Somehow, yelling “Fix stuff!” at the government does not get things fixed.

19Apr11

Two days ago, I sat down and watched the first episode of a new History Channel show, “Inspector America.” In brief, it’s an interesting idea, but poorly executed and probably on the wrong channel. There’s your basic review, drive safely if that’s all you wanted. If you want to hear more, I need to give a little background on the History Channel and my feelings about it.

Now, the first thing I’ll say about the History Channel is that it’s not aimed at me. I do love history. I graduated with a degree in history, but that means the History Channel is generally pitched below my level. I know the basics on how to find this information out myself, and to go beyond the basic facts on what happened, or at least what we think happened, in the past. If I really wanted to know about Roman history, I could read a book about it, and probably enjoy it (with authorial style and possible insanity of their arguments heavily impacting that). Having said that, I do like the History Channel when it actually presents history in its programs, or covers a topic I don’t know much about. It’s not going to teach me anything deep, but it can still work as a nice primer.

The problem, though, is that the History Channel has never had a very good grasp on what it wanted to do. For a long time, it’s been a bizarre mix of WWII and conspiracy theories, with the mix seesawing back and forth. There’s been the occasional strain of religious conspiracy theory to spice things up, mostly in programs that go “Did Jesus REALLY walk here?” The answer this is almost always “maybe,” it’s just a question of whether it’s “Maybe, leaning towards no” or “maybe, leaning towards yes.”

However, this changed as they’ve started to push two new ways to bring in viewers-reality shows, and disaster porn. The reality show part is basically an attempt to ape Deadliest Catch in other professions, and it irritates me because it’s blatantly not history. That doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting, but watching people drive trucks on ice or cutting down trees is not talking about the past. The disaster porn is what I call all the shows about how a major city somewhere is about to be engulfed in flames/fall into the ocean/be leveled by an earthquake, along with anything in a similarly destructive vein. It’s the sort of show someone watches, then gleefully tells you all the high points about how people will be slaughtered in the millions, either not noticing or willfully ignoring your disgust at the thought and their enthusiasm about it. I am not a fan.

Inspector America is the first full on fusion of these two strains, and it’s surprising that it hasn’t been done before. Of course, that might be explained by the fact that the host proudly notes that he is not working for any agency or organization in his inspections of American infrastructure. It’s possible this was just delayed by the producers trying to find someone who could pose as “America’s inspector” that wasn’t incompetent in some fashion, or working for an actual group, doing official safety inspections.

The basic concept could still be historical, of course. It could talk about disasters in the distant past that inspired regulation, or who discovered important building materials. And it could go into more detail on the individual structures that are being inspected, like when they were built and who got it started. But unless you’re talking about famous things like the Golden Gate Bridge, most of those details wouldn’t be that interesting to the average viewer, so I can understand why they’d leave them out.

What bothers me more is the general tone of the show. Rather than matter-of-factly presenting the structures being inspected and the issues with them, there’s an incoherent rage in the host’s tone of voice, along with context-free exclamations of “Why haven’t they fixed this?!” or “Tear this down now!” These pronouncement sound good-and in the case of the first structure that was inspected, I’d agree that the bridge seems very unsafe. But there’s no attempt to explain why the bridge hasn’t been fixed or replaced before now. For example, what pet projects were given higher priority? Was there a bridge that was in even worse shape that had to be replaced first? And how much money would it cost to do this? The fact that none of these questions even come up makes it hard to go along with the host’s anger. It may be genuine, but it feels manipulative to yell at us about how we need to repair our infrastructure, without getting into the reasons why it hasn’t been repaired recently. A more level-headed approach would be more appealing, at least to me.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the show is successful, but I don’t plan to watch any more of it. Then again, I’m not surprised that I don’t like it.

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