Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #4 – HBO’s “Chernobyl”: Why Do We Enjoy Watching Suffering?

On the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt first get into the various degrees of looseness in something’s being “based on a true story.” Does it matter if it’s been changed to be more dramatic? We then consider the show as entertainment: Why do people enjoy witnessing suffering? Why might a drama work (or not) for you?

We also touch on Game of ThronesThe KillingGod Is DeadIt’s Always Sunny in PhiladelphiaBig Little LiesSchindler’s List, Vice, Ip Man, and more.

Some of the articles we looked at to prepare:

Our Lucy Lawless interview will be out next week! Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is a member of the The Partially Examined Life Podcast Network.

Get more at prettymuchpop.com. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Google Play. Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is produced by the Partially Examined Life Podcast Network. This episode includes bonus content that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop.

Mister Rogers Creates a Prime Time TV Special to Help Parents Talk to Their Children About the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (1968)

Nearly three minutes into a patient blow-by-blow demonstration of how breathing works, Fred Rogers’ timorous hand puppet Daniel Striped Tiger surprises his human pal, Lady Aberlin, with a whammy: What does assassination mean?

Her answer, while not exactly Webster-Merriam accurate, is both considered and age-appropriate. (Daniel's forever-age is somewhere in the neighborhood of four.)

The exchange is part of a special primetime episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, that aired just two days after Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination.




Rogers, alarmed that America’s children were being exposed to unfiltered descriptions and images of the shocking event, had stayed up late to write it, with the goal of helping parents understand some of the emotions their children might be experiencing in the aftermath:

I’ve been terribly concerned about the graphic display of violence which the mass media has been showing recently. And I plead for your protection and support of your young children. There is just so much that a very young child can take without it being overwhelming.

Rogers was careful to note that not all children process scary news in the same way.

To illustrate, he arranged for a variety of responses throughout the Land of Make Believe. One puppet, Lady Elaine, is eager to act out what she has seen: "That man got shot by that other man at least six times!”

Her neighbor, X the Owl, doesn't want any part of what is to him a frightening-sounding game.

And Daniel, who Rogers’ wife Joanne intimated was a reflection "the real Fred,” preferred to put the topic on ice for future discussions—a luxury that the grown up Rogers would not allow himself.

The episode has become notorious, in part because it aired but once on the small screen. (The 8-minute clip at the top of the page is the longest segment we were able to truffle up online.)

Writer and gameshow historian Adam Nedeff watched it in its entirety at the Paley Center for Media, and the detailed impressions he shared with the Neighborhood Archive website provides a sense of the piece as a whole.

Meanwhile, the Paley Center’s catalogue credits speak to the drama-in-real-life immediacy of the turnaround from conception to airdate:

Above is some of the footage Rogers feared unsuspecting children would be left to process solo. Readers, are there any among you who remember discussing this event with your parents... or children?

Ever vigilant, Rogers returned in the days immediately following the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, with a special message for parents who had grown up watching him.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

What Happened to the 1200 Paintings Painted by Bob Ross? The Mystery Has Finally Been Solved

Very few artists enjoy the degree of recognition that’s been conferred upon the late television educator Bob Ross, though sales of his work hover around zero.

It’s not due to scarcity. Ross pumped out three nearly-identical paintings per episode of his series, The Joy of Painting (watch them online here). That's 403 episodes over the course of 31 seasons on public television—or 1209 canvases of clouds, mountains, and “happy little trees.”

Shouldn’t economics dictate that these would have only increased in value following their creator’s untimely death from lymphoma in 1994?




A handful have been donated to the Smithsonian National Museum Of American History’s permanent collection. Leaving those aside, why are there no Bob Rosses fetching high prices on the auction block?

Is the painter’s legendary hypnotic appeal a factor? Did he subconsciously manipulate even the most cutthroat collectors into a state of sentimental attachment wherein profit matters not a jot?

As The New York Times-produced video above points out, Ross’ great mission in life was to get others painting—quickly and joyfully.

Which is not to say he blithely tossed the fruits of his labor into the incinerator after that purpose had been served.

The reason Ross’ paintings aren’t on the market is they’re neatly stacked in cardboard cartons at Bob Ross Inc. in Herndon, Virginia. It hardly constitutes archival storage, but the boxes are neatly numbered, and everything is accounted for.

And that is where they’re likely to remain, according to executive assistant Sarah Strohl and president Joan Kowalski, the daughter of Ross’ longtime business partner. (Her mother, Annette is Ross’ former student and the foremost authenticator of his work.)

For now, if anyone endeavors to sell you a Bob Ross original, it’s safe to assume it’s a fake.

Better yet, paint your own. Bob Ross Inc. tends to both the master’s reputation and his lucrative off-screen business, selling instructional books and painting supplies.

