TV: John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch, Star Trek: Picard (season one), Star Trek: Short Treks
Historical Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman
This is the 2013 Teaching Company course about how historians attempt to reconstruct what Jesus actually said and did.
The course's 'puzzle-solving' aspect is a lot of fun. I mean, trying to reconstruct what actually happened 2000-odd years ago in the Middle East is a nightmare. There is a smattering of documents. Almost none are contemporaneous to what happened. They were all written by people with vested interests in rewriting the story of Jesus to their own ends. They all contradict each other.
And if I recall correctly, 'reportage' wasn't really a thing back then. If I'm living in rural Galilee, and I say, "Freya cat meowed at me and jumped through the window," I don't really *mean* Freya cat meowed at me and jumped through the window. Instead, that's a *story* that gets my general principle across. And my audience would have the same page here: if I tell you <x>, it doesn't mean <x> happened like that verbatim or literally.
And somehow, we're supposed to extract reliable facts out of this.
So it's fascinating to watch Professor Ehrman patiently work through the source material, explaining how historians in his field check for self-consistency, account for bias, and line up the documentation we have against the known historical record. He explains the predominant views in the field, and touches on some of the more fringe perspectives.
And the conclusion he comes to, quite convincingly — the consensus opinion of historians — is equally fascinating: Jesus was one of the zillion or so Apocalyptic preachers of his place and time. The "son of man" was coming to judge humankind — and more importantly, stick it to the bastard Romans — within the lifetime of his listeners. We had to behave consistently with the coming Kingdom, to appease this vengeance demon coming to visit us in maybe ten or twenty years.
And it was great to put all of this into historical context. It was great to see the story put into context of Jesus's life and times, and it was great to see the writing about Jesus put into the context of those early interpreters — what was important to them, and what imprimatur they would have wanted to put on the material.
Dr. Ehrman is a great presenter: clear, convincing, and obviously passionate about the material. And he does a fine job parsing out where religious belief in Christ and historical analysis of Christ stay off of each other's turf: what things can only be matters of faith, and what can only be matters of fact.
The course was pleasant, though none of the material felt quite relevant to me, beyond showing me that Christian sects insisting that the end is nigh (and then doing some embarrassed backtracking when the world doesn't end on time) are more the rule than the exception for the religion's history.
The Next Pandemic by Ali Khan
This is the 2016 nonfiction book by Dr. Ali Khan about his career as an epidemiologist and administrator with the CDC.
Let's get this out of the way first: yes, this predicts everything that's happening now. It predicts that, eventually, a coronavirus will switch out some surface antigens such that we'd have no immunity to it, in some animal reservoir somewhere. Like most epidemiologists, Dr. Khan was more concerned with a novel influenza virus, but coronavirus was a close second.
But also, the book predicts a lot about America's bungled response to the pandemic. Yes, government officials, all the way up, underreport numbers to safeguard their own reputations. Yes, charlatans show up hawking bullshit 'cures' that just make people sicker. Yes, a lack of clear chains of command ensures that all the government health officials are constantly keystone-kops-ing into each other's way. And yes, the least-educated part of the population would decide they don't trust science and go blithely violating quarantine.
Granted, all of these things happened in third-world countries under dismal, tinpot dictatorships, but Dr. Khan does make the point that it could, as they say, happen here.
So the book itself is riveting just by virtue of its prescience, and the powerfully high-stakes subject matter. It's fun to follow Dr. Khan on his adventures around the globe, to far-flung communities afflicted by diseases new and old. And it does a great job explaining the science behind epidemics: how viruses work, how epidemiologists investigate them, and how (on a good day) public-health measures can get them under control.
That said, I found myself wishing Dr. Khan had a better editor. This isn't just because of the book's occasional typo or awkward sentence. The whole thing needed another draft or two.
The Next Pandemic drifts off-topic here and there. There's a long screed about America's pathetic, fumbled response to Hurricane Katrina. It's understandable that *any* American would be angry about this, especially one who'd had to scramble to curb the spread of disease in its aftermath. But 'we didn't plan for flooding' isn't about pandemics, and the book doesn't see the need to explain *why* it's relevant to pandemics. So the effect is that you're just wandering off-topic, listening to an elaborate chain of "and another thing!"s.
