Invasion of the Pod People

Current TV is youth culture as imagined by Al Gore.

Like the memory of Al Gore’s presence on the political scene, his just-launched new cable venture, Current TV, feels strangely stranded in the ‘90s. It’s as ‘90s as a Tracy Chapman ballad, as ‘90s as the debate over political correctness, as ‘90s as an asymmetrical bob. Watching the network for hours at a stretch, as I’ve been doing the past few days to research this piece, you start to get an odd, airless feeling. To quote a song that’s being advertised in endless rotation on the network (by the very ‘90s-esque Canadian band Hot Hot Heat) you’re “Stuck in the Middle of Nowhere.”

As you’re probably aware if you’ve followed any of the hype about Current, its great claim to innovation is the “pod,” an eight-minute-or-less segment of nonfiction, viewer-contributed programming, introduced MTV-style by a young host or hostess. These podjays (peejays?) appear before us alone, always alone, in a vast circular structure that recalls a Jetsons set or an abandoned World’s Fair building, filled with all-white modular furniture and a single orchid.

Current: curiously ‘90s

The quintessential Current peejay is perhaps Max Lugavere, a tall, toothy fellow who likes to recount how he landed the gig by contributing, along with his friend and fellow host Jason Silva, a short video called “Textures of Selfhood.” The texture of Max’s own selfhood is perfect for the Current zeitgeist; he’s youth culture as imagined by Al Gore. In fact, Max looks a little like a young Al Gore, with the former vice president’s unique mix of sincere enthusiasm, leaden delivery, and an eagerness to please so palpable it’s somehow off-putting. (In a side fashion note: Now that it’s been paired with a sport jacket on the torso of Max Lugavere, the CBGB’s T-shirt has officially trickled down as far as it can possibly go, becoming the definitive anti-punk garment. You might have thought this point had been hit when Mark Ruffalo wore one as the huggable hunk in last year’s tweener romantic comedy 13 Going on 30, but you would be wrong.)

Despite its almost serenely dated, retro feel, Current is very interested in graphics and gimmicks that recall computer technology, linking the channel to a world outside the TV screen. As each pod plays, the lower left-hand corner of the screen displays a progress bar that fills up as the clip approaches its end. I guess the point is to keep viewers watching till the end of the pod, figuring, what the hell? I can afford to waste two-and-a-half more minutes on this. Then again, progress bars on a computer screen tend to be associated with some unpleasant or tedious task—waiting for a download to end, for example, so you can get to the good stuff of actually listening to the song or using the software. It’s hard to get lost in the content of a given story when you’re constantly glancing down to see how much longer it has to go.

As for the content of the pods, they’re just wide-ranging enough to be officially “diverse,” while remaining remarkably bland in tone. Many clips document the youth culture of extreme sports: One recounts a parachute jumper’s passion for leaping off cliffs while wearing a helmet emblazoned “Nine Inch Nails” (See? More ‘90s!), while another inventories the tattoos and scars on the long-suffering body of a motocross enthusiast. These sports-related pods tend to feature a good deal of fist-pumping and shouting of “Woo-hoo!” and “Sweet!”

Many of the pods are divided into thematic categories: In “Current Issues,” a cute chick wearing a camouflage jacket over a T-shirt that reads “Dance Your Ass Off” recounts her experiences as a volunteer in Sierra Leone. In “Current Newlyweds,” a galactically boring young couple is filmed as they argue over money, light bulbs, and the sexiness of wearing socks to bed. “Current Mentor”: Over visuals of waterfalls and backlit clouds, Deepak Chopra reminds us that “if someone’s dead, they don’t have consciousness, they don’t have spirituality, they’re not aware.” (In a bit of nepotistic crossover, Deepak’s son Gotham, formerly of the in-school TV network Channel One, is also a Current peejay.)

Every 30 minutes, there’s an Internet-crossover feature called “Google Current,” in which one of the hip-yet-somehow-completely-not young peejays walks us through the top 10 Google search terms related to a given keyword—the top 10 diseases being researched on the search engine, say (AIDS is No. 1! Woo hoo! Sweet!), or in one heartstopping recent installment, “Canada’s Top Searches of 2004.” (These lists have to have been cleaned up for telecast—is it really possible that any given top 10 list would contain no reference to searches for porn?)

If there’s one thing that ties all this Current programming together, it’s the network’s self-professed belief that its interactive approach to programming constitutes a radical experiment in democracy. There’s a lot of talk of “empowerment” and “freedom”; one blond surfer squints into the camera as he says, “That’s what Current TV is. It’s freedom television.” Another true believer swears that “[Current]’s going to do for passionate storytellers what the airplane did for travelers.” Grandiose rhetoric about technological frontiers, of course, has always been Al Gore’s specialty—he’ll never live down his much-ridiculed  boast to Wolf Blitzer on CNN, when he claimed that, as a US congressman, he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.” But in the case of Current, Gore’s entrepreneurial ambitions had to be seriously downsized. This Nation article from last April, when the network had its first public preview, traces how Gore’s initial vision of a left-leaning network specializing in long-form documentaries gradually ceded its place to a more market-driven, youth-oriented undertaking, spearheaded by former executives from CNN, Teen People, and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Network.

After a while, Current’s eager-beaver claims to cutting-edge innovation start to seem (like Al Gore’s 2000 campaign) almost deliberately self-sabotaging. Even the pronouncement, on the Current Web site’s “About” page, that “Right now, at this moment in history, TV is the most powerful medium in the world,” has a whiff of yesterday’s news about it. That may have been the case when a young Al Gore wrote his senior thesis on television and the presidency in 1969, but lately, talk in media and technology circles has been all about precisely the reverse. The question in the industry is how television can compete with the greater speed, reach, and flexibility of Internet technology, or the portability of devices like the iPod. And look at this bit of misbegotten copy from the Current Web site’s description of the channel’s identifying logo: “See those four squares in our logo? We call it the cursor, and like an old-school command prompt, it means we’re awaiting input.” That would be really cool, except that unfortunately, computers haven’t displayed that kind of “old-school command prompt” since … well, the ‘90s.