Batman: The Movie – a cult bad-movie masterpiece with a daring and subversive edge

Leslie H Martinson, “Batman: The Movie” (1966)

In an age when comic book superheroes were treated with the respect and dignity they deserved, this film – spun off from the television series of Batman and Robin’s crusades against crime in Gotham City to cash in on its cult popularity – is not only a comic bad-movie masterpiece but brilliantly captures the mood and style of 1960s pop culture. The film and TV series together also reflect the mood and style of the Batman comics of the time, with no little exaggeration and parody (and in their parody, criticise US censorship laws of the period that forced comics to didactically uphold traditional middle-class American values). The acting is exaggerated and hammy, the dialogue oozes cheese throughout and the plot is basically a string of comedy skits that only really make sense after the film finishes.

Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) are tipped off that Commodore Schmidlapp is in trouble aboard his yacht and attempt to rescue him when they sight it. The yacht suddenly vanishes and the dynamic duo discover they have been led into a trap. They later deduce that the trap was laid for them by the United Underworld, a new organisation formed by their most deadly enemies: Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin). The fearsome foursome have kidnapped Schmidlapp to seize his invention: a dehydrator gun that turns humans into coloured powder. The criminals use various means to try to destroy Batman and Robin, including a plot using Catwoman disguised as Soviet journalist Miss Kitka to lure and kidnap millionaire Bruce Wayne (Batman’s alter ego) so as to draw the superheroes into rescuing him and thus falling into another trap. All the various schemes hatched by the supervillains – most of the brilliant ideas coming from the Penguin – ultimately fail to affect the dynamic duo though in some scenarios the superheroes’ survival is due to pure and improbable “deus ex machina” luck such as a porpoise hurling itself in front of a torpedo to save the humans.

Our heroes are unable to prevent the kidnapping of the diplomats representing the member nations of the United World Organisation Security Council by the supervillains who use the dehydrator gun on them. Batman and Robin hop into the Batboat and chase the crooks who are trying to leave town in the Penguin’s submarine. Robin uses a sonic charge gun to force the submarine to surface and from there the dynamic duo must fight the supervillains and their minions to recover the phials of coloured powder that the diplomats have become.

The film’s first half is a colourful riot of sight gags, in-jokes, silly acting and the most deadpan silly dialogue ever to pass between two individuals in the history of superhero films, which West and Ward dutifully carry out with the straightest of straight faces. Batman and Robin are essentially incorruptible figures of goodness that fight for justice and radiate the innocence, even naivety of such virginal symbols. While the cast enjoy themselves, their roles are very uneven: Meredith and Meriwether as the Penguin and Catwoman respectively have more work to do than Romero’s Joker and Gorshin’s Riddler who do little more than go along for a ride in the Penguin’s submarine and behave clownishly. The criminals ham up their evil tendencies and just barely manage to get along to get their plot to hold the world to ransom off the ground. West is called upon to demonstrate a more romantic side of his character and passes muster with a surprising mix of earnest po-faced style and aggressive intensity.

After the halfway mark, the film becomes a more formulaic piece as the superheroes race to rescue the diplomats and unexpectedly deliver a possible gift to the world in their attempts to rehydrate the politicians. The novelty value of the individual characters, the colourful sets, and the comedy episodes in which Batman and Robin stumble into ingenious traps and must escape death quickly wears off. The film delivers its own comment about the Cold War and the ability or inability of world leaders and diplomats to bring about world peace. (That a comedy parody featuring hammy acting, silly dialogue and a laughable plot would introduce comment on global politics and its worth and carry it off is sheer genius.) At the same time, Batman experiences wrenching heartbreak when he discovers that Miss Kitka and Catwoman are one and the same; his reaction is genuinely tragic to watch but he continues to carry himself with dignity.

For all its limitations, the film is a cult classic of its time: its highlights include its high production values, including the sets; the science fiction elements and gadgetry; the glee with which scriptwriters invent traps and dilemmas for the superheroes; the subversive undercurrent running beneath Batman and Robin’s strait-laced relationship; and the suggestion that our political leaders do not serve us well but greedily pursue power and influence over us.

 

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies: affectionate spoof historical comedy drama / horror film mash-up could have promised more

Burr Steers, “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” (2016)

At long last, instead of yet another BBC TV series adaptation or British / Hollywood movie version of the famous Jane Austen novel of marriage and manners, we have an affectionate spoof in which the Bennet sisters – or just two of them, Elizabeth (Lily James) and Jane (Bella Heathcote) – not only sing, dance, play piano and chat wittily at parties and afternoon tea but also fight and kill zombies with knives, swords, guns and Shaolin kung fu. Yes, this is the movie adaptation of the mash-up novel by Seth Grahame Smith which credits Austen as co-author. Although it’s been a long time since I read the original Austen novel – I had to read it for school – and I have never read the mash-up, the film is surprisingly faithful in spirit if not in the details of the original plot and preserves most of its characters.