And even when The Next Pandemic sticks to its topic, the book still wants organization. The structure it has is clear enough — it's pretty much one chapter per outbreak, pretty much in chronological order. But there's no clear through-line to it. Put another way, it's not "I'm telling you about *this* outbreak, because it illustrates *this* principle, that builds the book's overall argument in *this* way." It's more like you've met Dr. Khan at a bar, and you're both a few drinks in, and he's telling you, "Okay. Okay, picture it: Sierra Leone. 1995. This is crazy."¹
And to be clear, that's still riveting material. I do very much want to know what happened in Sierra Leone in 1995. (Exec. summary: it was ebola, and it was fucking terrifying.) But you never get the feeling like it's adding up to a 'big picture'. So when, towards the end, it veers off to (rightly) slam the Bush administration's bungling of Katrina, it's actually not *so* bad, because well, what really *is* 'on topic' for this book?
Also, the book indulges in sarcasm a lot. I am, of course, no stranger to sarcasm. But I think it's tricky to use sarcasm effectively when you're trying to present information — because, definitionally, sarcasm is saying what you *don't* mean, leaving the range of things you *could* mean pretty wide. You're better off using sarcasm with an in-group of people who already know the things that you know, so they can smile knowingly and appreciate your wit.
This is definitely a good book to read these days, just to get a better handle on how outbreak responses work — both when they go right, and when they go wrong. But I can't help wondering if there's a popular-science book out there that, while it lacks this riveting, I-was-there stream of consciousness, is a little more organized and informative.
John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch
This is the 2019 musical comedy special in which stand-up comedian John Mulaney performs a bunch of comedy sketches with children.
In a perfect world, John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch is the sort of thing that peak TV would be all about. It wouldn't be eight billion showrunners all trying to make the most innocuous police procedural. It would be a bunch of wild swings at weirdly-idiosyncratic projects that would have had no place at all on the Big Three (/Four) back in the day.
So honestly, most of my reaction to the show was just "holy shit, one of the most famous comedians in America is doing a riff on PBS children's shows from at least thirty years ago." It's one of those experiences that would make you wonder if you were having a really weird dream — or, scratch that, no you wouldn't wonder if it were a really weird dream, because it's 2020, and *everything* feels like a really weird dream.
This show has several gears it works in.
I feel like it's at its best when it feels the most honest. For instance, one of the sketches is "Girl Talk", where several preteen girls chat about life with character actor Richard Kind. You can write that sketch in your head, right? You can see all the usual ways you'd heighten it, all the turns it could take, all the comic buttons it could have. What we get instead: the producers just had the four of them have a conversation, they let the cameras roll a long time, and they cut together some highlights. It's funny not because there's a sketch script goosing the action into predictable jokes; it's funny because Richard Kind is funny, and the girls are funny, and their conversation happens across this vast gulf of perspective and experience. And there's just something warm and endearing about them having a nice chat in spite of it.
The same goes for the chess game with John and Tyler going to increasingly bizarre lengths to psyche each other out. You expect a standard sketch structure; you get a hilarious, relaxed hangout comedy.
It's great to have that kind of "default gear" to work from, because then when they switch to a deliberate, tightly scripted piece, it really pops. Even the weakest sketches — for my money, that's "Plain Plate of Noodles" and "Do Flowers Exist at Night?" — are solidly performed with fun, catchy music.
And honestly, most of the traditional scripted comedy works well, usually by keeping some of the easygoing honesty of the 'hangout' sections and cast interviews. The animated-movie focus group surprises us just because the kids keep playing out honestly liking the movie. The "Googy is dead" sketch works because the kids are just playing, straightforwardly, how they'd respond to Mulaney's constant stream of death announcements.
Sure, this isn't the funniest thing I've ever seen, but it's the funniest thing I've seen in a long time. It's light, and it's fun, and thank god it's different from everything else. Well worth your valuable time.
Star Trek: Picard (season one)
This is the 2020 CBS All Access show that follows the erstwhile Enterprise captain twenty years later, as he stumbles onto a dangerous Federation conspiracy.
Watching Picard was such a weird experience.
I am used to watching science fiction shows, and reading science fiction generally, that gets its *plotting* right — you visit exciting places, and there are explosions and fights and crazy technology and moral quandaries — but skimps on its characters and relationships. So: every time the plot stops to catch a breath, you realize you're stuck with thinly-drawn archetypes who talk in bland, interchangeable dialog.
