Entertainment

Hello Dark Ages

Genghis Zahn at CNN? Is ‘Survivor’ worth saving? And other tele-musings.

By Steve Burgess 20 Dec 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Promos for the hit ABC drama ‘Lost’ have begun trumpeting the show thusly: “No tribal council! No immunity!” I don’t get it. The show, about a party of plane crash Survivors—oops, survivors—on a mysterious island, has provided some guilty pleasure with its soap opera/supernatural thriller combo. But why is lack of reality a selling point? Since its inception, reality TV has been an easy target for people who equate the genre with sensationalism and crude exploitation. Those charges will always have some truth as long as the Fox network has something to say about it. But ‘Lost,’ a.k.a. Scripted Survivor, can never shed interesting light on much of anything more than advances in Hollywood casting (the show has been lauded for its Korean and Iranian characters) while CBS’ ‘Survivor’ has to tell you something, simply by including real people.

The recently concluded ‘Survivor: Vanuatu’ was admittedly not one of the best. But consider: even as the re-election of George W. Bush proceeded on its gay-bashing way, the most popular reality show in America was quietly introducing Americans to regular gay folks week after week, in a context where their gayness was utterly irrelevant. Scout, an upper-middle-aged woman whose neighbours back home didn’t know she was gay until it was noted in passing on the show, made it to the final three.

And then there was Aimee, the contestant who was running the show until a palace revolt knocked her out two-thirds of the way through. Unlike Scout, Aimee’s sexuality was never even explicitly referred to but seemed evident by her relationship to her girlfriend, who came to visit in one episode. A non-issue in both cases. While the Republican Party did its ugly work across a divided nation an artificial community of Americans lived and schemed on network TV, all the while quietly underlining the fact that other people’s business is only a problem if you make it one. That’s something you cannot get from Lost.

Silly science

An earlier column referred to the trails blazed by the Discovery Channel—better dumb TV through science. They have done it again with ‘Mythbusters,’ yet another inventive piece of time-wasting nonsense. Here a group of engineers and investigators tackle popular stories in an attempt to prove them true or false. Some are practical (is it more fuel efficient to drive with the air conditioning on full blast or with the windows rolled down?) but the practical stuff is just padding. The colossally dumb stuff is where the real fun lies. The latest urban myth concerned a guy using a hydraulic cherry-picker to move a car engine. The engine comes unhooked, instantly turning the cherry-picker into a catapult that vaults the poor schmuck over the roof.

The Mythbusters very quickly proved that the story was impossible. End of story? Hell, no. The team then decided to find out just what it would take to turn that machine into a medieval trebuchet capable of launching a dummy across the yard. Utterly pointless and in the end rather violent, with team members delightedly measuring how far the dummy’s dismembered hand actually traveled. Like many other such Discovery shows, Mythbusters uses science, expertise, and dogged investigation to create epically silly programming. Appointment TV? Nope. Insidiously hypnotic when accidentally channel-hopped upon? Ask any guy.

Chasing Fox

While we wait for the Canadian arrival of Fox News (let’s all have a big party and watch something else) we can always tune into CNN, the voice of relative moderation in American cable news. Unlike the straight propaganda of Fox, CNN at least provides a window into the current media climate down south. Not pretty, friends. Even if we’re talking about Paula Zahn. When she’s not busy attempting to oust peregrine falcons from her swanky New York apartment building, the perky host appears on CNN at 5PM with an hour-long magazine show featuring news and interviews.

Recent Zahn offerings have nicely illustrated the 24-hour news net’s headlong, not to say panicky, rush to embrace conservative red state values. One recent double-ender interview pitted a scientist against a fundamentalist over the issue of teaching young students that the universe was created in six days. Generally, the debate went like this: First the scientist would say that science class ought to be about science. Then Mr. Fundy would retort that God’s laws were the bedrock the nation was founded on and that it’s time to get back to what made this country great. And Paula would get a thoughtful look on her bright little beak and say, “Well Ms. Scientist, what’s your answer to that?”

It’s a rush to the Dark Ages, and perky Paula is anxious to get out front. Can’t wait for Bill O’Reilly.

No sneak attack

The DVD release of this summer's King Arthur flick is now getting a TV advertising blitz. The ads proclaim: "From the producers of Pearl Harbour!" Since Touchstone Pictures is not a Japanese company we have to assume they are talking about Pearl Harbour, the film. It's refreshing, really--ads for the Ford Explorer ought to be required to say "From the producers of the Ford Pinto." But understandably, they choose to downplay that instead. So, kudos to Touchstone for their pioneering honesty.

Steve Burgess comments on television and other cultural flotsam and jetsam for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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