Today we're going to find out happens when you add a few drops of sulphuric acid to Judge Erich Asperschlager.
Look Around You follows shortly…
When I think about children's educational programming, I think back to the sunny days I spent on Sesame Street. I think about watching Mr. Wizard making solar-powered ovens out of aluminum foil, and about the daffy detectives of Square One Television's "Mathnet." I think about how much I loved public television and how little I must have played outdoors as a kid. Mostly, though, I feel lucky that by the time I was old enough to change the channels on our twelve-inch color set, educational television was as much about entertainment as it was about learning.
That wasn't always the case.
As recently as the 1970s, educators seemed to think that all it took to engage children was to put their lessons up on a TV screen. No matter how boring the subject, how dry the narration, or how cheap the production, as long as it flickered out of a tiny box, they figured it was good enough for kids. Of course, we now know that the only people these televised lessons appealed to were the teachers whose job was reduced to turning on the set. As a result, thousands of kids were subjected to the worst that both education and television had to offer.
Lest anyone forget those dark years, British comedians Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz created a BBC series called Look Around You—an absurdist take on '70s educational programming that's so dead-on in execution, an unsuspecting viewer might not know it's all a joke until after they realize ants don't really build igloos.
I didn't know anything about Look Around You before watching this first season set, and at the risk of turning anyone away, I recommend that other first-timers go in the same way. You may stop reading now, as long as you promise to go right out and buy the DVD. Everyone else should open their workbooks to page 3 and get ready to take notes.
What's that? You don't have your workbook? Sigh. Then you'll have to look on with your neighbor…
Facts of the Case
Clocking in at 71 minutes, Look Around You: Season One gathers all eight episodes, or "modules," from the series' original 2002 run:
The world of comedy is littered with satire, parody, and pastiche. No matter how good the practitioner, though, there's almost always a knowing wink to the audience. A smirk that says "I know that you know what I'm pretending to be, and isn't it funny that we both know what I'm doing?" The BAFTA-nominated Look Around You never does that. From the opening countdown clock to the closing credits, each eight-minute episode looks like it was made by bored BBC science types in the late-'70s. The pacing is slow, the film stock is authentically dirty, the colors are washed out, and the synthesized music doesn't include a single note invented after 1982. It's filled with stock footage, chunky subtitles, extreme close-ups, and obsolete computer equipment.
The retro soul of Look Around You is its narrator, played by the oh-so-British Nigel Lambert. He's an authoritative sort whose dulcet tones (they're dulcet, I swear!) are simultaneously welcoming and condescending, with the power to convince you that pig iron is actually made by pigs, or that the largest known number is 45,000,000,000. As narrator, he is responsible for everything from basic facts (and by "basic" I mean entirely made up) to play-by-play on experiments being carried out by the show's "scientists," as portrayed by Serafinowicz, Popper, and Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright. Along with Lambert's narration, the experiments are the heart of Look Around You, testing things like the effect of boiling water on eggs (and a scientist's bare hand), and whether ghosts can whistle.
Look Around You wouldn't be the same without the obsessive-compulsive attention to detail and commitment to the core concept, but even if you strip all that away, this show is funny. Very funny. Very, very funny. Packed with cheerful lies and sincere absurdity, Look Around You is British comedy at its bone-dry best. The real shame is that it took this long to find its way to DVD in the United States. Like Spaced—another brilliant show that took its sweet time coming to America—it deserves to be discovered. You can find Look Around You on Adult Swim and BBC America, but the best way to watch this complete first season is on DVD.
And what a DVD.
The level of commitment to Look Around You's '70s style extends to the Season One DVD itself, starting with the disc label reproduction of the show's fake version of the periodic table. To get to the main menu, you're forced to sit through a full minute of the show's countdown clock (although if you hit the "enter" button on your remote, you can skip it). The main menu has the same lo-fi look as the show, with dirt, scratches, and pointlessly long animations to get to each sub-menu. The subtitles look like the teletext closed captioning that was used in England in the 1970s. Brilliant. Equally brilliant is the unnecessary audio option to watch the episodes without narration, even though the show is almost all narration and makes zero sense without it. (Here's a suggestion for your next party: turn the narration off and the subtitles on for some instant educational karaoke fun!)
I'd recommend Look Around You: Season One even if it didn't have any extras. Luckily, I don't have to. This disc is packed with an impressive collection of bonus features, starting with the 20-minute pilot, "Calcium." More short film than episode, "Calcium" is different enough from the other modules to warrant being an extra rather than part of the main feature. It has an optional commentary with co-creators Serafinowicz and Popper, as well as the show's director, Tim Kirkby.
There are full-length commentaries for each of the regular episodes as well, all of which were recorded by the show's creators for the original British DVD release. New for this North American version are a second set of guest commentaries, recorded by friends, fans, and hangers on, including Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame), Edgar Wright, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, and Adult Swim's own Tim and Eric. The guest commentaries aren't terribly informational, but they are a lot of fun and well worth a listen, especially the Pegg/Frost and Parker/Stone ones.
Rounding out the extras, there's a full-length music video for "Little Mouse," with optional commentary by its performer, Jack Morgan (BSc), a.k.a. Robert Popper; a "test card" of credits, extra music, and a fake promo for a kids' show called "The Hexagons;" and "Pages from Ceefax," a tongue-in-cheek re-creation of the BBC's over-the-air information service from the '70s that delivered news, sports, weather, and television schedules as text on a black screen. Look Around You's Ceefax pages are filled with hilarious fake headlines, recipes, farming news, games, and castle information. It's like a computer version of the joke newspaper Jethro Tull included with their prog-rock classic Thick as a Brick. At the bottom of the Ceefax list is a "Look Around You Quiz Special" that's every bit as clever, absurd, and befuddling as the show. Here's a sample question: "If Up = Down, Morning = Afternoon, and Empty = Full, what does Kenneth equal?" Think you know the answer? Buy the DVD and see if you're right.
Although the audio-visual quality of Look Around You: Season One is limited by the show's retro look, it gets major points for style. Despite the low-fi approach, the episodes are all presented in widescreen, with crisp stereo sound that delivers both the ridiculous narration and the catchy synth soundtrack, composed by Serafinowicz and Popper under the name "Gelg."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I suppose a certain kind of person might complain about an entire season of a TV show only lasting 71 minutes, but you're not that kind of person, are you?
Look Around You: Season One was a complete surprise to me. I'd never heard of it before, and from an informal poll of friends and fellow judges, I'm not alone. That's a real shame, because this is one of the freshest, funniest, and cleverest shows I've seen in a very long time. If you are a fan of British comedy, comedy in general, or are simply old enough to remember having this kind of pseudo-educational TV foisted upon you, buy this DVD. Do it for science.
A successful experiment. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Episode Commentaries
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