Monday, October 12, 2009

History: good TV, bad TV

History channel continues to explore the rich possibilities of self-abasement with the new series, "The Nostradamus Effect," which, it rather disingenuously claims, attempts to "to separate the prophecies that appear to be inspired visions from those that are merely crackpot conspiracy theory."

Historians of course, can accept no such distinction: (1) conspiracy theory, which retroactively imposes fanciful interpretations upon the past, is not "prophecy." (2) Prophecy, which seeks to predict the future through some occult means, is impossible. Both are bunk. (This, incidentally, is why I, by contrast, have an affectionate respect for "Monster Quest." Although, once you've been through the Loch Ness monster, Sasquatch, the Yeti, the giant squid, and maybe the goatsucker, it gets increasingly difficult to find compelling subjects, the fact remains that the show takes a case or hypothesis, examines evidence, and comes up with an answer. In other words, it adheres to an accepted standard of proof.)

As usual, these "Nostradamus Effect" programs turn out to be at least half hoakum, interspersed with relatively objective background information, sometimes consisting of interviews with serious scholars who may not even be aware of the actual use to which the footage is put.

By contrast, Discovery Channel broadcast an excellent program,"Discovering Ardi," on the recent presentation of the remains of Ardipithecus ramidus, "the oldest skeleton from our branch of the primate tree."

The contrast, indeed, could not be greater. When I watch one of those History channel programs, I find myself growing impatient and looking at my watch (isn't it time for the commercial and another beer?), unless I am busy scribbling down notes about another new inanity. In the case of Discovery's "Ardi" program, however, two hours devoted largely just to conversation by scholars sitting around a table went by quickly. They were interesting because intelligent people were teaching us something new.

Here's an example of the difference:

• History channel:

Somebody in the nineteenth century predicted that there would be war and destruction in the future. Then along came Hitler in the twentieth century. Pretty spooky.

• Discovery Channel:

How did we come to be and look human rather than ape-like? (though as one of the participants points out, one small bone in the foot is a relic of our early ape-like ancestry; fun facts to know and tell).

Let us consider the single tiny but telling example of how our skulls and faces became "human." Although we usually think of brow ridges, facial angles, and jaw structures, another measure is: small canines.

The female, "Ardi" is going to mate one day and will have to make a choice: She could of course succumb to the blandishments (well, it's not quite that romantic in the natural realm, but then, our dating customs are not all they're cracked up to be, either) of the traditionally attractive male with large canines. He's sort of like the captain of the football team. But does she want a guy like that, who's going to spend all his time competing with other males for prestige? or is she going to choose a guy with other desirable characteristics?

What sort of fellow might that be? Well, the serious student and nice guy—I mean: one with small canines, who can be attractive and win her over in other ways. For example, he may go out and bring back exotic or otherwise desirable foods. She will be willing to trade copulation for food. And then this will become a regular habit. And in the process, he'll have to make quite a trek through forests. What's the result: the trait for small canines is passed along, the development of bipedalism is encouraged. So, one human trait connects with another: our teeth and walking upright. Voilà.

Let's recap:
  • It's serious history and science
  • They got it out in short order (the discovery was announced only two weeks ago)
  • No glitzy special effects, no cheesy re-enactments, just serious talk about important matters.
There's a broader lesson there. At least coincidentally, Discovery made a virtue of a necessity. The producers didn't have a lot of lead time in which to build sets, go on location, and undertake complex and expensive reenactments. (Does History channel have a huge warehouse, in which it stores all those long robes, lace collars, and swords?) In that sense, it's in some ways the educational equivalent of reality TV. Or maybe it's a resurrection of the best documentary and discussion from a more classic age of TV. In other words, if you just take the trouble to put on a serious program on a compelling topic, people will watch it. In any case, more power to you.

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