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.
This week Code of the Wild aired an episode in which its fraternal hosts searched for a “lost race of giants” in the rainforests of South America. The episode was the series’ highest-rated, and its viewership spiked by almost 100,000 viewers—nearly 25%--to 533,000 live plus same day viewers, according to Nielsen figures. Part of this might be attributed to viewers discovering the show, but the steady ratings for the Expedition Unknown rerun that precedes each episode suggests that this isn’t really the case. While the total viewership is small, it is symptomatic of a disturbing trend: Episodes of fringe cable shows focusing on extreme claims, particularly with biblical or Eurocentric implications, score significantly more viewers than more mainstream mysteries.
Even I would not have guessed that swapping out To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science’s show Unidentified for William Shatner’s The UnXplained would produce such dramatic results—for Ancient Aliens. The UnXplained has run even with or outpaced Unidentified, and in its latest outing it brought in 1.127 million viewers in live plus same day viewing, according to Nielsen figures. But the effect on Ancient Aliens, one of the History Channel’s tentpole series, has been devastating. Yet again this week, Ancient Aliens viewership came in well below one million viewers, racking up the show’s consistently lowest ratings for new episodes since it returned to the History Channel from H2 several years ago. (It previously hit a similar low during a special one-off showing on a Monday, when viewers weren’t aware it would be on.) This past week, just 865,000 people watched in live plus same day viewing.
Starz’s Now Apocalypse is a strange mixture of quarterlifer angst, sex farce, and space aliens. Going into the series, I had no idea it would involve History Channel-style conspiracy theories about Reptilians, government cover-ups, and cattle mutilation. I’m not sure that the aliens added anything to the series, but the show certainly helps to continue mainstreaming conspiracy theories, albeit under the guise of fiction.
Slate Magazine Blasts "The Joe Rogan Experience" for Selling Pseudo-Enlightenment to Angry White Men
Yesterday, Slate magazine ran a lengthy feature analyzing The Joe Rogan Experience, which regular readers will know as a major vector in the spread of pseudohistory and conspiracy theories. The podcast, hosted by comedian Joe Rogan, routinely plays host to provocateurs like Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, and it has also featured stalwarts of the so-called “alternative history” movement, including Graham Hancock and Robert Schoch. In the article, Slate’s Justin Peters takes all of these disparate characters as part of a loose but thematically connected network of “grifters” and hucksters who are selling a worldview aimed at passing off white male hegemony as an intellectually adventurous form of enlightenment. To that end, Peters sees Rogan as trafficking in lies to the benefit of an aggrieved audience of mostly white men who espouse reactionary political views even as they profess to be open-minded, tolerant, and liberal.
Abraham “Avi” Loeb is back at it again, continuing down the path to guru status. The Harvard astronomer became famous a few months ago when he published a paper speculating that the Oumuamua interstellar object was an extraterrestrial craft, but since then, he has used the notoriety his declaration engendered to promote a quasi-spiritual philosophy he calls “cosmic humility,” speculating about everything from the godlike nature of ancient astronauts to his self-perception as a hero standing against critical and angry “elites.” Now, in a new Scientific American column, Loeb redoubles his claim to be a lifestyle guru in the style of Jordan Peterson.
From Russia with Love: How Old Fringe Claims about Bible "Mysteries" Became a Global Media Sensation
Most of you reading this will be aware that there are a number of British tabloids whose online editions produce what might generously be called clickbait about UFOS, ancient astronauts, and historical mysteries. We might less generously call the stories recycled garbage that barely rises above outright plagiarism of old material, which they pass off as new. Sites like The Express, The Mail Online, The Daily Star, and so on generate a lot traffic this way, but produce absolutely terrible journalism. Usually, though, their crappy material rarely makes much impact beyond other bottom-feeding websites, which piggyback on the stories for clicks. Today’s example, however, demonstrates clearly and depressingly how fringe pseudo-history goes through a laundering process as it moves from Russian sources to British clickbait websites to mainstream British papers and eventually American media.
The medicine I’m taking for my sinus infection has left me drowsy, and I have to choose between being able to breathe or being awake. Right now, I’m choosing breathing, but it has left me with less energy for writing than I would like.
Since it’s been a slow 24 hours in the world of fringe history—and a rather slow month overall, truth be told—I thought it might be worth checking in on this past week’s Nielsen ratings. Project Blue Book sank a bit more this week, declining to 1.7 million viewers. This is significant because for the first time it lost more than 50% of the viewers from lead-in Curse of Oak Island, which drew 3.55 million viewers this week. The Travel Channel’s new “mystery” series intended to replace Expedition Unknown similarly made little mark. Legend Hunter with host Pat Spain, a grandnephew of Charles Fort, examines “mysterious” and “anomalous” phenomena and sensational crimes with an eye toward “questioning mainstream science.” It unintentionally answers the question of whether a mystery still exists if no one is around to observe it. The 10 PM series spent this week hunting for the Irish Crown Jewels, which interested only 377,000 viewers. But the Travel Channel—one of the Discovery Networks properties—can at least take heart that it isn’t fellow Discovery network Destination America, the rural-themed paranormal channel. That network’s Paranormal Lockdown series attracted only 120,000 viewers at 9 PM and 127,000 at 10 PM.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.