Sunday, October 19, 2014

TV Time: How We Got to Now

James Burke created two television series that I just fell in love with when I was a kid and teen.  The first was "The Day the Universe Changed" and the second was Connections.  Connections was aired first in the 1970s, but I personally viewed Universe first.  Both series are similar in style to Carl Sagan's Cosmos wherein the host leads the viewer through a series of events surrounding a topic with an on camera host giving the play by play.  In Cosmos' "Blues for the Red Planet" Sagan gives a history of Mars in the popular imagination and the going and
Burke rocking that 70s style
changing search for life on Mars.  An episode of Connections propounded how mining pushed for the need for more efficient pumps that resulted in the steam engine and birthed the industrial revolution.   Granted, sometimes the storytelling upon reflection is somewhat forced to fit story, and things are likely more complex than presented and yet it was fascinating.

Now the BBC and PBS have joined forces to produce How We Got to Now, a series hosted by Steven Johnson revealing how relatively unknown folks in today's popular memory invented and triggered events that drastically changed the world.  I have watched the first two episodes and it has a very 'Day the Universe Changed' vibe about it more than a Cosmos one.

Before I watched the show, I did not know who Johnson was but upon doing some research, I knew of some of his work.   He has written a number of books and articles for outlets such as Wired discussing technology and its interaction with society.  Thought-provoking stuff for the most part.  The first episode, Clean, tackles how the modern world became the much more sanitary world of non-filth-filled street along with clean drinking water.  The second episode, Time, weaves the tale on how time went from something very local and daily to the standardized international time standard society enjoys today.  

I do not wish to share any spoilers, but with both while I found them highly entertaining, I also
Sagan's 80's academic chic
think the links shown to tell each episode's story felt simplistic to me.  It was not untruthful, but I think a lot more was going on in health and sanitation theory than was shared.  Granted, to make it a more in-depth review could take six hours of air time on cleanliness alone.  On the time part, for a series that is meant to focus on little known people who contributed a great deal to our modern culture bringing up Leonard da Vinci on the time episode seems to undermine the show's premise.  

Still, the show is fun to watch and in particular the story on how Chicago was retrofitted to install a modern infrastructure was highly engaging.  The style of the show is to intermix stock 'olde time' black and white footage to evoke the feeling for what the author is trying to convey rather than for the footage to be historically accurate.  I am a sucker for such things, but when the footage is anachronisic with footage from say the early 1900s describing something from the mid-19th century, I get a tad annoyed.  It is more a personal quibble and far from a deal breaker.  

Johnson is an enthusiastic host.  His personal interest in the topics clearly comes through to the viewer.  Unfortunately, Johnson does not have the British professorial speech of James Burke or the erudite poetic speech patterns of Carl Sagan.  It's how I'd imagine me speaking to a camera if I was given my own three part series.  Here's a guy sporting a Northeastern American accent who watched a lot of James Burke and Carl Sagan as a kid, and does the David Letterman style of television by acknowledging the camera crew and other breaking the fourth wall elements. This is not a bad thing, but for me it's weird seeing a very idealized version of me on tv.  

Overall, with some of the above exceptions noted, I so far have enjoyed the show.  I definitely plan to watch the remaining four episodes.  For some reason, when the BBC and/or PBS get together to produce or carry a show, it somehow comes off more authoritative than similar stuff churned out on most 'educational' cable channels.  I do not enjoy it as much as the original Cosmos or The Day the Universe Changed, but it might be the equal of the latest Cosmos or Connections III.  


  1. Thank you for identifying the blatant similarities between HWGTN and The Day The Universe Changed and other works by James Burke. From what I have seen so far, one could sync Burke's episodes with Johnson's. "Clean" covers much of the ground of "What the Doctor Ordered" in Universe. Johnson even uses the same map of cholera deaths around a certain contaminated water pump that Burke used thirty years ago. "Time" covers ground with "Point of View." Don't get me wrong; I like the idea of revisiting this material with new video and on-camera hosts, but I am very unhappy that in all the discussion of how awesome this new series is, there has been very little acknowledgement of the debt owned to Burke, who after all is still alive and working.

  2. I suppose it would be crude to say that this Steve Johnson dude has totally ripped off James Burke. . . . But let's say it anyway.

  3. Interestingly, Johnson claims he knew nothing about James Burke. From Reddit: "Every since my second book, Emergence, people have been telling me that my work reminds them of the great BBC series Connections (and its sequels) which I had never seen as a kid. But I went back and watched/read them after I kept hearing this from people. How We Got To Now has a similar approach to history as James Burkes's shows/books, though stylistically they are quite different."


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