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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (10/16/16) 9:31pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  The Drunkard's Walk
Movies:  <none>
TV:  Adam Ruins Everything [season 1], Master of None [season 1]

The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow
This is Leonard Mlodinow's book about basic probability and statistics.

And given that it was about math, it was mostly material I already knew -- it went over the basics the field without any scary formulas, and it gave a bird's-eye view of the classic fallacies we employ when we try to gauge statistics.

Common sense is great, but it gets way out of its depth when it moves outside of common experience. So your day-to-day instincts are useless, for example, if you're trying to understand subatomic physics, because that occurs at scales much, much smaller than everyday life. They fail when we responnd to rare and catastrophic edge cases, because those are things we don't run across but once in a blue moon. And they fail when we try to get a feel for probability. Most of the data governed by probability -- say, the slight edge rolling a 7 has over rolling a 6 when you have two dice -- only show up in hundreds or thousands of trials, and as you live your life, you tend to do things only once. So if you never play, say, the Monty Hall problem twenty-thousand times in a row, you're unlikely to have a gut instinct for its optimum strategy.

And that means probability tends to be wildly counterintuitive, with situations like this (my new favorite bit of mathematical trivia):
* A family has two kids. One is a girl. The odds that the other is a girl is ⅓.
* A family has two kids. One is a girl named Janet. The odds that the other is a girl is... ½.

The book itself is a smooth, easy read. The material about the history of probability and statistics is full of "characters" and was new to me. It ends o a nice note about trying to recognize what a strong role randomness plays in our everyday lives. Generally, though, The Drunkard's Walk just retreads a lot of basic math that I already knew.

Adam Ruins Everything [season 1]
This is Adam Conover's edu-tainment show that gleefully reveals the horrid truths behind beloved modern-day institutions.

This is a time for strange new genres of TV.

Television production costs keep dropping, and the audience keeps fragmenting, and new venture-capital-coffered players keep jumping into the game, and the number of shows produced keeps going up and up and up. So now, suddenly, there are these teeming masses of TV shows, to the point that years can go by before you notice some new and odd cluster of programs. So now we have the "edutainment for grownups" genre: half-hour comedies that use the techniques of rapid-fire sketch comedy to convey detailed information about esoteric topics. I'd watched Last Week Tonight and Good Eats and thought nothing of it, but now that I'm adding Adam Ruins Everything to the list, I can suddenly see a new baby genre being born.

I feel like there are a few threads that led to this. The dominance of the Jon Stewart years on The Daily Show, along with The Colbert Report, established that idea that "comedy can teach stuff to millennials", and the Cosmos reboot reintroduced a more serious take on adult education. But there are other angles as well. Some reality shows, loosely centered around Mythbusters, ditch the usual manufactured interpersonal drama and use the reality format to convey information and science. Meanwhile, you have this faster and faster editing style kicking in for comedies -- something that hits its apex in, say, those "the man your man could smell like" Old Spice ads, but is also visible in Arrested Development's frenetic intercutting among various kinds of false documents. And you also have production values in sketch comedy going up and up and up -- whatever preferences you might have in comedy, Key and Peele looks like a million dollars onscreen compared to Mad TV, which in turn looks like a million dollars compared to Kids in the Hall, which in turn looks like a million dollars compared to Monty Python.

So between that and, perhaps, the young people's fond memories of Beakman's World or Bill Nye, these half-hour educational comedy shows start cropping up like so many very smart mushrooms. I'm keen to see where it all leads. Will we see shows like this on various specialized subjects?[1] Will we finally get a female host of one of these shows?[2] Can this lead to a more educated society, or will this genre only drum up small, niche audiences?

Wait and see.

Anyway, that's a lot of words about television in general, but very little about this show in particular.

Adam Ruins Everything is a lot of fun. Like I said before, each episode picks some aspect of modern life -- marriage, or cars, or voting -- and gleefully shows how all our cultural assumptions about it are wrong, and that the truth is (usually) unsettlingly dark. All of this is presented by Adam Conover, playing a skewed version of himself, showing up in everyday situations to tell people all these horrid truths they don't want to hear.

And that means the show has a big problem: how do they keep Adam from coming across as that condescending, "Well, actually" sleazebag, always trying to score smug points by 'negging' everyone's preconceptions? They go an interesting direction with their solution.