In early 19th-century England, the moderately wealthy Mr Bennet has trained his five daughters to fight the zombies that have recently overrun that green and sceptred land after a mysterious Black Plague has swept through the country and laid waste to much of it. His frivolous wife is keen to see her daughters hitched to wealthy gentlemen suitors. The family attends a ball hosted by the rich Bingley family and young heir Charles Bingley is attracted to Jane Bingley. Zombies then gate-crash the ball and the Bennet girls help in dispatching them to Purgatory. Elizabeth Bennet catches the attention of Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), an even more wealthy gentleman than Charles Bingley and a noted zombie killer to boot. While both Elizabeth and Darcy are attracted to each other, a misunderstanding between them soon arises concerning why Darcy advises Charles Bingley to keep his distance from Jane.

Parson Collins (Matt Smith) pays a visit to the Bennets and proposes marriage to Elizabeth if she will give up her warrior ways but the lass refuses to do so, to the fury of her mother and the relief of her father. About the same time, Elizabeth becomes acquainted with George Wickham (Jack Huston), a soldier who tells her a sob-story about how badly Darcy has treated him and denied him his inheritance. Wickham takes Elizabeth to visit St Lazarus Church in a no-go zone in London where zombies fed on pigs’ brains to calm them down worship. Wickham hopes that these zombies can eventually co-exist peacefully with humans. Failing to persuade Elizabeth of the worth of his plan, he tries to convince her to elope with him but she refuses. At a later time, Darcy also tries to propose marriage to Elizabeth and the attempt ends in a hilarious sword-fight and battle of wits between the two.

Darcy writes a letter of apology to Elizabeth, telling her why he advised Bingley to stay away from Jane – Darcy having believed she was merely after Bingley’s fortune due to Mrs Bennet’s loud-mouthed behaviour at the Bingley ball – and the truth behind Wickham’s lack of money: the soldier squandered his inheritance, tried to hit up Darcy for more money and might have even infected Darcy’s father with the plague germ that zombified old Mr Darcy, forcing the younger Darcy to kill him. Darcy and Elizabeth later discover that her younger sister Lydia has run off with Wickham and that Wickham is preparing a zombie army to invade and take over the whole of London.

The plot just about manages to stay the course of the film – though it does become formulaic towards the end with a climactic fight  between Darcy and Wickham – with no collapse while incorporating key sub-plots and incidents and remaining faithful in the portrayal of the main characters of Elizabeth and Darcy, and even minor characters like the Bennet parents. Wickham is upgraded into the major villain and Huston looks as if he’s having great fun playing an aristocratic wannabe liberator of zombies from their presumed state of savagery so they can share in the wealth of England. Indeed, all the actors seem to be enjoying themselves and the result of their enthusiasm is excellent acting and fairly well defined characters in a film where there’s hardly much pause in the action. Of minor characters, Matt Smith dominates all his scenes as the pompous and obsequious parson, turning Mr Collins into a comic figure to be pitied rather than scorned, and his performance is the best in the film. Lena Headey’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh turns out a surprisingly layered, even sinister character in the few scenes she has; the pity is that she is not a more useful character in the film other than being an obstacle in Darcy and Elizabeth’s paths to happiness together.

The film doesn’t say anything about the status of upper class women and their treatment in Regency England that hasn’t already been said by Jane Austen herself or the various film adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice”. For all their skills as zombie fighters and killers, the Bennet sisters are still reduced to whatever economic value they are worth as the daughters of a minor aristocrat. That humans would waste precious time and energy preoccupied with who’s who in their social hierarchy, how much money a prospective suitor makes and constant match-making while all around them the zombies not only don’t make class distinctions among themselves but don’t discriminate among the humans either is an irony the film fails to capitalise on. The zombies tend very much to stay in the background and viewers see nothing of how the calm zombies might conduct their lives when they are not set upon by humans. Perhaps Wickham’s suggestion that humans and zombies could learn to live together is more pertinent than it first appears: the zombies could certainly represent the disenfranchised proletariat classes of Regency society. A scene in the middle of the end credits suggests as much, as the zombie masses, led by a zombified Wickham, march towards the horrified upper classes in their gilded-cage mansions.

