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You Are What You Forget

King Tut
Pharoah Ball: TV's most informative Egyptologists are constantly pitching new shows about the lives of the ancient dynasties' leaders, like everybody's favorite golden boy, King Tutankhamen.

Photo by Tony Stone Worldwide

Science schlock meets serious highbrow exploration in television programming that makes pseudo experts--and voyeurs--of us all

By Christina Waters

TURNING TO THE MAN ON THE other couch, the one with the remote control in his hand, I say, "Honey, haven't we seen this one before?" It's yet another installment of Ancient Mysteries, wherein the corpulent John Rhys-Davies breathily promises us juicy gossip about the long-dead.

"Probably," he replies. "We've seen them all."

He's got that right. We've seen every TV show ever made on the pharaohs (I know King Tut better than his mother ever did), every show about outer space, everything ever done on those poster children for postmodern collectivism--the meerkats--and lots about Genghis Khan and his immense progeny.

We have wandered the ends of the earth with that irrepressibly upbeat Brit, David Attenborough, in his quest for definitive botanical metaphors. We've followed Hugo Van Lawick into wild dog burrows year after year. We even stay glued when a puffy-eyed David McCallum promises to unlock a few dodgy episodes of astrological warlockery with metaphysically questionable types like Nostradamus and Madame Blavatsky.

Experts on Martian landscapes and hurricane patterns in the Floridian outback, we are--in short--science-show groupies and make absolutely no distinction between the good, the bad and the just plain irresponsible. If it involves data, dead Egyptian kings, weird animal behavior and wild speculation of the psychokinetic variety--we're there!

Television hath powers to soothe the savage intellect, and nowhere is that more, well, mesmerizing than in its ongoing quest to redeem its integrity by offering educational programming by night to the same indiscriminate sponges that soak up confessional orgies and game shows by day.

Nature, Nova, PBS specials that involve really killer production values and anything--anything--on location at an archaeological dig have us hooked. It doesn't take a rocket scientist--though we love anything with those guys, too--to figure out what all this displacement of real exploration and education is about.

It's about the fact that moving pictures are far more effective in capturing our tiny, aging attention spans than Miss Matney barking at us about carbon chains in the 10th grade. Oh, we know we should have paid attention in class and really learned physics and chemistry--we probably shouldn't have cut the arms off little Susie's frog in dissection just to get her attention--but hey, we were young and restless. We were not yet in possession of the Big Picture available to us now on the Small Screen.

On TV, science is manageable in small half-hour gulps. It comes packaged with exotic locations, crisp descriptions, pithy and often colorful interviews--who can resist that rogue paleontologist Bob Bacher and his wild hair and big felt hat?

Next to Bob, I'm unofficially the world's living expert on the behavior and dining patterns of T. rex, not to mention velociraptors and my personal favorite, the triceratops. Big lumbering reptiles that no one's ever seen a picture of and who all died out over 100 million years ago.

I also know as much about radio astronomy as did Carl Sagan (thanks in large part to the late, loquacious Carl), and I certainly could go mano a mano with guys like John Romer, the little squinty-eyed Egyptologist. After all, I am their creation.

Really Lost Kingdoms

LIKE MOST SCI-TV JUNKIES, I also suffer from delayed drainage syndrome. That's where all that stuff about the Middle Kingdom and Rameses and protons and quasars exits the brain cells within 24 hours of viewing. I can't quite keep it all straight. And I don't have to. It'll be on again next summer.

I mean, I've logged literally hundreds of hours with my pharoanic forebears. I know about the wax cones they wore to parties that melted into sticky perfume by cocktail time. I am an expert on secret entrances to the pyramids, on the latest theories about the true age of the Sphinx, and I know more than is prudent about the tendency of white males to plunder tombs in romantic attempts to unearth the mysteries of the universe.

Ancient mysteries, if you will. It beats the hell out of solving any current mysteries, don't you think? And that's why we keep watching, obsessively, and then forgetting, like the Greek gods who drank the waters of Lethe. Next day, the tape is blank again, and we can cheerfully watch yet another installment of this or that discovery of yet another--or is it the same one, over and over?--mummified pharaoh. (Yeah, I could do a whole book on the uses of natron and forceps in removing internal organs and preserving flesh during the fourth-dynastic embalming heyday.)

Maybe we hunger and thirst for mystery in an era of banal literalness, where what you see is, pathetically, all you get.

And how about those meerkats? Meerkats--perky, adorably tiny and furry, yet exotic and nonthreatening. The ideal pets. The ideal inhabitants of the planet. We watch in wonder. "Why can't humans be more like meerkats?" we gush, enchanted by these miniature colonies of hyperactive African mammals.

So addictive is this National Geo of the collective unconscious that we even extend our fascination to those trumped up, recycled theories about extraterrestrials and the Mayan temples. We are willing to go along with discussions of strange magnetic forces discovered in Arkansas. We want to find the buried treasure of the Templars and are willing to believe that somehow they are related to the children of Christ and Mary Magdalene. You bet.

The educational instincts of television programmers are a lot like Pandora's box crossed with a Catholic agenda. Guilt over all the crapola that keeps networks richer-than-God creates this compulsion toward The Learning Channel, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and the like. Yet in educationalizing entertainment--i.e. tarting up those appeals for our gullible, brainwashed advertising dollars--television has opened up the leitmotif of painless nonfiction to any carpetbagger who's got a bridge to sell.

Educational television re-turns us into students--or, rather, gullible children who'll eat up anything that's packaged well enough. The genetic disposition toward armchair travel and the need for what passes for intelligent diversion do the rest. Another PBS half-hour on King Tut's tomb? I've probably seen it before, but sign me up anyway.

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From the Sept. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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