TV

Keep the engines running

I remember the first time I watched Star Trek: the Next Generation on a television with a halfway decent sound system. Until that moment, I'd never known that every scene aboard the ship had been Foley edited to include a subtle underlying audio track: the constant thrumming of the ship's engines. 

Now you can listen to the Enterprise's engines in your own sleeping quarters, idling uninterupted for a full twelve hours.

If's that's not your ship of choice, you can fall asleep to the gentle engines of Deep Space Nine, the Nostromo, and the Millennium Falcon.

Dear Netflix, It's up to you to bring back Buckaroo Banzai.

Dear Netflix,

I've been with you since almost the beginning, when the idea of streaming video through slapdash local internet connections was an absurd dream, and your red envelopes were the only interesting thing anyone got in the mail. So I'm going to ask you a favor, but in the process I'm going hand you your next mega-hit.

The time has come to bring back Buckaroo Banzai.

I'm not asking for a faithful update or fan-service paste-up. Buckaroo Banzai is just a framework, just as the old Battlestar Galactica served as a thematic inspiration for the reboot. Some of the old stuff needs to go. Ditch the nerd-bro schtick (but keep Clancy Brown). Buckaroo is now a physician and climatologist from Saskatchewan. She will of course be portrayed by Tatiana Maslany. I do not care how much money you have to pay her. Tatiana Maslany is Buckaroo Banzai. 

Buckaroo's second in command is a geneticist from a Micronesian nation, whose pessimistic world view is informed by the fact that her homeland will soon be under water thanks to the overclocked engines of civilization (Keisha Castle-Hughes). They lead an international entourage of hard-rocking scientists, united by the power of music and open-minded inquiry. An Algerian botanist (Rami Malek) plays the sax and maintains a stormy truce with a French physicist and DJ (Chiwetel Ejiofor). An American psychologist (Clancy Brown) plays the drums and is an expert profiler who annoys the group with his claim to know them better than they know themselves. And Jason Momoa plays a geologist and outdoor survival expert, prone to walk off into the wilderness with his guitar when he feels too many people are telling him what to do. World-weary chemist Viola Davis plays the keyboard. Baaba Maal writes the score. 

Do you want to send the old-school nerds into a frenzy? Hire Peter Weller, the original Buckaroo Banzai, as the Big Bad. No, seriously, don't do that. I was just testing you to see if you were keeping your eyes on the ball. I love Peter Weller, but this isn't about 80's nostalgia. This is about a bunch of people who must overcome meaningful differences with a shared commitment to truth. Together they form a ragtag band that unites to save the world, because someone's got to do it, and also plays some sweet tunes, because someone's got to do that, too.

This is your destiny, Netflix. Don't turn aside from it. Wherever it takes you, well... there you are. 

I see plans within plans

I'm not exactly sure what itch this scratches in me, but I liked these imaginatively drawn floorplans from fictional houses in popular TV shows. Most of them matched up with the mental maps I'd constructed from watching characters move through the nonexistent spaces, but this one made me realize I'd fundamentally misconstrued the layout of the central house from Stranger Things. I had to fast-forward through the first episode and observe the interior scenes to verify that I had it all wrong, and this map was accurate.

Scared Straight: does it work?

The TV was playing in the background while my medic crew was eating dinner, and we soon found ourselves sucked into a reality show in which juvenile offenders were given a weekend-long introduction to prison life, in an effort to dissuade them from lives of crime. 

These were not hardcore offenders: their crimes included "lied to parents" and "stole," both of which are common features of many people's young lives. But they had been signed up by their parents as prisoners/reality show participants, so they were dressed in prison scrubs, yelled at, made to exercise, deprived of sleep, given inspirational speeches, then yelled at some more. None of it was much worse than, say, fire academy, but I when I went to fire academy, I was an adult who was there of his own free will, with the promise of a job at the end. 

Some of the kids break down crying as the adult men yell in their faces, and the camera zooms in and lingers on their wet cheeks, their exhaustion and distress. The program has succeeded: they've been broken. Cue the dramatic music and go to commercial. 

"I wonder if those programs really work," I asked. It took about 30 seconds on a phone to find out. 

Not only do they not work, but 1) they're worse than doing nothing, and 2) we've known this for decades. According to the U.S. Justice Department:

A study by Anthony Petrosino and researchers at the Campbell Collaboration analyzed results from nine Scared Straight programs and found that such programs generally increased crime up to 28 percent in the experimental group when compared to a no-treatment control group. 

