I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Argument from Authority: Look Around You as Perfect Satire

by Joe DeMartino
Nov. 30, 2011
What would teachers do without the ubiquitous educational video? It can’t be easy to come up with hundreds of individual lesson plans each year, each designed to do the undoubtedly important work of informing and inspiring young minds. Sometimes, it’s best* just to put on a standard educational video, let the kids get a no-frills recitation of the facts, and take a break.

*I apologize to any teachers who feel otherwise. You do excellent work and I think you should be paid absurd amounts of money.

All that being said, I think it’d be worth losing one afternoon’s education for the chance to mess with the kids a little bit by showing them an episode of Look Around You, the faux-educational series created by Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz*. Aside from entertaining the more subversive of your kids (you know who they are), the whole exercise could serve as a lesson in paying attention to content rather than authority.

*Sample tweet from Serafinowicz: “Happy birthday Lady Gaga! (a different one)”

The Look Around You programs are presented with a sober and scholarly air.  A calm British voice confidently says things about calcium, or mathematics, or Italians that sound absolutely convincing at first glance. Even a semi-scientifically literate person will quickly realize, however, that practically nothing Look Around You posits makes any sense. Calcium is demonstrated to have the properties of image projection. Heat vision is trumpeted as an efficient form of waste disposal. Champagne is said to be made of iron.

Look Around You has an air of subtle menace about it, primarily surrounding the various experiments that its mostly-unseen scientists routinely conduct. In order to test the properties of calcium, the viewer is instructed to collect a suitable sample. The demonstration sample is composed primarily of seemingly healthy teeth. No explanation is ever given as to from where these teeth were acquired. Repeated crash zooms on a gravestone suggest the dire fate in store for a man who lacks adequate calcium, and a vague reference to something called the “Helvetica Scenario” ends with a repeated callback to a scientist observing a faceless man, trapped in a locked room after apparently succumbing to the devastating effects of runaway calcium.

These scenarios have nothing on a segment near the end of the pilot episode, where a bearded researcher attempts to communicate with so-called intelligent calcium. The researcher asks where the calcium is (“In a tube”) and how it feels (“Cold”), but then the whole segment takes an ominous and dark turn when the intelligent calcium is denied oxygen. The meter which it uses to express its thoughts and desires oscillates wildly, like the calcium is thrashing about for breath. The calcium dies, and the experiment is complete. Score one for science.

The genius of Look Around You is that, aside from its diversions into misinformation and morbidity, it absolutely never breaks character. Everything from the film grain to the tinny, idyllically futuristic music is totally authentic to the whole experience of watching a mid-80s educational film. Look Around You never takes you out of the experience -- all it demands for you to get its jokes is your attention.

Also, it teaches you that not every person with a British accent is to be trusted unreservedly. I don’t know how it is over in the old country, but Americans could stand to keep this in mind.

Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at jddemartino@gmail.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.