I may need a twelve-step program. I’ve become something of a documentary junkie. I’m up to three or four new ones a week. Oh, sure, I still tell people I can stop anytime I want, but it is just possible that I can’t anymore.
Don’t act all superior with me, people. If you enjoy reading my blog, you’ve probably been there. The thrill of the gorgeous cinematography. The excitement of a new hypothesis. The delight of learning factoids that you can regurgitate for all the friends, family and co-workers who don’t have the good fortune to escape. You say you’re just going along with the crowd, that peer pressure is forcing you to expand your horizons. It starts with something sexy about the Crown Jewels or aliens, but then one day you find yourself all alone in front of the TV, glued to the screen as some scientist with twelve letters after his name uses hula hoops to explain string theory, and BAM. Just like that, PBS has claimed another victim.
It started a few weeks ago. I’d watched all the episodes of Psych. It was too soon to watch my DVDs of Burn Notice again. There wasn’t a movie in my stockpile that I hadn’t seen at least three times already. All that was left was that special on the pyramids of ancient Egypt that Netflix kept pushing on me, probably because I told them that I like The Mummy. (No one asked if that had anything to do with my thing for Brendan Fraser, and I didn’t offer.)
Of course, in my heart of hearts, I actually do find ancient Egypt kind of fascinating. Sure, it had its downsides. Harsh climate if you strayed too far from the Nile. A shortage of good farmland. Politics that were, quite literally, cutthroat. But what they lacked in common decency, the pharaohs made up for in fashionable mausoleums. A grand pyramid for your final resting place? Genius. And extra points for whoever came up with the Sphinx. A monster who will kill you if fail a pop quiz. (One of my history teachers may actually have been a descendant.) I decided to give the program a try.
I never stood a chance. All the pyramid footage I could want, including tours of the inside, as well as extensive diagrams and explanations of all the chambers and corridors dug far under the earth. I’d like to get to Egypt someday, but even when I do, my mildly claustrophobic self is unlikely to spend a lot of time crawling through subterranean passages. (The one time I had an MRI, only the Valium got me through. The tranquilizer is unlikely to be helpful in touring pyramids. I remember being awake about thirty minutes after I took it. The rest of the day is a blur.) Middle Kingdom Egyptians put Rodeo Drive to shame in both fashion and jewelry, and their makeup techniques make Marilyn Manson look restrained. It was such a feast for the eyes, I practically had to go on a visual diet afterwards.
Of course, even finding out how people built structures out of big heavy building blocks without the benefit of hydraulic machinery can only hold the attention for so long. But by this time, I was hooked. I had to find out how more things worked, and see more ancient fashion trends live again. Once I wore out my attention span for Egyptians, I moved on to the ancient Greeks. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen grown men running around with Spartan helmets and pleated skirts, accessorized with leather sandals that I think I saw in DSW last summer. These folks had a society entirely based on war and maximizing the ability to slaughter enemies. They were good at it, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Wearing a rooster comb on your head has to make you mean.
Greece gave way to ancient Rome, and then to the Middle Ages. I was having such a grand time taking in all the details of antiquity that I stopped being quite so picky in scrutinizing my viewing material, and that was how I found out that not all documentaries are worth watching.
It’s sad, but I suppose I had to find out sooner or later. Some documentaries are bad.
I had gotten so spoiled that I stopped taking Netflix’s ratings quite so seriously. There was one on how civilization was formed that looked like such an interesting topic, I decided to ignore the two stars out of five next to the title. Maybe those people just didn’t want to know details of history as much as I did, I told myself. Or maybe it had a really bad re-enactment in it. The players in those sequences are not given award-winning dialogue, if they are given any at all. Oftentimes the director seems to have told them to just stand there and look menacing. I could get past that.
In this case, however, the fault was not with the actors. It was with the host. He was in the documentary a lot. That’s fine, if you’re a good presenter and you stick to the facts. Some people can talk about dry subjects in such a way that if you don’t exactly share their fascination, you can at least understand why it interests them.
You want to know what’s almost sure to alienate an audience, however? Telling them how perfect an ancient culture was and how people today have completely failed to appreciate it, and how we are probably all doomed as a result. To tell you exactly how bad this documentary was, I actually agreed with most of the things the host was saying, and I still wanted to slap him. There were five episodes in all. I got through the first one, and made myself start the second one. Maybe he’d just gotten off to a bad start, after all. I got about ten minutes in and quit, congratulating myself on having made it that far.
Documentaries are a fascinating art form. If done well, they can show you sides of an issue or a problem or a history or a place that you never knew before, and that makes you think. That is the whole point. The people who watch documentaries don’t mind a little thinking. It’s why they’re listening to Carl Sagan talk about the origins of the universe instead of tuning into Real Housewives of New Jersey. Hitting people over the head with your opinions in brick form is not nearly as effective as showing them the complexities and beauty of a culture and letting them decide for themselves that maybe modern society could stand to learn from it.
No, this incident did not cure my documentary addition. But it did make me start paying attention to the reviews again. Fortunately, Nova: Dogs Decoded got very high marks indeed, so I branched out to that one next. Yes, they mentioned once that dogs were crucial to the foundations of civilization, but they had the good sense not to dwell on it.
Oddly enough, I haven’t watched any travel documentaries for the United Kingdom. I might, if my plans to travel there firm up. Or maybe not. As much as I love the format of televised exploration, sometimes it’s better to see things with your own two eyes.
By admitting that she has this addiction, Kimberly has taken the first step to curing it. She doesn’t plan to take any others.