Apart from this, the film is mainly to be enjoyed as a distinctive adaptation of the famous novel but no more. The main problem with “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” is that the feature film format is too short to deal with the original novel and the zombie invasion to do both justice and needs a mini-series format that could treat Regency-era zombies as a metaphor for the poor and oppressed. The savage zombies could represent the prejudices of the aristocrats and their biased views about zombie behaviour. The upper classes may be proud of their wit, their culture and fighting skills, but their pride is a desperate one rooted in the knowledge that one day they and their culture and values will all be swept away by the zombie hordes.

The mash-up literary genre that produced “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” and other odd combinations like “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and “Android Karenina” ultimately became a temporary publishing fad but it could have promised more.

Animation and live action make “Doctor Who: Shada” a better story than the original plot would suggest

Pennant Roberts, “Doctor Who: Shada” (2017)

Not often do particular adventures in the long-running “Doctor Who” television series which first ran from 1963 to 1988 and was then resurrected in the early 2000s achieve mythic status of their own through an unusual set of events but the story of “Shada”, originally scripted by the legendary Douglas Adams (he of “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame), is almost as famous as its creator: the 6-episode adventure had to be abandoned after several hours of filming due to industrial action at the BBC in 1978. Over the years the story was reworked in several formats including two audio plays, an animation (or two) and a novelisation. Finally in 2017 the BBC completed the adventure by combining the live-action segments with animation of the missing segments, based on the original script, and using special-effects technology that was available to the original TV crew filming “Shada”.

What the BBC ends up with is a story true to the quirky if low-brow charm of the original TV series, and possessed of all the wackiness one expects of a story penned by Douglas Adams: the central if hilarious conceit of the story is that a lovable if dotty and absent-minded English professor of physics, pottering about in his office and library at Cambridge University, is in fact a hardened intergalactic arch-criminal on the run from an outer-space gulag. But such is the mysterious Professor Chronotis (Dennis Carey), whose name tells viewers that the professor maybe outside the dimension of time as we know cheerfully serving a cup of tea to postgraduate physics student Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill) who drops by to borrow some books for a project. One of the books Parsons takes is a strange book written in mysterious script which Parsons discovers is not made of materials available on Earth; indeed its molecular structure is completely alien to Earthlings and the age of the book suggests that it only exists when time is running backwards!

While Parsons dashes off with the book, in another dimension a scheming megalomaniac villain called Skagra (Christopher Neame) travelling in a spaceship steals the minds of his fellow voyagers in a white sphere and goes to Earth to find Chronotis’ book – the very book Parsons has taken – whose script, once deciphered, gives instructions to travel to Shada, the prison planet created by an advanced alien species called the Time Lords to house their worst criminals; there, Skagra hopes to find and release a prisoner called Salyavin who has the unique ability to project his mind into those of others and rearrange their jumbled thoughts and direct them to more other pursuits of his making. Ultimately Skagra hopes to hoover up a stack of the most advanced minds of the universe with his little crystal ball and with Salyavin’s abilities on his side (or maybe in the sphere) use those minds to rearrange the universe’s affairs to his liking.

Unfortunately as with all such schemes, Skagra’s plans for shuffling the mental deckchairs around are threatened by the intrusion of the Doctor (Tom Baker), the time-travelling Time Lord, his Time Lady friend Romana (Lalla Ward) and their cyber-pooch K9. When the Doctor, Romana and K9 find and team up with Chris Parsons and his female physics tutor pal Clare (Victoria Burgoyne) to find the mystery book and return it to Gallifrey’s Panopticon archives (centuries after Chronotis had stolen it), Skagra has already made off with the item and the adventure settles down to a drawn-out chase that zig-zags from one end of the universe to another, involves Romana being kidnapped by Skagra (but not being tied to train tracks), has Romana and Clare trying desperately to link Chronotis’ stolen TARDIS machine to the Doctor’s TARDIS so the Doctor can traverse the link while the machines are whirling around in the time-space continuum, and (of course) features fearsome hulking monsters of molten lava. The story also includes a few head-scratching anomalies that don’t quite make sense – how could Skagra and his mind-sucking ball not discover Chronotis’ true identity after clearing out his head? – but sssh, we mustn’t let such errors in logic get in the way of a ramshackle adventure oozing plenty of slapstick and occasional wit along with a metal dog, a dumb computer driving Skagra’s ship and part of Cambridge University going missing for a day or two.

The animation style pays respect to the famous shoe-string budget of the original live-action TV show by being minimalist to the point of parsimony in the way characters move and speak. Effects are used if they were already known at the time of the original 1979 filming for “Shada”. The plot places a huge amount of emphasis on dialogue and clever editing techniques over action and viewers need to follow the dialogue quite closely to catch the jokes and in-jokes, and the Doctor’s crazy conversation about how dead men cannot threaten live people with the computer on Skagra’s jet that all but fries the machine’s circuit-boards.

