Procrastinate Better

Monty Python Meets Bill Nye

From time to time, a Slate staffer or critic offers up a favorite cultural pick for Procrastinate Better readers. Today’s endorsement is from political writer Christopher Beam.

American comedy shows have gotten pretty edgy in recent years ( South Park , The Tim and Eric Awesome Show ). But for pure unalloyed weirdness, you still have to turn to the BBC.

Look Around You was a short-lived program, first broadcast on BBC2 in 2002, that parodied educational TV programs from the ‘70s and ‘80s. (The BBC had Tomorrow’s World ; we had 3-2-1 Contact .) It lasted only two seasons—not because of ratings, I like to think, but because it achieved such absurdist perfection that its work was done.

Part Monty Python, part Bill Nye, it nails every trope of the gee-whiz popular science genre. In the first season—a series of 10-minute episodes about different scientific topics, like ” Calcium ” and ” Maths ” and ” Water “—there are the not-particularly-scientific overstatements ("Water is the most powerful substance on earth”), the inane rhetorical questions ("What is water? … You might as well ask the same thing about birds. What are birds? We just don’t know”), and, of course, outright errors ("Germs originated in Germany, before spreading throughout the rest of the world”). The cinematography is spot-on, too—the 16-millimeter graininess, the reuse of stock footage.

The show hits its stride in Season 2, broadening its scope beyond science (to include ” Health ,” ” Food ,” and ” Computers “) and scrapping the omniscient narrator for a cast of four dimwitted hosts. And while the first season is deadpan and one-note, the second creates a rich universe in which computers perform plastic surgery, vegetables sing, and the ghost of Tchaikovsky judges a music competition. The show also slyly pokes fun at the present day: In ” Music 2000 ,” contestants play music as they think it will exist at the millennium. Must-watch results here , here , and here .

Look Around You has enjoyed a minor YouTube renaissance, especially the first season. The second season is a little less YouTube-friendly, since each episode stretches to 30 minutes. But you can watch in segments. Here’s “Health” Part 1 to get you started. (Parts 2 and 3 here.)