Last week, I discussed Expedition Unknown host Josh Gates in his role as a trustee of the Archaeological Institute of America, a nonprofit which “promotes archaeological inquiry and public understanding of the material record of the human past to foster an appreciation of diverse cultures and our shared humanity.” I criticized the AIA for giving a prominent role, both administratively and in terms of public events, to Gates because his program had included some dubious content and awful guests. Gates has occasionally spoken in glowing terms about the ancient astronaut theory, and his show airs on a network owned by Discovery Communications, a conglomerate responsible for some of the most damaging pseudoscientific series of the past few years, such as Legends of the Lost.
The first season of the four-episode French science fiction romantic drama Il était une seconde fois aired on ARTE in September but made its international debut on Netflix last month under the title Twice Upon a Time. (A second series is in the works in France.) Like all but a few of Netflix’s foreign language imports, this one passed under the radar of most critics, and the few that did review the series really didn’t like it, while several French critics (though not all) praised its atmospheric moodiness and impressionistic storytelling, while conceding it’s artsy elements weren’t for everyone. Perhaps surprisingly, I had a quite positive reaction to the moody miniseries. I think that most of the critics in both languages misread it at a foundational level.
Archaeological Institute of America Takes Cash from Cable Purveyor of Pseudoarchaeology Shows and Helps Make Josh Gates Look Good
This is another one of those blog posts where I make enemies by pointing out that corporate cash is corrupting. This past weekend the Archaeological Institute of America, a respected nonprofit archaeological organization, held ArchaeoCon 2020 in Washington, D.C. This event, which occurred alongside the AIA Annual Meeting, was intended to promote archaeology and to “showcase” both the AIA and American archaeology for a public audience. So why was the main attraction a lecture by Expedition Unknown host Josh Gates, a man who went on TV and on the radio to tell America that he was pretty sure space aliens were involved in building some archaeological sites? That answer explains quite a bit about the destructive but symbiotic nature between powerful organizations and money.
The new version of Dracula airing on the BBC and Netflix this week comes to us from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, whose previous collaborations on Doctor Who and Sherlock share more than a little DNA with the thematically muddled but intermittently interesting three-part vampire drama. Like Sherlock, their Dracula aims to reinvent Bram Stoker’s novel, but the result is more of a pastiche of a century of Dracula adaptations spiced with a superficial gloss on toxic masculinity and feminism and wrapped in a veneer of pseudo-camp and linguistic anachronism that cut hard against the vestigial Gothic horror the miniseries retains from the source material. British critics loved the series, but I wonder if it doesn’t play more to a British sensibility than to an American one. I have a hard time buying any Dracula who quips like a Batman villain as a timeless supernatural menace.
Perhaps more than any year in recent memory, 2019 was the year in which fringe history stopped being fringe and went completely mainstream. This year, we saw pseudohistory and conspiracy theories top the literary bestseller lists, multiply across cable channels like mushrooms on a rotten log, and attract record crowds to traveling carnivals masquerading as pseudohistory “fan” conventions. It perfectly captures the tenor of the times for the post-truth era that the very notions of fact and fiction ceased to have meaning. This was a long, hard year, both for the world and also for me personally. After dealing with family health problems, buying and selling a house (and still not being able to close on selling the old one until early 2020, nearly half a year after the sale), writing two books, and a knot of lawyers for many different developments, I am ready for this unpleasant year to end. Let’s look back in anger:
Before we begin today, I am pleased to report that Unexplained + Unexplored hit a series low on Sunday for its episode hunting for Maya in Florida, attracting only 283,000 live plus same day viewers, according to Nielson’s fast national ratings. On the other hand, it’s also a sad commentary on TV viewers that almost half the show’s audience tuned out the first time it explored a topic that wasn’t about white people. Episodes focusing on biblical, early Euro-American, or Eurocentric conspiracies had anywhere from 50% to 80% more viewers that the show’s one venture into non-white history. Let’s hope that the declining ratings consign this abomination of a “history” show to cancellation hell.
When I first got Netflix, the service’s algorithms had me pegged as a fan of horror, science fiction, and other genre staples, and its recommendations were targeted accordingly. Then one day the magic computer systems that measure our every action calculated that I was gay, and so overnight Netflix started recommending all manner of programming about drag queens and some Golden Girls-adjacent category they called “strong female friendships”—subjects of no interest to me. Stubbornly, Netflix refused to let the stereotype go despite my manifest uninterest, even sprinkling in shows about decorating and fashion. What, really, do they program their algorithms to believe? After a couple of weeks of this, the computers tried a new tack and suddenly all of the thumbnails for shows featured shirtless young men smiling and flexing, even when the content had nothing to do with the imagery. Eventually, Netflix’s algorithms calmed down and settled back into highlighting genre fare, but it was instructive to see the way the service’s marketing changes according to how they stereotype their users.
Last week, Netflix debuted producer Ryan Murphy’s new satirical dramedy The Politician, which tells the story of a high schooler named Payton Hobart (Ben Platt from Dear Evan Hansen) who will stop at nothing to win the student government presidency as part of a thirty-year plan to reach the presidency of the United States. Subsequent seasons will chart his progress to the White House. The series produced polarizing reactions, with many major critics arguing that the show is a tonally inconsistent mess anchored by a protagonist whose unlikable, over-mannered persona was unrealistic and off-putting. Willa Paskin of Slate, for example, called Payton not a real person but “a mannered cartoon of one.” TV Guide’s Matt Roush called him “a chilly antihero it's hard to muster much empathy for,” and “more robot than human.” I think that these critics are wrong, and as someone who was basically that person in high school, I can speak to where they err.
Today I am going to break format, as I did a year ago, to discuss the new season of the Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why. Regular readers will recall that my first real job after college was reviewing the teen soap The O.C. for a now-defunct online publication (for which show producers gave me a backhanded compliment in its fourth season), and I have retained an affection for the genre that has long outlasted my own young adult years. I hadn’t intended to talk about 13 Reasons Why again, having said all I thought I needed to say last year, but the current season has left me somewhat dumbfounded, almost to the point of regretting that I had defended the controversial show in its unnecessary but intermittently compelling second season. Its third season undoes almost everything that second did right while doubling down on all that it did wrong in ways that made me uncomfortable, both as a viewer and for the actors who had to tell this deeply wrongheaded story.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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