The Justice Department discourages the use of Scared Straight programs, and in a report on crime prevention programs presented to the U.S. Congress, it placed these interventions in the "does not work" category. This report was released in 1997, nearly twenty years ago. 

According to an article in Psychology Today:

Why do scared straight programs backfire? No one knows for sure, but there are at least two possibilities. First, many of the kids who participate probably were not that inclined to join gangs or commit crimes to start with. Having convicts yell in their faces and tell them about prison rape may make them think, paradoxically, "Joining a gang must be pretty attractive if the authorities are going to such extremes to scare me out of it."

I have another theory. Scared Straight programs might seem to work in the short run, but ultimately they help young people self-identify as criminals. When I finished fire academy, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was go through another fire academy. But once some time passed, I began to think of it as a challenge I had overcome, something to be proud of. More importantly, it bonded me to the other people who had been through the same experience. I was part of the fire department family, a rare group who had emerged from the forge of that experience, transformed and toughened. I belonged.  

In our efforts to scare young people on to a pro-social path, we may be pushing them into criminal behavior they might otherwise have avoided. We are literally creating criminals, destroying human lives. Everyone involved in making that TV show knows it, but hey, reducing young black men to tears is good television. And that is utterly amoral and revolting. 

What was missing from Stranger Things

Some shows I just watch. The Netflix show Stranger Things, a supernatural/horror/sci-fi series set in the 1980's, has stayed on my mind since I finished the 8-episode season. It's like if E.T. and Stephen King's "It" had a love child, and I fell in love with it.

Stranger Things hits so many high points: it's beautifully filmed (as discussed in this video), the synth soundtrack is both evocative of the times and ethereal in its own right, and the acting - particularly the performance of the children - is unbelievably good. What's more, it calls forth 80's imagery and filmmaking so well that it scratches a nostalgic itch for anyone who was young in the decade - particularly a certain D&D-playing social set who were nerds long before it was considered cool. Hell, it even has a requisite product placement, evoking that moment when we saw E.T. gobble Reese's Pieces and wondered, with naïveté that seems now both refreshing and depressing, if the film makers actually got money to put that in the movie. 

Stranger Things can seem so familiar, and employ so many of the hallmark plot devices of the time, that you can at times predict where it's going next, but I seldom cared. The show is a paean to how old stories are reinvented and made new again. The first couple episodes are jammed with moments that are so, so 80's: kids run around on their bikes out at night, with little parental supervision. People don't form commas around cell phones during every moment of inaction. The school is open and unsecured against any threat.  In general, it feels like the kids live in a world in which the very concept of safety is almost unrecognizably different, an alien set of rules as surprising as anything from a speculative fiction novel. 

Herein lies the one aspect where I couldn't help but feel the show fell short. The dichotomy between what frightened us in the 80s and what scares us now is like a great vein of gold beneath the characters' feet, and I kept expecting someone to stick a shovel into the earth and start digging. 

It's OK to set a series in the past, to evoke and honor the techniques and narratives that formed your own aesthetic sense.  Stranger Things succeeds in part because its characters live in a time that's at once both familiar and impossibly strange, a lost world. It's an exceptional show; this and Mr. Robot are the best TV I've seen in years. 

But once I got through all 8 hours or so, I began to think about it as a supernatural/horror film. Horror is often an evocation of what scares us as a culture, a reflection of our collective anxiety - death, loss of control, the seemingly mindless actions of people we don't like or understand.

There is a monster in Stranger Things, but some of the tension in the series is carried by the fact that the kids are on their own, trying to deal with a frightening presence that is far beyond their ability to control. If you were alive during this time, maybe you experienced that feeling yourself while watching The Day After, Threads, or the news, and wondering if you would be among those unlucky to die in the coming nuclear war, or unlucky enough to be one of the survivors. 

Now, that fear has been replaced by post-911 anxiety and an amplified concern over being victimized by the unsavory among us. The freedom the kids in the show enjoy, biking at night out of reach of cell phones, would be terrifying to many parents now. This is true even though crime is significantly lower now than in earlier decades, and the omnipresence of cell phones means no one is very far from emergency services.

Fears change with the times. We are taught what to fear, through some sort of emergent property of our culture. Someone out there will succeed or fail, profit or lose, based on what you makes you feel helpless and afraid. That's a very strange thing, and I would love to see the capable producers of Stranger Things go spelunking down that darkand murky cave in Season Two.