Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Science and TV

TV and science have a rocky relationship. They love each other, but they don't really understand each other. Or rather, TV loves science with zero understanding of how it functions, much like the unworldly spinster and one Mr. Liberace. Oh sure, he's sparkly and glamorous, talented and good to his mother, but ladies: he's gay and he's passed on; he can never love you back and you are never going to have a little cottage together on the beach in Malibu. TV sits up at night drawing hearts around pictures of beakers and diagrams of atoms. It writes Mrs. T. V. Science on all its peechees in elaborate cursive.

But I digress... TV shows seem invariably drawn towards the scientific, and to my way of thinking, they are better when they recognize and accept that their love can never be and just shrug it off with a "yeah, but what if..." and a wistful smile. For example:

Star Trek.
How does warp speed work?
Crystals. It's science!

The X-Files.
How come things are unexplained in the world and mysterious?
Aliens. It's science!
(What's with the weird guy who ate you and then barfed you into an underground man-mould?
Uh, Indian folk magic? Look, we're just enjoying ourselves here.)

Heroes. (Okay- I only saw season 1. Maybe they have fucked it up. I don't know.)
What's with the super powers?
What do you want from us- they're super powers.

Star Wars & Firefly.
So, spaceships, eh? Laser guns? Chinese and English in the same sentence?
Time out of mind! The distant past, the distant future and far far away.

Law & Order.
Forensics, that's got beakers and stuff, right?
We're only civil servants! It takes weeks, nay, months!, to get results on this stuff. We don't need to understand it, we just need to do our due diligence. Hey- look at that shouty guy over there!

These programs accept that they are entertainment. People don't watch Firefly to learn how spaceships fly; they watch because it's awesome. They don't watch Law & Order because they want a lesson on Watson and Crick; they want a police procedural. (Don't worry, I'm getting to CSI: Branson.)

What was great about the X-Files, I have come to realize, was that half the time Mulder just shrugged and grinned his goofy half-grin at whomever he was with, as if to say, "I know, right? Crazy times!" The other half of the time Mulder burst into a room, shouting, "Scully! I have an insane conspiracy theory about alien technologies or something!" And Scully would do an awesome Leela impression ("Oh lord, he's made of wood"), her hand on her brow as she looked at the floor, gathering strength to soldier on.

One of my favorite scenes in Star Trek was in one of the movies, the one where they travel back in time, and the doctor is in a hospital. He passes a guy on a stretcher, checks his chart while he surreptitiously scans him. When he looks at the chart and his tricorder or whathaveyou, you exclaims, "My god, the barbarians!" because they're going to remove the patient's kidney or something. I think he says, "I can cure him!" and zaps him with his Future Technology and like magic, er, I mean, science, the man is cured! Yay! No one pauses to explain how it theoretically works. It's a grey box. It has a red light and a touch screen. It makes noises. You point it at a guy and push the screen to make the noises and it fixes the guy. SCIENCE!

But not everyone is the cool girl at the party who just kind of hangs by the tin tub full of melting ice and light beer looking awesome in her skinny jeans and old concert t-shirt saying, "What's up" to everyone who passes by, laughing at jokes, just, like, being cool. Someone has to be the over-eager girl at the front door putting everyone's jacket on the bed in the guest room, laughing too loudly so everyone knows she's having a good time, doing one shot after much preamble and immediately vomiting into the kitchen garbage can. That girl is the show whose entire season I recently watched on Hulu. That girl is Fringe. Fringe has carefully coordinated her headband, belt and socks without noticing that she is a bald double-amputee in sansabelt pants. Fringe practices opening conversational salvos in the mirror before going out only to overwhelm strangers with stories about her dead cat ("ohmygodMittensItwassosad") told in a rushed, overloud voice. You can't dislike her because she's trying so hard. But the closest you can get to liking her is pity, and that makes you feel kind of icky.

Fringe spends about a quarter of each episode providing "plausible" explanations for how its "science" works. This is a terrible mistake because it's all so easy to understand and therefore feels, well, unscientific. (On a related note: part of how ER sounds authentic to the layman is the amount of jargon they use in the "medical" parts of the show. You're not meant to understand it. You're supposed to just let it wash over you, a wave of medicalese to set the mood.) Fringe insists on explaining things in words I know, which really takes away from the authenticity (for lack of a better word) because I'm pretty sure I don't understand advanced genetics, biochemistry and physics.

