Two episodes of Jesse Ventura's preposterous but surprisingly entertaining new TV show, Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura, have now aired on TruTV, the channel responsible for such thought-provoking programs as Bait Car (carjackers caught on tape!), Inside American Jail (real criminals stabbing each other!), and Party Heat, a show that follows cops around as they arrest drunk/stoned/tripping college students on spring break.
As TruTV fare goes, Conspiracy Theory actually ranks as one of the channel's better, more credibly produced shows. In it, our former governor aims his legendary BS detector in the direction of America's most enduring conspiracies, from 9/11 and 2012 to global warming, Big Brother, brainwashing, mind control, secret societies, and eventually—in season 2, he promises, if the show gets that far—the big-kahuna conspiracy of them all, JFK.
For this show, Ventura has re-invented himself into a character/hero who might be called "The Truthinator," a relentless force of candor and skepticism whose secret weapon is that he was a Navy Seal and once had a legitimate government job. "I've been exposed to government information," Jesse growls, as if the Minnesota state budget oozed evil and altered his consciousness, making him an even more bizarre and paranoid person than he was before. But Jesse is proud of his record: "No other governor can match what I've done," he snarls in the show's teaser, a statement as open to interpretation as the supposed conspiracies he is "investigating."
Still, Jesse Ventura was always an entertainer first, and Conspiracy Theory is nothing if not entertaining. There's a B-movie, amateur gumshoe quality to it that's hard to resist. In fact, the show's tabloid cheesiness is part of its charm, and the pretense that Jesse is ferreting out The Truth on behalf of the common man, protecting our "right to know," is as endearing as it is silly. None of these "conspiracies" can be taken very seriously, but Jesse and his investigative team (who look more like a motley crew of graduate students) uncover just enough information to make you think, "Hmm, there might be something to this." And when it comes to unmasking the dangerous shadow people who organize and execute vast institutional conspiracies on a global scale, that's about as good as it gets.
Episode 1 has our former governor and his rag-tag team of agents asking hard questions about HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program), an array of antennas in the Alaskan wilderness that zaps concentrated electro-magnetic waves into the ionosphere for research. The government "says" HAARP is used to study ways of improving satellite communication and monitor changes in the ozone layer, but Jesse isn't convinced. He and his team suspect that it may be a secret "superweapon" being used to manipulate the weather and control people's minds. Jesse's narrator goes even further, rasping that HAARP "may be THE DEADLIEST WEAPON IN THE WORLD." Or worse, as Jesse warns . . . a "death ray!" Of course, it also MIGHT BE a quonset hut full of jelly beans, but sadly, that possibility is left unexplored.
As our inquisitive governor hovers over the facility in his black helicopter, the narrator informs us that Jesse can't help wondering if the tsunamis in Indonesia MIGHT HAVE been caused by the sinister grid of doom below. (How do we know they weren't, eh?). Jesse uses his famously piercing intellect to articulate the menacing scope of what he is witnessing. "There it is. Wow," Jesse whispers. The chopper lands outside the facility's front gate, and Jesse wonders why, if nothing sinister is going on, the government needs to erect a fence to keep a former Minnesota governor out? "Hey man, I'm a Navy seal," Jesse informs the nice man at the gate, who isn't impressed and tells him to come back during visiting hours—when, Jesse knows, all the facility's "secrets" will be safely hidden away.
What's commendable about Jesse's show is that it's not all about Jesse. If it were, not much investigating would get done—because, as Jesse admits on camera, two weeks before the show taped he hadn't even heard of HAARP. Luckily, his research team is eager to do the legwork for him, and they actually do interview some plausible sources, who confirm that weather manipulation is at least theoretically possible, and ultra-sonic waves can be used to generate anxiety and make people "hear" things without their ears—no doubt a comforting thought for all you paranoid schizophrenics out there. The show also knows it's a little hokey. When Jesse is standing outside the HAARP gates, trying to talk his way in, the camera equipment starts fritzing out for "unexplained reasons," and the picture starts jumping around like an outtake from the Blair Witch Project. Leaving us to wonder: Did the government blast Jesse's team with bolt of electro-magnetic payback, or did the camera guy step on a cord? Like so many of life's great mysteries, we'll never really know.
