Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why I Love James Burke - and Why Shouldn't You?

I've talked before about teledons, but James Burke stands out for me, above all the others.  Oh, golly yes - even Carl Sagan.

Dad took me to an interdisciplinary class once.  It must have been a summer session, or maybe it was an introductory session during fall semester, early enough I wasn't back in school myself.  I was about fourteen perhaps - young enough to care, old enough to actually get something out of the day.  The bulk of the class consisted of watching an episode of Connections - and my little mind was efficiently blown.  "All that ... because we used touchstones?"


Dad bought the Connections companion book (I still have it, and not so archaeologically long ago my big brother was stealing moments between gardening, trimming his beard, and mapping, to peruse it), and I think we must have watched the series, too.  Not as religiously as that year mom had her weekly date with "Lillie", but that was just the sort of programming our family did watch.  (Kids:  this was back in the day when a single-television household was typical; any other tube was an "extra" and fairly rarely actually on - and our evenings were spent watching the three broadcast channels or PBS as a unit!  In black and white!)

The year I got married, B. Ex and I had cable, and at some point Bravo or History or some network no longer recognizeable today (kids:  Bravo was once a channel dedicated to snooty art programming, old BBC, and Max Headroom.  Erm.) began airing "The Day the Universe Changed".  Less, or perhaps simply not, familiar with this series, I really enjoyed it.  The weekend they ran a marathon of it, I taped it avidly (hitting pause at every commercial break; I was ... a little manic) and caught something like 8 hours worth.  I still have the VHS of these shows, and they were great.

Burke, of course, has the obligatory avuncular British educational presence - but he also contains a streak of mischief and obvious excitement which lifts him a bit above the Starkeys and, yes, even Sagans of this world.  Burke, basically:  reminds me a little bit of dad.  The looks aren't unnervingly alike, but not starkly dissimilar either (dad didn't have a halo of curls even in 1978, but their glasses might have been the same model - heh).  A physicality born of enthusiasm was something of a shared trait - the unthreatening push-forward of the face, slightly nodding, in eagerness over a point of data which excites them - a kind of gestural inclusionism, inviting, always inviting an audience to join, to partake, to participate, to share.  Good teachers often have this, I think my sister-in-law does too.  My family are a long - and wide - line of teachers; and, while the Majors might not necessarily be the kissy-est relations on record, I can remember this bobbing language of mannerisms in many different incarnations.  I can see my dad, my grandfather, inviting me up on their knees, to read to me, to *talk* with me.  To listen, and to share some story, some word, even some admonition - lovingly, so gently.  I've seen it in my elder niece with my younger, I've seen it in the younger, when she reads to *us* - in each of them, with their wonderful dog.  The gentleness, the inclusion, the invitation to an infectious brain in need of a good spilling.

Burke has this, and he has also the mischief which belies the lull of gentleness, and reminds:  this is not a fool, this is not a pushover.  This is a mind, reaching out.  Take.

Take, eat, this is my mind - or something of the kind.

"Connections" and "Universe" aren't available on my little Roku box.  Even if they were, I'm not sure that would wipe the DVD box sets off my wish list at Amazon.  They're voraciously watchable, and not just one single time.  Burke's expositions keep on giving, and "reruns" repay - you get something new every time you watch.  And this, with shows produced in 1978, and 1988.  THAT is timeless programming.

Sure, there's some cute age on the neato-whizbang montage ending with ... a LASER COMPACT DISC ... but the underlying history can't be repackaged better nor more relevantly (see also:  Connections 2 and 3 - redux isn't always delux; though those were fine, they were not on the level of the original series, and may be considered superfluous even by *this* neurotic completist).  The history doesn't change, and though some of what he's said has been frankly borne out already, the relevancy doesn't.  How many historians and philosophers age so well through thirty-plus years of altered context?

I finished the maddening, literally addictive hurtling progress of Battlestar's reboot not so long ago, and have been hanging a little, tele-entertainment-wise (reading, these days, is very good indeed!) since.  Ahh, what James Burke could do to more than make up for it.  That guy makes "addictive TV" like BSG, or Lost, or Heroes, or any one of those parade of heroin-like series pale by comparison.

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