Overall, the acting is adequate for the job when all that the job requires is chasing an evil master-mind from one end of the cosmos to the other in giant spaceships or pint-sized TARDIS machines. Carey’s professor is reduced to making endless cups of tea and Romana is often forced to play a damsel-in-distress role and spends huge amounts of time standing about in Skagra’s spaceship listening to his speeches about how he’ll run the universe more efficiently. Chris and Clare have even less to do than Romana does apart from getting themselves into trouble.

While silly eccentricity is to be expected in a script by Douglas Adams and with an actor like Tom Baker, the underlying theme of “Shada” is very serious: how do societies that pride themselves on their humanity towards less fortunate others deal with individuals who have committed dangerous crimes harmful to individuals and communities and who in many countries would have been subjected to capital punishment. Is it ethical for the Time Lords to freeze their most notorious criminals, and the criminals of other planets, and put them in cold storage on a barren prison planet and then pretend that such people never existed? Is there not a better way to treat criminals, even the most brutalised and hardened ones, in a decent way while still keeping them away from the public as much for their own sake as for the public’s sake? What exactly has Salyavin done that warranted deep-freezing him on Shada in the first place and was the punishment justified? (And how did he manage to escape?) Unfortunately the treatment of this issue is beyond Adams’ ability to work with and so the theme is very undeveloped. Far too much racing after Skagra and the stolen book dominates the story’s running time and at times certain scenes or characters can remind viewers of similar scenes and characters from previous Doctor Who adventures.

For all that, “Shada” is a decent enough story that actually works better than the plot would suggest as a result of combining live action and animation.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future): this episode should have gone out on a high note

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future)” (2017)

As the last episode of its season, “Adam Ruins the Future” should go out on a high note but after having seen most of the season, I must admit that before seeing it my expectations were on the low side.  The episode turned out quite predictably: based around the theme of the future but with very little relationship to one another, three topics are treated at a quick zip in rather superficial fashion. Pressed by girlfriend Melinda to consider their future together, Adam changes the subject to explain why use-by dates on food labels are misleading and how 401K funds (the US equivalent of superannuation funds in Australia) won’t support most people in retirement. Melinda answers back by showing Adam how all the research in the world can’t predict the future generally, let alone the future of their relationship, and that people’s assumptions about the future are really an extension of present trends (which can always be disrupted and overthrown). Adam and Melinda finally agree that they don’t really have a future together and Adam acknowledges that breaking up says nothing about his worth as a human being.

The legislation governing use-by dates and the information about 401K funds are quite specific to an American audience so the discussion will be of limited value to overseas viewers. Probably the most audiences outside the US can gain from these segments is to investigate the legislation in their own countries that govern food labelling and expiry dates, and to know what their countries’ pension and super funds can and can’t do for them,  and what the alternatives if any are. The one thing 401K funds may have in common with super funds in Australia and possibly elsewhere is that they operate in a context where mostly ill-informed individuals are expected to accept the risks and responsibility in investing in such funds without much help from the government or independent agencies that do not have a vested interest in marketing these financial products. Everyone who works is expected to invest in his/her future retirement by contributing towards superannuation but the superannuation industry is dominated by a bewildering range of products whose features and characteristics may be difficult to understand (unless buyers have a background knowledge of how finance works) and which are sold by companies and institutions that purport to be trustworthy and reliable but whose past histories might suggest otherwise.

The episode almost ends on a somewhat despairing note – viewers may not be satisfied being urged to pressure the US government to reform legislation governing 401K funds when everyone knows that business lobby groups and their money shout louder than the public interest – and Adam and Melinda separate rather abruptly without so much as saying “We can still be friends even if we can’t be lovers”. Emily makes a brief appearance to counsel Adam on being comfortable with one’s own company and at least he is happy with her advice, even if only temporarily, as the episode concludes.

While the series has been good on the whole, and has presented a lot of valuable information, the formula it follows has become tiresome and the slapstick is tedious and somewhat forced. A future series will need to include a bit more wit and some actual situation comedy along with information that doesn’t throw around statistics so much but flows a bit more naturally and shows evidence of digging deeper past the surface.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 15: Adam Ruins Science): making a stand for public funding for science

Laura Murphy, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 15: Adam Ruins Science)” (2017)

