Tag Archives: BBC

Faint signals, emerging trends?

imagesAn anthropologist looks for puzzles. This is, after all, the way the future often makes a first appearance.

Two puzzles have crossed my path this week:

1) Why is Gill Sans winning out over Helvetica?  (If it is, and, come on, it is.)   Long the visual language of public institutions in the UK (the subway, especially), it looked until recently (to me at least) a little out of touch.  But now it seems to be to have all the punchy clarity of the sans-serif regime without giving away the ability to evoke something bigger than the message at hand.

There is a follow up question: will Gary Hustwit ever make a documentary about it of the kind he made for Helvetica?  I would so love to see this documentary.  The Helvetica doc is a thing of wonder.  “Gill Sans” as a follow-up doc would have lots more historical depth and charm.  No modernist hoodlum this.

2) Why is that in at least two instances in popular culture, the role of the guardian angel is occupied by a psychopath.  I refer to Dexter and the BBC show Luther, and in the case of Luther specifically to the character Alice Morgan. Strictly speaking, the last person who should serve in this capacity is a psychopath, but somehow in our culture right now, the notion is not implausible.

Anyone want to write fewer-than-a-thousand words on either topic (or for the very daring both at once) should send it to me and if it’s really good, you will win a Minerva.


Thanks to Wikipedia for the Gill Sans Demo.

Anthropologist as talking head

Yesterday I did an interview with USAToday on the t-shirts, coffee mugs and other memorabilia that greeted the death of Osama bin Laden.  And seconds ago I did an interview with the BBC. 

The USAToday approach was “what are we to make of these crazy t-shirts, the ones that read things like “Obama got Osama. You’re an anthropologist, you figure it out!”

I welcomed the challenge and fell to thinking how useful t-shirts are as a kind of bulletin board.  They are cheap, cheerful, and almost instantaneously available.  

I figured you could say at a minimum that t-shirts have three functions from an expressive point of view, that allow us to share in the event, in this particular case, they give the wearer an opportunity to diminish Osama culturally, and finally, to reuse the words quoted in the USA Today article, people wear these things “to inflict a final indignity on bin Laden.”  Functions 2 and 3 are a little close, I agree.  I would nudge them apart by suggesting that function 2 says, in effect, “you are now a t-shirt,” and function 3 says, “you are now a punch line.”  

The BBC phoned to ask for an interview.  As a child raised at the knee of the CBC, I was happy to oblige.  But I must say I drew breath when the interviewer said his Skype handle was “opsbush.”  Was this to be an interview or an ambush?

It turned out to be an interview.  And I am sorry to say that I rambled in answer to several questions.  Worse than that I stumbled once or twice.  It was one thing to be bad television, and I believe my Oprah appearance demonstrates that I can be very bad TV indeed.  But to be bad radio.  Really, what excuse can you possibly have?

I opened by saying that most Americans were feeling conflicted, that most people felt the occasion called more for solemnity than joy.  But this was not the point of the interview.

Acting as if I had not just said that Americans were feeling conflicted, the interviewer pressed on to ask whether these t-shirts were not perhaps “a little sick.” To which I replied something like “Americans had suffered cruelly as a result of Osama.  Perhaps it was not be surprising that they should feel relief and even joy at his death.”  

There was one of these long silences that only the English do with real gusto.  (We Americans say nothing comes of nothing, speak again.)  I had delivered exactly the answer hoped for in these circumstances.  I had confirmed the English suspicion of our barbarity.  

To which I say, again anthropologically, that one of the differences between the US and the UK is precisely on this side of the ocean we own our emotions, even the ones of which we are not especially proud.  

Being Human, US and UK versions

I am a big fan of Being Human, the US version, that recently appeared on SyFy.  

It’s a wonderful “what if.”

What if there was a vampire, werewolf, and a ghost living in a house together?  I have to say that my initial response was puzzlement.  As in, “um, er, I don’t know. What would happen if they lived together?”

Some part of the show comes from how well the producers work out the “what if” in a manner that satisfies my sense of the plausible and takes me places I never would have guessed.  Being Human works a productive balance between “oh, that makes sense to me” and “wow, how interesting!”  

The new media consumer is especially fond of things that satisfy a sense of the plausible and the possible.  (We get to keep a foot in the familiar and one in the new.)  Managing both is key…and difficult.  (I was able to predict the death of The Good Guys early because it was clear it could not find this balance.) 

When Pam got me Apple TV for my recent birthday, I was thrilled to see that it contained BBC America and that this contained Being Human, the UK version.

What a delicious opportunity to consume what Henry Jenkins calls “transmedia,” one story told in more than a single form.  (I know someone is going to object that both shows are TV and this is not transmedia. Saying that British and American TV are the same medium is like saying British and American football are the same game.)  This transmedia opportunity is sweetened by the fact that the media in question are transatlantic. With their special relationship, the UK and US continue to be, for certain purposes, variations on a theme. How interesting then to see what these two cultures would do with the same cultural artifact. 

The first thing to notice is a bit stunning.  In the old regime, the American version of a transatlantic exercise would feature actors who were more beautiful and less talented. This is NOT what is happened in the case of Being Human.  The UK actors are better looking and the US actors might actually be the better actors.  (They may be tied on the acting question.) 

This tells us that American TV is getting better or at least ballsier.  Not to lead with beauty, or (to think of this as the trade-off it probably it was) to go with talent even when it costs you beauty, that’s a big shift for an American culture producer.  

The second point is harder to assess.  Being Human uses diversity to propel itself out of genre.  By this time, we have a pretty good idea of what and who vampires are.  Indeed, the genre is starting to congeal and now takes quite deliberate innovations (True Blood) to sustain life (all puns intended).  Ghosts too.  As a culture we have gone from having no idea what a ghost is to having a pretty clear script.  (Blame Whoopi) Goldberg.  Werewolves, not so much. 

So Being Human has a built-in “refresh” feature.  Just as we are beginning to think “been there, done that” about any one of the subgenres, we are obliged to follow the story line as it crosses these subgenres.  Or, less abstractly, just as we are thinking “vampires, yawn” we are obliged to watch a vampire interact with a werewolf and then a ghost.  New life returns to the vampire.  (ditto).  And definition comes to the werewolf.   

In effect, Being Human is an interesting and successful TV series because it is not the product of the grammar that comes from genre.  It is interesting and successful because it contains a grammar that helps it escape genre.  It is not generated but generative.  Being Human contains the secret that characterizes all the culture we care about these days.  It is both familiar and unpredictable, both from genre and beyond genre.