's constantly trying to keep from having his whole life erode out from under him. He's mostly enjoyable in the pilot, but it's obvious that he's the only one who really gets being a character in a reality TV show. If the show almost wears out his welcome in the pilot by going to him too often, how much will it overexpose him in the episodes to come?
I get why SyFy wants to get into this market. It's cheap to produce a show like this, and by describing it in the terms I described it above, I'd guess a certain percentage of you are going to check it out just to see what the hell happens. But I'll say this: There's the kind of TV that's so bad that it becomes enjoyable to watch, and there's the kind of TV that is rather incompetent. Mary Knows Best is decidedly the latter, as though all involved had a rough idea of the kind of show they wanted to make but didn't realize that the best way to make a show like that compelling was to find interesting subjects and to film it with some degree of good-looking production values (because this looks like it was filmed on a camcorder from 1987 at times). Mary Knows Best is an interesting case study, I guess, because it's a show that should work, where every element is potentially compelling, but it's a show that decidedly does not work. It's like SyFy bought a beautiful exotic fish and then brought it home and just tossed it on the floor instead of putting it in an aquarium with care.