In a recent episode, one of the characters asks, "Tell me: did the creature have the arms of a tiger, the body of a scorpion and the tail of a rattlesnake?" He later exclaims, "Bat DNA! Of course! That was the missing ingredient." Um, right. I know they're going to glibness-in-the-face-of-incredible-weirdness as their attempt at The Cool Girl, but it just comes off like a poor imitation. (Oh Lord, she's put on her Osmunds t-shirt.) Fringe would be so much better if it took a page from the X-Files and used that time for character development and to generate an atmosphere. J J Abrams: more shrugging, less fakey science.

The sad thing is, like CSI: Frankfort, Explaining The Science is part of the salespitch. The difference is that CSI: knows what its audience wants, namely ballistic gel and mood lighting. I don't get the impression that it thinks its a great police procedural ("Yes, let the CSIs make the arrest! They're all armed and go in for busts all the time!") or even much of a mystery show ("Huh, you say he was holding the gun and confessed to firing it? I dunno guys, sounds like a real poser!"). It is a showcase for Future Technology and lighting design and it seems happy with that. (CSI: Miami, of course, is a showcase for David Caruso's mad standing-at-an-angle skills and Khandi Alexander's awesome cleavage, if little else. Personally, I can't watch either show and I refuse to acknowledge the existence of NCIS and CIS: Big Apple. But that is neither here nor there.)

Fringe doesn't seem to know what its audience wants. Sometimes it thinks the viewer wants to know how the actual molecular reactions work. But then it gets bored (and also, it doesn't know what it's talking about anyway) and so then it thinks the viewer wants Action. There is a flurry of activity where people can travel across the country in a single hour, where there is always interagency cooperation and no one ever asks the protagonist about her crazy diction (what is up with Anna Torv's accent?). No, no, the people want to see monsters! Enter the bad CGI... Now maybe a love interest? No, no they're just friends. (Another digression: there was one moment between Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson, of Dawson's Creek fame, where, to comfort her -as a friend, mind you- he reaches out cups her face in hand, running his fingers into her hair and then drawing her to him to hold her while she weeps (? I don't know-maybe she was just sleepy). I tried to imagine one of my friends doing this and all I could see was a Craft Night gone horribly, hilariously wrong. I tried to imagine two friends of the same gender touching each other like that. Nope: that move is for lovers only, guys.

But back to the science thing. I'm really kind of disappointed. How is it possible that writers and TV producers don't get that you don't have to explain every goddamn thing?
Star Trek, how do your transporters work?
They break you down into your constituent parts and then reassemble you somewhere else.
No, really: how do they work?
It's future science! Just climb right in- it's awesome and it works every time, except for that time we beamed Spock half way into a rock and Bones had to build him a bionic ass. But that at least was funny!

Fringe, how does teleportation work?
Well, you see, you break the object or person down into is constituent parts and then reassemble it somewhere else. There is this ring-thingy that you have to build on the receiving end of the process, but not on the starting end. Did we mention this is advanced Quantum Physics? Yeah, it totally is. Real bleeding edge. But the object being teleported gets a large dose of radiation, so if it's a person, they better wear gloves and sunscreen!
No, really: how... wait, what? Sunscreen protects you from radiation when you're broken down into a bunch of molecules? That doesn't make sense!
Uh oh... Cheese it!
Is it to make up for not having enough plot? For having wooden actors? (Or in Joshua Jackson's case, actors who somehow manage to make bedroom eyes in every scene regardless of what's going on.) Does Fringe think its "science" gives it a veneer of legitimacy? Because it's like calling a ratty old Osmunds t-shirt "My Rock'n'Roll Shirt." I don't think Fringe could be saved from being so-so at best even with a She's All That nerd-to-hot-chick makeover. (And not just because the "nerd" in that scenario was acutally a hot chick with glasses and a pony tail.) I keep watching it because I don't really have to pay attention, so I can knit at the same time, and I can watch it on my computer when Pete is watching endless basketball. And I don't find it unbearable. I mean, it's not Two and a Half Men or anything. But good lord it makes the tiny, atrophied fraction of my brain that was been devoted to studies loosely labeled "science" cringe.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sydney* Makes Things Up About Rebecca Haarlow (8)

Rebecca Haarlow totally cares what Pete thinks.

*And by "Sydney", tonight we mean "Joe."

Pete's favorite video game

Mermortal Kombat: Undersea Alliance. His favorite character was Merscorpion. He knew all the fatalities ("Out of Water," "Shark Bite") and all the rad moves. I mean, merfatalities.