Television programs about science and scientific studies may abound in many forms (as in documentaries or reports on news and current affairs programs) but a television program about the culture and practice of science, and how political and economic ideologies affect, even hinder science is very rare, and in this respect this episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” is very welcome. It seems much less silly than some earlier episodes but then perhaps the topics covered and what they imply together as well as separately are much more substantial than subjects like Halloween or visiting a health spa, and need lightening up to be palatable to the general public. Adam Conover visits Winnie, a science student about to start her project, and disabuses her of the value of laboratory mice in medical studies that are supposed to be relevant for human health. He also shows her how the practice of science is highly dependent on financial grants from various groups of donors – private companies, the pharmaceutical industry, individual and corporate philanthropists, and the government / public sector – all of whom have reasons and agendas for wanting to support particular areas or strands of scientific endeavour and who expect certain results from the recipients of the money, resources and staff they provide. Finally Adam warns Winnie that science journals are not necessarily repositories of truth with regard to the reporting of experiments and studies, as most such research are often flawed, with the most common flaws being small sample size, variables overlooked by researchers in forming hypotheses and designing experiments, and manipulating, even faking results. Adam advises Winnie of the value of studies being reproducible (that is, if another group of researchers undertake a similar study with the same experiment design and a similar-sized sample as the original, the researchers should be able to achieve similar results) and this encourages Winnie to adopt a more humble, less egocentric attitude in deciding what science project she will do for college class.

While the approach of (metaphorically) using a sledgehammer where a nutcracker might have been called for might be crude fun for kiddie viewers, the show does pound home the fact that much research in some areas (such as psychology) not only cannot be reproduced but could even be worthless; yet such research has often been trumpeted over and over in mainstream news media with the result that the phenomena the research has investigated (but not been able to prove) have passed into pop culture and urban folklore. The show’s middle segment on the funding of science makes for quite dismal viewing and is sure to force people to question how much value Western society really places on scientific pursuit and progress when science is at the mercy of the profit motive and corporate greed.

Although the program doesn’t go that far, the connection between who funds science and the faking of results in experiments and studies that could well end up in prestigious science journals can be made by astute viewers. This surely makes a case for public funding of science more important yet this is likely to be seen as anti-capitalist, even socialistic, by Western governments and therefore more public funding with less private funding would be considered as beyond the pale.

As is usual in most episodes, Adam’s companion descends into the pits of despair after one devastating revelation after another made by Adam or his expert helpers, only within a split second to zoom back into boundless optimism when Adam gives a pep talk about how s/he can still contribute something of benefit now that s/he understands the reality of the topic in question. Must Adam always pick on the most emotionally extreme characters to demonstrate how so much of what we believe and take for granted isn’t necessarily the truth?

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 14: Adam Ruins Halloween): beneath the silly slapstick and cheap thrills, a sobering message about manipulating people’s emotions and weaknesses for profit

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 14: Adam Ruins Halloween)” (2017)

Beneath the silliness is a sobering message that the scariest thing about life is the extent to which people and the news media will deliberately lie and manipulate information and people’s emotions, weaknesses and vulnerabilities for profit. Adam Conover visits schoolboy Stuart (Elisha Henig) on Halloween night to tell him the truth behind the persistent urban myth of strangers offering children poisoned lollies when they go trick-or-treating; what really happened during that night in 1938 when Orson Welles read “The War of the Worlds” on radio; and why mediums and séances are scams. All three phenomena are or have been very heavily dependent on the power of the news media to repeat and remind readers or viewers constantly to the extent that by sheer repetition the deception appears more real than the actual truth.

That the myth of strangers giving children poisoned candy persists, even though US police statistics and studies have only ever turned up one case of a child poisoned and killed by a cyanide-laced sweet (and the scumbag who did this turned out to be the boy’s father), speaks more about the news media’s repetitions of this tall tale stereotype which takes advantage of people’s fears about the welfare of children as they wander off on their own on Halloween evening around the streets knocking on people’s doors for treats year after year. Why news media outlets continue to exploit people’s concerns by perpetrating a falsehood that has long been debunked by research  to increase sales revenue, without regard for possible long-term effects of this exploitation (such as decreasing trust and weakening community ties, and encouraging people to rely more on government or corporate institutions for security and protection – institutions that may well be advertising through those same media outlets), is worthy of a documentary in its own right: we might find that the media’s exploitation of people’s fears may be tied to an agenda on the part of government and corporations (and those who control those bodies) to keep people fearful and distrustful of a world supposedly hostile to them. In this way, individuals are less likely to come and band together and fight for their common rights.

Similarly the perception that Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” back in 1938 generated mass panic turns out to be an urban myth that began almost as soon as Welles’ broadcast became known and is attributed to print news media’s jealousy of radio broadcasting and the desire to suggest that the immediacy of radio broadcasts could lead to irresponsible reporting: a rather ironic thing to say since the episode tends rather to suggest that print news media is irresponsible in stooping so low to rubbish a potential competitor. Nothing is said about the social and political context of the period: the Western world was on the verge of war at the time. Again, the fact that this belief has lasted so long and how and why repetition keeps sustaining it is worthy of its own independent investigation: perhaps the myth says something about our fear of being controlled by those who have the power to withhold truth from us.

