Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” Outstanding, Creative and Unnerving; “Mythbusters: The Search” An Unwatchable Rip-off

Every once in a while, I come across entertainment options – be they movies, television shows, miniseries, music or books – that are good (or bad) enough that they merit mention. For the most part, I try to concentrate on those things that are good because there’s enough crap that is out there (you hear me, Taylor Swift?) that people can normally pick out and ignore. The last time we looked at entertainment, we chose the NBC television series Timeless and, so far, that looks good. All the brass at NBC seem to be leaning towards giving the show a second season (but the jury is still out).

So what looks good right now? And what is total crap? Follow along and see if you agree, disagree or have some suggestion for something to check out. I’m always looking for something enjoyable (WRITER’S NOTE:  I am not saying I am “first” on these things; I’m merely saying they’re well worth (or, in those certain cases, not worth) your time to check out).

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

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My first experience with Whitehead was with a book called The Noble Hustle. The book in principle was about the world of poker but, as I read it, I wasn’t entranced with what Whitehead was doing. He wrote the book as a semi-autobiography, a tome to excoriate the demons in his own soul, and as such never really reached me in trying to write a “poker book.” In fact, when you use such lines as “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside” and pretend to be from a country called “The Republic of Anhedonia” (anhedonia – the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable, such as hobbies, music, social interactions), you get the idea.

Thus, the idea of reading another Whitehead book was roughly akin to having a manicure done with bamboo shoots.

Recently, my lovely wife and I wanted to experience some “adult time” by getting involved with a local book club. The book of their choice for the month was Whitehead’s latest effort, The Underground Railroad, which made many Book of the Year lists for 2016 and was on the New York Times bestseller list for several months. I reluctantly picked up the book and, after reading the premise, decided to give Whitehead another chance.

Whitehead’s book is, as you might figure, about the Underground Railroad of Civil War history. In Whitehead’s vision, however, the Underground Railroad isn’t a metaphor for the hundreds of miles that runaway slaves had to traverse; in his writings, the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad line, complete with trains, engineers, conductors, stops and rails to convey those runaway slaves to a supposed “better place.” With this creative starting point, Whitehead has gone on to write an outstanding book, albeit one that is also quite unnerving.

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The Underground Railroad is the story of a slave named Cora who, even for someone of her race in that era, had a very difficult life. Her mother was a successful runaway (or was she?) who left her an orphan when she was but 8, immediately banishing her to a life as a second tier being even in the slave community. The resulting banishment to a place for the “unwanted” called “The Hob” on her plantation – as well as other brutal moments – helps to formulate the person she becomes.

Cora meets a slave named Caesar who, in a spirited discussion, invites her – and I guess that would be the term – to run away with him. She initially spurns his offer but Cora, after a particularly vicious beating by the slave master while she protected one of the children from being assaulted over an accident, decides to follow in her mother’s footsteps and flee the plantation.

The twosome head off on the trek on the literal Underground Railroad and the book traces their travels on the rails as they attempt to journey to freedom – or what is supposed to be freedom. The book winds its way through the south (North Carolina is treated particularly harshly and, knowing Whitehead’s research abilities, deservedly so) to Indiana (also the recipient of harsh review), with Cora the central part of the action. There are several chapters that focus on other characters in the book (of particular interest is the slave hunter looking to bring Cora back to the plantation), but those are used by Whitehead in a Tarantino-esque manner, jumping about in time, to provide backstory to what Cora is going through.

Be forewarned…this is not a pleasant read (and part of the reason why my lovely wife decided she couldn’t work her way through it). There are brutal examples of the harsh life on the plantation, including the inhuman treatment of runaways when they were returned to their masters. It is a part of the story, however, and if Whitehead were to gloss over such issues or treat them with “kid gloves,” then he wouldn’t be doing his job as a writer or a storyteller.

Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is deserving of all the accolades that he and the book have received. It is critical to be able to see what our past was to ensure that in no way or manner should it happen to another segment of the population in the future. While it used a little trick to get me in the door – the Underground Railroad being an actual railroad – the overall story gave me a more extensive knowledge of 1860s America and gave me a better appreciation of Whitehead and his talents. The next book I see from him, I will not be as dismissive as I was in the past.

Mythbusters: The Search, Saturdays (check local listings)

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They’ve been saying that the reality television genre is dying, but for me at least it died when the Discovery Channel program Mythbusters went off the air in 2016 (repeats can still be seen on the Science Channel). The show, featuring special effects experts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, spent 15 seasons investigating through scientific methods urban myths, scenes from television and movies, and particularly interesting news stories they came across. Along with their “Build Team” – Kari Byron, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara (and, prior to that, Scottie Chapman and Jessie Combs), who were let go from the show in 2015 – the Mythbusters investigated 282 episodes of information, coming to the conclusions of “Confirmed,” “Busted” or “Plausible” for 2,950 experiments.

As with most things when special effects, robotics and artistic people take hold of it, there were some things that stood out on the show. In the final episode when asked what they would be remembered for, Hyneman said bluntly, “Blowing shit up,” and that they did. But they presented a show that used excellent scientific methods, creativity, was fun and educational and kept your interest. With the Mythbusters crew gone – hell, even “folklorist” Heather Joseph-Witham, with her historical background information on the myths being tested, is remembered fondly for her one season on the program – there was a gap to fill and, problematically, they decided to tarnish the name of this program to fill it.

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Airing on the Science Channel on Saturdays, Mythbusters: The Search is an attempt to make the original program a reality/competition show much like Survivor or The Amazing Race. Ten competitors gleaned from a batch of video applications compete in front of host Kyle Hill (the editor of Nerdist and a Mythbusters fan), RETESTING old myths that the Mythbusters tackled (giving them the excuse to run video of Savage, Hyneman and the old crew). At the end of each episode, one person is eliminated with no apparent scoring or reason for their departure other than a talk between Hill and one of the peripheral participants in the original Mythbusters (a Mythbusters favorite, the Alameda County Sheriff’s officer Sgt. J. D. Nelson of the Alameda County Bomb Range, was the latest to serve in that position).

Catching lightning is tough enough – as Discovery did with the original show and Mythbusters – and it is virtually impossible to do it twice. Mythbusters: The Search is a pale imitation of the original in that literally NONE of the people competing for the prize (and what is the prize? Are a few people being chosen? Is there going to be a woman (tough now that they’ve already sent one home and have two left) on the team? Is there going to be a show in the future? WHAT ARE THE RULES?) have even a sliver of the “it” factor that the original cast had. There isn’t that “TEAM” concept that made the original group so special and, thus, this product suffers.

The fact that there aren’t new “myths” being investigated is also relying on the past team to try to carry this worthless heap. After two episodes, the four myths tested were all previously done by the original Mythbusters (including “Painting with Explosives”) and there was no new information gleaned from redoing the experiments with the 10 pretenders. All that was done was…well, nothing was done, save for the elimination of two contestants that were about as important as the wallpaper.

While it is commonplace in Hollywood (and other entertainment locales) to recycle anything to make another buck, you’ve got to make it good if you want people to watch. There is nothing remotely redeeming about Mythbusters: The Search that makes it worth watching now or in the future. If you yearn for the days of the original gang, check out Byron, Bellaci and Imahara’s work on the Netflix series White Rabbit Project. If you go to the Science Channel for your Mythbusters dose, make sure it is a repeat of the original and not the dreck of Mythbusters: The Search.

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