It was weird to see Picard get that exactly backwards.
It treats old Next Generation characters with warm and nuanced understanding. It draws its new characters with bold strokes, but quickly fleshes them out into two-dimensional supporting cast members. Even the doctor who shows up for one episode is beautifully acted, slots perfectly into the show's lore — we, too, feel like we've known him for forty-odd years.
And the scenes where everything, however briefly, stops for a breath — those are where the show really shines. The little details of running the vineyard, or Riker and Picard chatting over pizza, or, of course, the season's penultimate scene (however clumsily it was shoehorned in): these are gorgeous and riveting.
And then... there's the plot of the show.
To be clear, the elaborate conspiracy — the one that Picard and company patiently unravel over the ten hours of running time — is perfectly competent. The story arc has nicely-scheduled reveals and betrayals. Mr. Stewart does a masterful job conveying the situation's stakes for Picard himself. And the writers find a tidy way to finish with a high-stakes, beat-the-clock scenario that lets Picard rely on his greatest strengths from the TV series.
And yet. And yet. Conspiracy stories are so hard.
Conspiracy stories are hard because, by definition, you spend most of a conspiracy story in a state of "weird stuff is happening and I don't know why." That means, if you're not careful, the whole story sinks into a quagmire of vague strangeness: you don't know what's at stake, you don't know what anyone wants, and you don't know what it all means thematically. This typically causes the worst problems in sci-fi, where 'weird stuff' can be *so* weird, the story leaves you without even a guess as to the 'why'.
There are ways around the problem. You can set intermediate stakes through the story, which Picard kind of does: at first it's "why is this weird fugitive after me", and then it's "how do we save this other lady from the Romulans?", and finally it's "how do we save the world?"
You can make the intermediate objectives very clear and logical, so that the 'weird stuff' doesn't have to make immediate sense, it's just adversity to react to. Picard kind of does this, although there are long stretches of "I dunno, maybe let's go here, where person <x> might be able to give us our next side-quest".
The hardest thing to crack is the *thematic* vagueness. Here, you have to make the intermediate stuff *about* something, and that theme has to match up to what the conspiracy winds up being about. Even Rubicon (1, 2, 3), one of the great conspiracy shows of all time, falters on this somewhat. They do a great job of making the "what's going on?" phase *about* something — ultimately, about how the pressure of government intelligence work drives very smart people very crazy — but I can't even remember how the conspiracy 'turned out'.
And here, Picard feels muddled. I *never* really know what it's about. It seems to be about Picard regretting his 'useless' years of idyllic retirement.² And then maybe it's about the Romulans mistreating their captives? Or there's a crew member dealing with their estranged family? And what the show is ultimately revealed to be literally about — the answer to all the questions posed early on — has nothing about the themes we've explored so far.
Maybe there's a way to tie it all together, but watching it, it feels like a muddle that finally resolves into a "okay, well sure, I guess this might as well happen".
And this hints at the deeper problem with the show: story-wise, there is just no reason for Picard to exist. There was nothing left unresolved to Picard's story through the TV show and the films, nothing that cried out for one last character arc. Ultimately, Picard will always feel like a strained excuse to dust off old, beloved characters, and take them out on one last ride. The results are fun, but they'll always feel a little shallow.³
And just on a nuts-and-bolts level, the scenes where we're deepest into the conspiracy story are the weakest of the show. We see conspirators at Starfleet making evil plots, and we wonder what happened to the brilliant, earnest writers that made "Picard talks to his dog" heartfelt and compelling. We see the sibling Romulan spies, and not only does the incest vibe feel faddish and wearily 'edgy', but they also have to patiently explain in clumsy ADR that they were both adopted, and adopted from different sets of parents.
The bad guys in Picard feel blandly evil, and the further away the show gets from them, the better.
And honestly, it's not that rewarding to *get* to the end, and to have all the answers revealed. By this point, there are so many layers of "gah, I was only *pretending* to do <x> to get them to do <y> so somebody else would do <z>" that it's hard to track the story. In the moment, you just trust that there's a ticking clock, and if they don't do <x> in the next <y> minutes they're all doomed, and now we have the usual "three teams doing separate action sequences" move. But it's hard to tell why everybody's doing what they're doing.