Finally the episode pooh-poohs self-proclaimed psychics and the methods they use to ensnare people into trusting them and parting with their hard-earned money without asking why desperate and vulnerable people are most likely to believe mediums.

This Halloween episode is one of the more entertaining episodes in the series of “Adam Ruins Everything” even if it does go in for slapstick, cheap scares and thrills. The segment on “The War of the Worlds” scare is lavish and well done, and pays tribute to the creativity of sound effects technicians working in radio broadcasting at the time.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 13: Adam Ruins Wellness): too much slapstick and not enough depth may ruin the show

Laura Murphy, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 13: Adam Ruins Wellness)” (2017)

Once again gatecrashing the most unlikely places – like right in the middle of a steaming sauna session – comes Adam Conover in his latest crusade to dispel popular misconceptions about everyday issues. Here he tackles health fads such as detoxification methods and colonic irrigation, the truth about monosodium glutamate, and the power of the placebo effect on human health. His latest victim is cute blonde bunny Julia who has to write a magazine article investigating these and other trendy health crazes. Not surprisingly Adam demolishes the whole detoxification trend by demonstrating that many techniques and methods that claim to draw “toxins” out of the body through the skin only draw out perspiration or dirt already on the skin’s surface. Colonic irrigation in particular gets quite a bucketing from a guest gastroenterologist who warns that the technique can actually be harmful to the gut. Adam concludes this segment by showing that the body already gets rid of unwanted substances through the lungs, liver (and into the colon) and kidneys.

Next, Adam explains the history of the discovery of monosodium glutamate and how one letter written by a doctor to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 set off a train of events and hysteria that all but damned MSG as a suspect ingredient that caused headaches. Julia protests that she does get headaches from eating Chinese food (which often has added MSG for taste) – this is more likely due to the food having been cooked with too much salt and oil making it heavy and greasy. Unfortunately any physical reactions will be attributed to MSG which may or may not be present: this phenomenon (of attributing an effect to a wrong cause when there is only a correlation between consuming food with MSG and suffering headaches afterwards) is known as confirmation bias. Adam states that MSG is a naturally occurring substance found in many foods like tomatoes and that the body itself makes it.

The rest of the episode is taken up with an explanation of the placebo effect and how it can affect results of medical experiments as well as people’s overall health.

Each topic tackled in this episode is worthy of a deeper and longer investigation and the segment about MSG could be extended into an inquiry into how all too often a mildly positive correlation between two items or events is mistaken for cause-and-effect. Indeed the whole narrative of how MSG was demonised on the basis of one report, how that demonisation birthed an industry profiting from people’s fears, and what the unproved connection with Chinese restaurant food implies about the news media’s agenda in stoking racial prejudice (especially prejudice towards a country regarded with suspicion by the US government, as was the case with China back in the 1960s when the MSG demonisation began), is worthy documentary material in its own right as an illustration of the role Western media plays in creating and fomenting propaganda.

As in other episodes of “Adam Ruins Everything”, the companion chosen for Adam is too thick-headed to be plausible. The show’s format and its slapstick comedy presentation are becoming more annoying and trite than funny and make the show ripe for parody. This would be a sad state of affairs as much of the information the show presents is worthwhile and can rarely be found on other, more serious television programs.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 12: Adam Ruins Conspiracy Theories): no, conspiracy theories are not entirely ruined – they’re just not entirely explained well

Jeff Chan, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 12: Adam Ruins Conspiracy Theories)” (2017)

An enjoyable if not very substantial episode in this educational comedy series, “Adam Ruins Conspiracy Theories” manages to ruin just one major conspiracy theory – that the lunar landings made by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969 were actually filmed in a Hollywood studio – and to explain how and why conspiracy theories arise and how they are not as harmless as many might believe. Adam (Adam Conover) is spending time with new gal pal Melinda and all seems to be well until he spots literature on the Apollo 11 moon landings being a hoax strewn over her desk. He desperately explains to Melinda that Armstrong and company did indeed land on the moon and that the studio technologies needed to fake a moon landing and take photographs of the landing were actually far beyond the budgets of Hollywood studios in 1969. Next up, he demonstrates how belief in conspiracy theories can harm people with the example of the 1980s mass panic over daycare centres being hot-beds of child sexual abuse and Satanic indoctrination of children. Finally Adam explains why people are so ready to believe in conspiracy theories: our brains are wired to see patterns and causality in randomness, and this leads among other things to cognitive biases and selective thinking that, with repetition and reinforcement, can solidify into false beliefs that are hard to dislodge.