Be forewarned, though, it’s won't be as easy as the ever-placid master made it seem. Have a look at these comedians scrambling to keep up with his moves for the Bob Ross Challenge, a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Ross, of course, never broke a sweat on camera, which lends a bit of cognitive dissonance to the Times’ video’s frenetic editing. (I never thought I’d have to issue a seizure warning for something Bob Ross-related, but those canvases flash by awfully quickly at the 1:09 mark and again at 10:36. )

Explore a complete database of 31 seasons’ worth of Bob Ross’ Joy of Painting artworks here. Or watch all of the televised shows here. Just don’t expect to purchase one any time soon.

Related Content: 

Watch Every Episode of Bob Ross’ The Joy Of Painting Free Online: 403 Episodes Spanning 31 Seasons

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on September 9 for the kick off of another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

The Ruins of Chernobyl Captured in Three Haunting, Drone-Shot Videos

Voices of Chernobyl—Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the 1986 nuclear explosion in Ukraine—brings together the harrowing testimonies of over 500 eyewitnesses to the accident: Firefighters, nurses, soldiers, former Soviet officials, engineers, nuclear scientists, and ordinary Soviet citizens (at the time), who saw, but could not understand, events that would cost tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of lives.

We will never know the exact toll, due to both internal cover-ups and the immeasurable long-term effect of over 50 million curies of radionuclides spread out over the Soviet Union, Europe, and the globe for over three decades. But Alexievich’s book eschews “the usual approach of trying to quantify a disaster in terms of losses and displacement,” notes Robert Matthews at the Journal of Nuclear Medicine. She opted instead to tell the stories “of individuals and how the disaster affected their lives.”




The inherently moving, dramatic stories of people like Lyudmilla Ignatenko—the wife of a doomed firefighter whose unforgettable journey opens the book—immediately draw us into the “psychologic and personal tragedy” of the disaster. For their vividness and sheer emotional impact, these stories have a cinematic effect, filling our imagination with images of grisly tragedy and a grim persistence we might not exactly call heroism but which certainly counts as a close cousin.

It’s no wonder, then, that parts of Alexievich’s deservedly-Nobel-winning history made such a brilliant transition to the screen in Craig Mazin’s HBO miniseries, which draws from stories like Lyudmilla’s in its portrait of the explosion and its containment. The series' psychological focus, and the need to create individual heroes and villains, creates “confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable” in reality, as Masha Gessen writes in her critique at The New Yorker. We cannot trust Chernobyl as history, though it is incredibly compelling as historical fiction.

Rather what the show gives viewers, writes Gessen, is a stunningly accurate visual portrayal of the time period, one that seems at times to have recreated historical footage shot-for-shot. The show’s total immersion in the bleak, bureaucratic world of mid-eighties Soviet Russia has so enthralled viewers that people have taken to posting Instagram photos of themselves inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Though it may seem like a foolish thing to do given the levels of radiation still present in much of the area, Chernobyl has in fact been slated for redevelopment since 2007. Tourists began visiting the area not long afterwards.

Since the zone became accessible, hours of footage from Chernobyl and nearby city of Pripyat, former home of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, have appeared in amateur video and and more professional productions like “Postcards from Pripyat” (top), shot by Danny Cooke for CBS, “The Fallout,” a demo reel shot by Aerobo Designs, and the drone footage in the Wall Street Journal video just above. These are stunning montages of decaying Soviet cities left behind in time. Even emptied of the individuals whose stories keep us compulsively reading eyewitness accounts like Alexievich’s and watching fictionalized dramas like Mazin’s, the videos still have a story to tell, a visual account of the remains of an empire brought low by corruption, fear, and lies.

Related Content:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Scenes from HBO’s Chernobyl v. Real Footage Shot in 1986: A Side-By-Side Comparison

Audiences today can't get enough of history, especially history presented as a podcast or a prestige television series. Best of all is the historical prestige television series accompanied by its own podcast, currently exemplified by Chernobyl, HBO's five-episode dramatization of the events leading up to and the aftermath of the titular Soviet nuclear disaster. "The material culture of the Soviet Union is reproduced with an accuracy that has never before been seen in Western television or film — or, for that matter, in Russian television or film," The New Yorker's Masha Gessen writes of the show. "Soviet-born Americans — and, indeed, Soviet-born Russians — have been tweeting and blogging in awe at the uncanny precision with which the physical surroundings of Soviet people have been reproduced."

But along with all the praise for the accuracy on Chernobyl's surface has come criticism of its deeper conception of the time and place it takes as its setting: "its failure to accurately portray Soviet relationships of power," as Gessen puts it, or to acknowledge that "resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life. But resignation is a depressing and untelegenic spectacle. So the creators of Chernobyl imagine confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable."




Among the chilling truths of the real story of the Chernobyl disaster is how many people involved knew beforehand what could, and probably would, go wrong with the reactor that exploded on April 26, 1986. But Chernobyl, adhering to "the outlines of a disaster movie," instead pits a lone truth-teller against a set of self-serving, malevolent higher-ups.

