Back in the 1970s, BBC broadcaster James Burke set the popularization of knowledge on a dangerous path. In his TV series Connections (1978), he pioneered the big, improbable, conundrum approach to history by way of television. “What connects A, B, and C?,” he asked, where A, B, and C could be practically anything. Burke’s series proposed an interpretation of scientific history that challenged a traditionally linear view of seamlessly evolving knowledge that inevitably delivered humanity to the glorious present. And the show was popular, too.
Since then, dozens of over-caffeinated historians and TV presenters have used the same formula. If the budget is generous, the presenter pops up in improbable garb in even more improbable locations, hobnobbing with local experts and expounding wild theories against impressive natural or man-make backdrops. If the budget is small, viewers suffer through low-lit reconstructions and repetitive visual wallpaper while a Voice of God narrator tells them exactly what to think.
Discovery’s four-part series, entitled with a fine disdain for the perils of hubris, How We Invented the World, trundles onscreen very near to the nadir of the genre. The series—which aired last year in the UK—launches with a show on mobile phones, and will follow with episodes on skyscrapers, airplanes, and cars. Flashy opening graphics and time-lapsed shots of major urban centers at night promise a sophisticated look at the emergence of the cell phone as the human alter ego. But reenacted scenes of the radio room during the Titanic’s last hours are less than exciting television. Even as we come to suspect that someone, somewhere, decided he had too much to say in the narration, and not enough film to cover it, the filler imagery continues.
The actress impersonating Hedy Lamarr gazes mournfully (or is it meaningfully?) into space from multiple angles, again and again, while one reconstructed meeting, remixed and occasionally slow-motioned, stands in for the lengthy development of the first cell phone at Motorola. Even the night scenes that look so promising at the beginning of the show dim when they appear again in the episode as punctuation for narrated points. With aesthetics at this low level, the series looks more like radio with pictures than TV.
Only the interviews save this premiere from being a total disaster. While some of the interviewees on the digital end come over as rent-a-pundit soundbiters, others, like social historian Gavin Weightman and 1970s Motorola CE0, Marty Cooper, inject much-needed passion and dynamism into the proceedings. Weightman manages the difficult trick of not talking down to viewers while not over-estimating their knowledge either, with the result that his discussion of the disaster of radio communication aboard the Titanic is actually riveting. And Cooper, even 40 years on from Motorola’s launch of the first genuine personal portable phone, is still full of energy, still jubilant about his company’s victory over corporate rival Bell Labs, and still happily waving that first handset at the interviewer. He, too, turns a dry story of esoteric design and engineering innovation into high drama.
But rather than maximize these talents, the show returns over and over again to its dull footage and anonymous narrator. It even wastes the coup of snagging Jeremy Irons as an interviewee: he pops in and pops out, but the reconstructions go on forever.
While How We Invented the World offers enough believe-it-or-not facts to light up a dull dinner conversation, it never explains what links the Titanic, Luigi Galvani, Lamar, and the mining of lithium, because nothing does—except the absurd premise of this show and a woeful misunderstanding of Burke’s original argument. But in a world of 24/7 cable scheduling, coverage counts more than quality, even on the soi-disant “factual” networks like CNN. How We Invented the World exemplifies the McNuggetization of history. It dispenses its bland, pre-packaged morsels in a manner that appears to be easily digested. But the repetition and the lack of substance make soon sap the flavor as well.