Episode 2 involves the popular theory among a certain class of [I had originally used the word "wingnuts" here, but in deference to the heated responses below, let's just call them "zealous doubters"] that 9/11 was masterminded by none other than the White House itself, in order to justify attacking Saddam Hussein and invade Iraq. (As if W could ever manage an operation that complicated.) Nevertheless, Jesse and his team of sleuths dig through the rubble of 9/11 to expose several "unexplained" anomalies in the physical evidence—that the black-box flight recorders were supposedly never found, although some people claim they saw FBI agents removing them, as well as evidence of explosive residue in the dust—and beg the question why these details were never mentioned in the official 9/11 Commission Report. [Incidentally, the real reason this information wasn't included has nothing to do with a conspiracy—it's that the 911 Commission Report was written to chronicle the rise of Islamic terrorism and recommend courses of action; there are no specifics whatsoever about the fall of the buildings or the forensics of Ground Zero.]
The most entertaining part of the episode is when Jesse goes into "combat mode" and mounts an "assault" on Hangar 17 at JFK, where some of the 9/11 debris is still being stored. Every time Jesse encounters a locked door, it makes him suspicious. ("Why is it locked? What are they hiding?") It makes you wonder what he locks behind closed doors. And when Jesse finally finds a door with a small window in it, he peers inside and exclaims, "THIS is what they don't want me to see!" Exactly what "this" is isn't entirely clear, because you can't really see anything, but it makes for some hilarious, compulsively watchable television.
Conspiracy theorists are a wildly entertaining bunch because they can spin out the most fantastical theories based on the flimsiest of evidence—and for that I have to give them credit. In the show, the theory is proposed that 9/11 was a so-called "false flag" operation, which, as Jesse explains, is a covert action perpetrated by our own government but designed to look like someone else did it. The supposed justification is that bankers and oil companies needed a war to boost business, George W. Bush needed an excuse to attack Saddam Hussein, and Dick Cheney needed an excuse to enact the Patriot Act.
Conveniently, conspiracy theorists never think to ask questions about the holes raised by their own theories. For instance, why, if the goal was to attack Iraq, did the CIA cast Saudi Arabians in the role of terrorist hijackers? Why blame it on Osama bin Laden if you're really after Saddam? Why invent such an elaborate plot if the goal of war could have been accomplished more simply with less loss of life—by, say, blowing up a symbolic target like the Golden Gate Bridge, which would have the added benefit of killing a few hundred annoying liberals? And how, if it was a conspiracy, could the government keep it a secret and still ensure that some very important people wouldn't be inside those buildings at the time of the attack—people they didn't really want to kill?
Alas, it is only a one-hour show.
Still, TruTV's producers do a credible job of laying out the evidence for their conspiracy claims, and they even engage in a bit of actual journalism by interviewing retired government personnel, aviation experts, FBI representatives and the usual assortment of oddballs and regular citizens with an axe to grind (er, "questions" for which they want "answers".) In both episodes so far, the team has also staged small scientific experiments to test certain theories, such as the idea that electromagnetic charges could be used to move clouds or how an explosive material called thermite might have helped melt the steel beams in the World Trade Center. (The words "may," "might," "could," and "possibly" do a lot of heavy lifting in this show.)
"You won't believe what you don't know," is Conspiracy Theory's provocative tag-line, but that's also an awkward double-negative way of saying, "You will believe what you do know," which doesn't sound quite as scary. Either way, I hope this show gains some traction, because it's definitely the best role Jesse has played since he became a rogue independent governor. Somewhere beneath all that bluster and bravado, I believe Jesse does want us to know The Truth, whatever that is—and if he can make me laugh and think a little while he's doing it, more power to him.
Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura airs Wednesday nights at 9:00 p.m. on TruTV.