Chernobyl creator and writer Craig Mazin is not unaware of this, as anyone who has listened to the miniseries' companion podcast knows. On each episode, Mazin discusses (with Peter Sagal from Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!, incidentally) the complications of bringing such a complex event, and one that involved so many people, to the screen three decades later, and the inherent tradeoffs involved between historical faithfulness and artistic license. The video essay from Thomas Flight above combines clips from the Chernobyl podcast with not just clips from Chernobyl itself but the real-life source footage that inspired the show. The six-minute viewing experience showcases the often-astonishing recreations Chernobyl accomplishes even as it casts doubt on the possibility of ever truly recreating history on the screen. But watching creators take on that increasingly daunting challenge is precisely what today's audiences can't get enough of.

via BoingBoing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Psychological Dimensions of Game of Thrones: The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast Explores the Fantasy Spectacle

The HBO TV show Game of Thrones, like its source books, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, is classified as "fantasy," but that term as literary classification has become unmoored from its literal meaning. A person's fantasy is most typically a matter of wish fulfillment, which should put super-hero media at the center of the genre: We regular mortals wish to be powerful and strong, to save the day and be recognized as a hero. Certain elements of classical fantasy fall under this description: Frodo in Lord of the Rings gets to save the world while remaining more or less ordinary (well, yes, he can turn invisible with the ring, but that becomes problematic), and Harry Potter qualifies as a kid super-hero.

Another key element of fantasy is obviously the imagination, which can be deployed as in dreams and the psychedelic art that draws on dream experience to come up with ever-more-fantastical imagery, ever more amazing situations and powers one could fantasize about possessing. However, the imagination also seeks to expand the fantasized creation, to make its world wider and richer, to fill in the details, and almost inevitably to try to make the fantasy more "realistic." What would it actually be like to have super powers? Would you suffer emotional trauma from damaging all those villains? What about collateral damage? If you get to ride on a dragon, how do you take care of it? What (who) does it eat?




George R.R. Martin writes in the tradition popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien of "high fantasy," which involves not only characters of high stature engaged in epic struggles, but typically involves a very fleshed out alternative world with its own slightly different laws. The more spelled out these laws are, the more nuts and bolts of the workings of the world are specified, the more realism and hence suffering can be depicted. A Song of Ice and Fire describes its rotating cast of protagonists with such a degree of detail that readers are (as in much literature) able to identify with them, to see the world through their eyes, but they suffer so much that such alternate lives as these books offer readers would hardly be anyone's fantasy in the sense of wish fulfillment. A visual presentation like a TV show by necessity can't be as clear about whose eyes the viewer is supposed to see events through (we see through the camera instead), but nonetheless Game of Thrones invites us to live through (some of) its characters, to identify with them, through their exertions of power, through their reactions to loss and triumph. But such identifications will always be imperfect, given that these characters have been drawn as living in a world that is fundamentally foreign to us, not because there are zombies and dragons, but because HBO viewers are for the most part living comfortably in a peaceful country, not having been systematically and often personally exposed to horrible sufferings.

Hear Mark Linsenmayer and Wes Alwan, regular hosts of The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast, along with guest Sabrina Weiss, discuss the psychological and social aspects of the show, but in what is depicted on screen and how these play out in our society's relationship to this grand spectacle.

Read more about it on The Partially Examined Life website.

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of The Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. 

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The Creative Life of Jim Henson Explored in a Six-Part Documentary Series

What is a Muppet? Homer Simpson once offered this explanation: "It's not quite a mop and it's not quite a puppet, but man..." — before cracking up with amusement. "So to answer your question, I don't know." That episode of The Simpsons aired in the mid-1990s, a somewhat fallow period for Jim Henson's puppet-like (though less so mop-like) creations, but the decades between now and then have shown them to be at least as culturally influential as Matt Groening's family of Springfieldians. What gives the Muppets, who made their television debut in 1955 and have now survived their creator by nearly thirty years, their power to endure?

Insight into that question is on offer right now in a new six-part documentary series on Jim Henson's life and work. It comes as a part of Defunctland, "a YouTube series discussing the history of extinct theme parks and themed entertainment experiences" that has recently expanded its cultural purview.




The first episode of Defunctland's Jim Henson explores "the history of Jim's beginnings and his first television show, Sam and Friends"; the second "the origins of Sesame Street, the Muppetland specials, and the failed Muppet pilots"; and the third the proper beginnings of The Muppet Show, whose creators didn't know they were "about to make the most popular show in the world." After you've caught up with the first three episodes of Jim Henson, the next three episodes will appear on the series' Youtube playlist.

As you'll know if you've seen the surreal early filmsexperimental animations, and violent coffee commercials made by Jim Henson previously featured here on Open Culture, the man behind the Muppets hardly sought to produce entertainment for children alone: one of the pilots of The Muppet Show, in fact, was titled "Sex and Violence." Defunctland's documentary series gets into that and all the other aspects of Henson's life and work, two concepts hardly separable for such a famously dedicated creator. There's much more to Henson's legacy than a childhood full of Sesame Street — now in its 50th year on the air — would suggest. As for how rigorous a definition of "Muppet" the series will leave us with, we'll have to wait until it concludes to find out.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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