I've only seen Ghost World once, and it was years and years ago, but there's one scene that will always stick with me. Steve Buscemi's character is out at a concert. A pretty girl strikes up a conversation with him. She says she likes the blues band that's playing. Buscemi's character corrects her that it's actually more like Americana, and goes on into needless, specific details. But it's not the "what" of what happens, but the "how" -- you can see thoughts play across his face, starting with "I hate that I feel compelled to say this", moving through "Yup, this woman hates me, as well she should" and settling into a steady groove of "Why? WHY AM I STILL TALKING?!!"

On the page, the scene should make Buscemi seem smug and contemptible, but instead it's kind of heartbreaking.

And that's the way they go with this. Conover's character is genuinely only able to relate to the world by telling people odd, unsettling trivia. So he avoids being the 'negging douchebag' type that deserves to be consumed by necrotizing bacteria. But beyond that, the show tells a story of what it's like to have a friend who's not neurotypical. In early episodes, you see the people around Adam going through an initial phase of clenched-teeth, "why can't you just be NORMAL?!" frustration, and you watch it give way to realizing that this person is trying their best, and they'll reach out as best they can, trying to allow for their new friend to communicate on his own terms. It's the same thing that friendship always is, though with a bit more effort.

I may be going a little off the deep end with that last conclusion. Keep in mind, I have had this conversation almost verbatim:

Them: The TSA is so, like, silly...

Me: I know, right? I mean, if you want to kill a bunch of airline passengers, just put a bomb in baggage claim, wait for them there, and -- boom -- done!

[Long, chilly, uncomfortable pause.]

Me: What?[3]
By the end of the pilot, when Adam sits on a bench alone after alienating an attractive woman with off-putting trivia, and he stares at the ground, sadly muttering, "I dunno. *I* think it's interesting," he's pretty much my spirit animal. And honestly, some stretches of the show feel like my inner monolog, as I (say) smile blandly while someone tells me they're taking vitamin C for their cold because they ran out of Airborne.

In any case, the show is well worth your time: slickly produced, very funny, and pleasantly informative. I eagerly look forward to getting up to speed with season two.

Master of None [season 1]
This is Aziz Ansari's half-hour comedy about being a twenty-something actor in New York.

Louie has always seemed like something too strange to live. I would have never guessed that it would have been picked up to series. I would never have guessed that it would have found an audience and run for multiple seasons. And I never, never, never would have guessed that it would have spawned a format. And yet here we are with more and more of these little observational half-hour comedies, where a comedian with a sharp point of view is given tremendous creative freedom to just... explore. Now we have Atlanta and Better Things and One Mississippi and Master of None, and suddenly the half-hour comedy is where it's at, creatively, after literally decades of dominance from serialized hourlongs about white, male, middle-aged antiheroes.

And Master of None runs with the same restless curiosity we saw in Louie. "Observational" really feels like the right word here, because a lot of episodes could be reframed as classic 90s observational-comic "did you ever notice how...?" setups. Did you ever notice how going home from a club is totally different for chicks and dudes? Did you ever notice how we just totally ignore old people? Did you ever notice how no US TV show ever has two Indian dudes?

And whereas the 90s observational comic would have then said something dismissive and snarky about just how *stupid* it was, and how little they cared about it (for, you see, in 90s comedy, whoever accrued the most snark won), Mr. Ansari and Mr. Yang are channeling Louie's intense curiosity. Each episode has a plot, sure, but the plot is usually slight and simple, and serves as a clothesline for the observations. An episode doesn't surprise you with what happens next, but with what Dev -- and, by extension, we -- learn about the world. In fact, you see a lot of the research for Modern Romance surfacing here, providing a closely- and minutely-observed view of millennials that should make youth-baiting shows like The Great Indoors embarrassed to exist.

None of this is to say that the show is perfect. A lot of the Rachel-and-Dev banter that was supposed to be adorable struck me as cloying, but I have a cold cinder where my heart is supposed to be.[4] Arnold's B-stories usually felt skippable.

But even when it didn't quite work, it was still satisfying to watch. It kept providing these detailed points of view that I'd never really seen before. And, after a decade or two of TV's angry, middle-aged white dudes, that's a relief.

For next week: I'm watching season 8 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight while exercising, and finally checking out Stranger Things. And I'm reading Prime Directive, a highly-recommended Star Trek novel.

[1] *chants "math show! math show!"*
[2] Does Full Frontal with Samantha Bee fit into this category?
[3] I may have had this conversation more than once. I learn very slowly.
[4] Still weirded out (in a good way) to see an Institution Theater alum playing Rachel.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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