To be honest, the first part of the episode, focusing on the moon landings, was very rushed and concentrated almost entirely on photographs of the astronauts which many people have claimed are proof that the landings were faked by Hollywood. This part of the episode perhaps deserves an hour-long episode to itself, to show that many hundreds, even thousands of people were involved in designing, constructing and launching the Apollo 11 craft that reached the moon. Neil Armstrong’s historic feat was the culmination of a space exploration program conceived and planned by politicians, bureaucrats and scientists in the US to send spacecraft and then astronauts into space and ultimately to land on and explore the moon and possibly Mars. This was done as much for ideological purposes (to compete with the Soviet Union to demonstrate the superiority of the capitalist system over Communism and socialism to the US public) as it was to advance human knowledge. The episode could have said something about (and paid tribute to) the people who made the moon landing possible.

The second part of the episode (about the Satanic indoctrination of preschool-age children by their teachers) verged on crassness as Adam and company teetered on a fine line of balance between slapstick and exploring a real issue that tragically ruined the careers of several teachers and which could have also traumatised the children in their care. Particularly disturbing was the revelation that police grilled young children with leading questions until they gave the interrogators the answers that the police wanted.

Finally the explanation as to how and why conspiracy theories arise and persist was just too pat for this viewer and fails to consider the cultural context in which they arise. The belief that the Apollo 11 moon landing never took place developed at a time when the US became embroiled in the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement calling for an end to racial discrimination against black and other non-white Americans was in full bloom. Americans were shocked at the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy in 1968, a few years after Kennedy’s older brother, President John F Kennedy, was shot dead in 1963. Already conspiracy theories about the Kennedy brothers’ deaths abounded and details in those theories were sufficient and plausible enough – and details in the official account of JFK’s assassination were odd enough – that many people refused to believe that one man acting alone off his own bat could have killed JFK. The fact that by the late 1960s, people no longer trusted the US government to tell the truth about many things primed a population to accept conspiracy theories that were based on real events and facts, and which made plausible assumptions about the nature of the US government and its agencies, even if the theories themselves were wrong. And it must be said that some popular “conspiracy theories” about the activities of the CIA, such as Operation Mockingbird (to influence and shape news media), eventually turned out to be correct.

As Conover acknowledges, the panic over Satanic brainwashing of small children occurred at a time when women were entering the workforce in large numbers (whether out of choice of necessity), leading to an increasing demand for daycare centres to care for children. The mass hysteria that developed was in its own way a protest against the potential break-up of what was seen to be the “traditional” nuclear family (in which the husband is sole breadwinner and the wife stays at home to care for their children) as exemplified by wives and mothers going to work and having careers. This example shows how conspiracy theories function to reassure an anxious public, attempt to preserve stability and protest change imposed from above.

While the series “Adam Ruins Everything” is very entertaining and informative, its half-hour format is very restricting and doesn’t encourage a more detailed and nuanced investigation of the topics it covers.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 11: Adam Ruins the Economy): commendable attempt to explain economic and market concepts and measures to the general public

“Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 11: Adam Ruins the Economy)” (2017)

Explaining economic concepts and measurements of how well economies are performing to the general public in the space of 20 minutes is a tall order so this episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” deserves praise for trying. Firstly host Adam Conover explains why US taxpayers are forced to fill in their income tax returns in the most time-consuming and agonising ways possible when the US government already knows to a large extent how much most taxpayers are earning and how much tax they are paying (or should be paying) thanks to information sent to the Internal Revenue Service by employers and banking institutions, and to pay-as-you-earn withholding taxes. Conover says the US could adopt a return-free tax filing system that would enable US taxpayers to file income tax returns in a few minutes and send them off but due to lobbying by companies that work out and prepare tax returns for their customers (that is, US taxpayers), Congress ends up rejecting legislation proposing such a system or similar.

Conover then takes his new pal, the recently laid-off factory worker Hank (Marlon Young), on a trip where he explains to the increasingly astonished ex-worker why economic and stock market performance measures such as GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and the Dow Jones Industrial Average are not really accurate guides as to how well the economy or the stock market is performing. GDP only really tells us the market value of the total goods and services produced by an economy in a given period and actually says nothing about the well-being of most people in that economy; a far better measure of people’s well-being is GDP per capita by purchasing power parity (which controls for differences in the cost of living and, when comparing living standards of various countries, in the exchange rates of their currencies). The Dow Jones measures how the stock prices of the 30 largest public owned companies have traded in a given period; in that respect, the index is not an accurate measure of how healthy the US economy is, especially if some of the 30 companies have heavily traded (and thus highly priced) stocks which then influence the index more than they should.

