May 23, 2011

Tameshite Gatten

I'm a big fan of slick NOVA and Nature productions, but there's a lot to be said for the laid-back simplicity of NHK's Tameshite Gatten approach. Roughly translated as "put it to the test and understand," it takes the more mundane aspects of everyday life and geeks out on them.

The closest examples that come to mind are Mythbusters and Scientific American Frontiers with Alan Alda. I really miss the latter, in which Alda stood in for the viewer as the smart everyman who could digest scientific explanations that weren't overly dumbed down.

David Pogue's Making Stuff series had the right idea, but I felt like he was trying too hard to be hip and, hey, you're hip too for hanging out with a hip guy like me doing all this cool stuff! Ain't science neat? Neato cool. Watch me doing all the cool stuff you wish you were doing!

Neil deGrasse Tyson is better, but Nova Science Now still spends too much time and effort selling the concept and grooving up the presentations, while assuring you that you're not a nerd for tuning in.

Tameshite Gatten hosts Shinosuke Tatekawa and Fuemi Ono (like Alda, smart professional entertainers, not scientists or wannabees) are confident enough about what they are doing to dare being totally uncool and unhip--to the point of outright corniness--and yet very educational.

They make it work by turning the show into the equivalent of a Lisa Simpson science fair project, explaining the topic of the week to a panel of three B-list celebrities. The result is a surprisingly demanding Socratic dialogue. (The celebrities do have to be reasonably bright.)

The presentations have a deceptively low-tech gloss. They must have a dedicated staff slaving away all week with sewing machines and cardboard boxes and Elmer's glue, creating oversized models and goofy costumes. Not to mention the staff members deployed as guinea pigs.

(When the producer announces to the crew that next week's show is about colonoscopies, who exactly volunteers? I suspect it's one of those jobs given to the "new guy.")

At the same time, they don't shrink from the hard stuff, the physics and biochemistry, while focusing like a laser on relevancy. And at the end of the show, an expert in the field will come out to sum everything up. Or conduct a short cooking class.

The shows are about 40 percent health and medical topics, 40 percent food and cooking, and 20 percent "home economics." With the first, I have to wonder if there's a "Tameshite Gatten syndrome," people flooding the doctor's office with the symptoms covered in that week's show.

On the other hand, though I rarely watch cooking shows on PBS (I will channel surf over to Kitchen Nightmares, a show more about running a small business), Tameshite Gatten takes a very left-brained approach and makes cooking look geekily interesting.

One program was about the perfect onigiri (flavored rice balls). Along with CAT-scanning onigiri, they selected a panel of best and worst onigiri makers, had them wear pressure-sensitive gloves wired to a computer, and then analyzed the results. That's my idea of cooking.

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