By the time they hit their last big emotional scene — the one that was, to some extent, their whole motivation for doing the series — you just throw up your hands at all the plot machinations and go with it. At least you're back to emotional storytelling instead of plot shoe-leather.
All of that said, I *really liked* Picard. Again, every time it catches its breath, a great scene blooms. Again, the characterization, apart from the villains, is lovely and gives an excellent cast a lot they can sink their teeth into. (For that matter, the returning cast turn in surprisingly good performances, from the ST:TNG main cast to the returning one-off guest stars.)
Plus, Picard does lovely work incorporating its source material. Ever since watching TRoS stumble through its two-hours-plus of clumsy fanservice, I've found it particularly interesting to see how shows like Watchmen and The Mandalorian work within their source material. With Watchmen, the work is dazzling, as it finds elaborate ways to quote the comic book, and weaves an intricate storyline through the original's story beats while extrapolating it out to the current day. The Mandalorian is more cautious, generally quoting the feel of the Original Trilogy while using its lore for key plot points.
With Picard, there's *so much* material to draw on in Trekthat nearly *everything* can be a reference. The show doesn't go quite that far, but it sprinkles references everywhere, large and small, and never feels like it has to draw particular attention to any one thing. Sure, the AI research organization is named "The Daystrom Institute" — that's because it's named after Richard Daystrom, who was in one episode of TOS, whereas the Institute is referenced once in TNG — but you don't *need* to know that, and we don't have any idiotic dialog where one character reminds another about who it's named after. Instead, there's this pleasant, constant buzz of referenced material that gives Picard a surprisingly lived-in feeling. It's that relaxed quality that washes over you, however unconsciously, when sci-fi writers have really thought through their world-building.
Picard also fills in a surprising amount of new material — for instance, there's a mountain of newly-canon material about Romulan culture in this show. But since it's interleaved with confident references to *existing* canon, it feels like it's always been part of the show.⁴
And most of it is shot beautifully. I guess we're in an age where everything can look like a Terrence Malick movie, and I have no complaints about this. The special effects are convincing and pretty, though I will always wince at transparent HUDs.⁵
And hell, by "first season of a Trek show" standards, Picard is *amazing*. Compared to the other entries in a franchise where the norm is to start with 20 hours of confused throat-clearing, Picard hits the ground running, telling a fun, twisty story to eventually put together a new crew to go on new adventures.⁶ I'm glad I saw it, and I'll be back to see what they do next.
Star Trek: Short Treks
This is CBS All Access's 2018 anthology of short films set in the Star Trek universe.
After watching Star Trek: Picard, this anthology was a short, pleasant palate-cleanser. The longest episode is only twenty minutes, and the shortest is just five. It provides a nice variety of tone and subject matter, so if you don't like the current one, just wait a few minutes and something different will come along. None of the writing is that impressive, but some of the guest stars (Rainn Wilson, H. Jon Benjamin, Rebecca Romijn, and the world's most adorable tardigrade) elevate the material.
Mainly it's just fun to see the anthology playing around in this universe, ferreting out interesting little corners that we haven't seen before. If you're not into Star Trek, this won't win you over, but if you are, it's a fun hour or two of cute short stories.
For next week: I've got a book about everything wrong with the human body in the backlog. Meanwhile, I'm watching the first season of the original Star Trek and the third season of Parks and Recreation. I'm reading a book about Hollywood producer Jon Peters and a quite challenging Spanish-language sci-fi book; on The Great Courses I'm listening to an audiocourse about writing essays.
¹ And then he drifts off a bit, telling you how his faith in God got him through a life-threatening airplane crisis, but then he's back on the story again.
² ... which kinda seems like wretched 'productivity gospel' nonsense, but I'll let it slide.
³ I think we all secretly long for Chabon's original instinct, which is to just show Picard solving low-stakes mysteries in happy French retirement.
⁴ Kudos to Kevin Miller for pointing this out to me. I honestly just assumed they were repeating lots of earlier Romulan material.
⁵ They have their uses, but generally: kill them with fire. (Why would I want to see an important display *and* the chair across the room? I don't even want translucent windows on my desktop, ffs.)
⁶ ... which are now surely delayed due to coronavirus. Sorry everyone.