Conover also tackles the US government’s definition of unemployment and finds it doesn’t include unemployed people who have given up looking for work or people who might be underemployed (that is, they are working in jobs that are beneath their qualifications and experience levels, or in part-time jobs when they would prefer to be working full-time). Finally he explains to Hank why he is not likely to find another manufacturing job that is the same as the last job he had or his father had: for one thing, American manufacturing industry experienced a Golden Age from 1945 to the early 1970s, supplying 50% of the world’s manufactured products, due to everyone else around the planet recovering from the ravages of World War II; and secondly, China – the world’s pre-eminent manufacturing economy – enjoys advantages (such as being located on the Eurasian heartland that puts the country at the centre of a supply chain network) that the US can’t gain or create. China also invests far more in educating and training workers than the US does.

While much of what the episode has to say can be contentious – particularly in the segment on how the US has lost out to China in manufacturing and the effect of automation on the demand for workers in manufacturing – it deserves credit for trying to explain clearly in a matter of minutes some complicated and controversial issues. Unfortunately the last couple of minutes in the episode rush by in a patch-up job about retraining schemes to cheer up Hank and those viewers who identify with him.

Much more could have been said on how the US lost out as the world’s major manufacturing nation – spending money on wars and military toys when the US could have spent the same amounts on basic education and on colleges aimed at retraining the unemployed and upgrading their skills goes unremarked – and at times the episode comes perilously close to China-bashing. Nothing is said about how the Chinese provided a low-cost source of labour in the first place and the historical circumstances before 1978 in China that made the country such an attractive place for Western firms to offshore their manufacturing. Anyone want to know about the devastating effect the Cultural Revolution had on China from 1965 to the mid-1970s?

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 10: Adam Ruins the Suburbs): exposing a dark racist underbelly of US suburban living

Jeff Chan, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 10: Adam Ruins the Suburbs)” (2017)

Dedicated as it is to overturning comfortable assumptions and stereotypes about everyday life, the comedy documentary series “Adam Ruins Everything” turns its attention to that most American cultural institution – the suburbs – and mows down three ideals upholding suburbia and the beliefs and values associated with them. Comedian host Adam Conover confronts a homeowner trying to start his lawnmower on Sunday morning to explain how lawns came to be part of the housing package, how their inclusion reflects and upholds the values of elitism, social competition and conformity, and the threat they actually pose (through water consumption and the use of herbicides and pesticides) to local environments and ecosystems. Conover then explains how cul-de-sacs and (by extension) the design and planning of American-styled suburbs harm people’s physical health and mental well-being by discouraging physical activities like walking and forcing them to use cars, and by separating homes from local shops and businesses, schools, parks and other community facilities. Children face traffic hazards so their parents bundle them into the home where they spend hours playing computer games. Elderly people who can no longer drive end up imprisoned in homes they can no longer maintain.

If all this weren’t bad enough – and Conover doesn’t have the time to explain how the phenomenon of suburbia (and even exurbia) arose as a result of deliberate decisions on the part of past US government policies, often in collusion with private companies, to privilege the use of cars over public transport – the episode then explores the dark racist side of suburban planning and how it and bank home loan policies discriminating against African Americans and other minorities led to institutional segregation (in which African Americans and minorities ended up stuck in inner cities while white people fled to the suburbs) and created two urban Americas existing in parallel, in which white children go to well-funded schools with good teachers and facilities, and non-white children attend schools with inadequate or broken facilities and mediocre levels of instruction from poorly paid teachers in insecure jobs. Over time, black people and other minority groups were unable to build up family and personal wealth that would enable them to escape the problems, crime and violence of inner city living, and this condemned them to continued institutional poverty. In part, the discrimination also led to the other extreme of governments over-compensating these disadvantaged groups by encouraging profligate borrowing that in turn precipitated the subprime mortgage loan crisis and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

While the episode is entertaining and informative, it really does not go far enough to explore how US suburbia and the attitudes and values underpinning this phenomenon have been generated by government and corporate collusion and how they continue to survive and flourish through a combination of ignorance, reliance on a biased news media that encourages fear of other people, especially if they are of different skin tone or religion, and collusion between governments at all levels (national, state, local) and corporations to keep people divided and separate along racial lines, all the better to exploit them for profit. Any faults with the model of suburbia resulting in health problems like obesity or depression, public health issues like drug addiction, or high rates of traffic accidents, are usually blamed on the victims or just ignored. The notion that owning a house in the suburbs with two huge gas-guzzling cars equates to self-reliance and freedom is chopped at in the episode but otherwise the myth’s origin and how it is sustained by the media go unexplored.

The episode happily closes with suggestions as to how suburban dwellers can try to improve their communities by adopting new models of suburban design that encourage physical activity and interaction with others.