15 April 2013
#2LR - "Air Emergency", "Seconds from Disaster": Disaster Porn and the reality-show and procedural update for the millennium:
Yep, long title, though there's plenty of ground to cover with this topic...
I remember a long time ago, watching television and coming across Bud Light commercials. This was back in the day where two guys would fight to the death to label Bud Light as either "Tastes GREAT!" or "Less FILLING!" It wasn't enough that Bud Light did one thing well, it had to do two things well. Of course, the selling point is that it did both things so well, when the implication is that the watered-down mess of swill you have in front of you can't do either one right.
I'm not sure if this counts as my guilty pleasure, much as someone you know and love admitting they buy Us Magazine for all of the Kardashian coverage, but I enjoy both "Air Emergency" (also known as "Mayday" or "Air Crash Investigations" internationally) as well as its sort-of sister show, "Seconds from Disaster". The best part about a guilty pleasure or a vice is that a person has a ready-made excuse as to why they like what they like, and I would be more than happy to go into that excuse below.
It doesn't help my case that my first reason is morbid curiosity. After all, what does happen when something designed to land happily onto the ground... doesn't? Every person that files onto a plane has the same expectation that the plane's systems are working 100% correctly, that their pilot is a master flyer, and who above all else do not expect the system to break down. Only problem is that if the equivalent to a flat tire for a car happens to that plane, it's far more serious and doesn't entail just a couple hours of waiting and a few extra bucks for repair.
I suppose that this is the one thing that fascinates me the most about the disaster porn aspect of the first fifteen or so minutes of these shows. The systems did work... enough for these people to get off the ground, or at the very least enough for these people to strap themselves into a piece of machinery that goes really really fast. One of those variables gets changed up there, though. What really happens when that variable gets changed? How many other variables get cascaded and changed by one single variable? If a person suffers a neck injury and has a spinal cord get injured, that affects the whole rest of their life... one little spot on their neck. And, as I've watched a bunch of these, the same goes for an airplane as well as the people inside.
There's a reason that we don't have machines running the world quite yet, and that's because every time a new variable pops up, the machine isn't designed to take it into account. Humans, however, do their level best to take these new variables into account. Unfortunately, the variable overcomes them many times in these types of shows, though there is always the odd show (such as the one documenting the plane landing in the Hudson River with no one perishing) that still allows you to keep faith in the human race to roll with the punches.
The thing that strikes me even more than the variable change is the way that these people have managed to wall themselves off from the world. At thirty-thousand feet, a plane with 300 passengers may as well be on Mars... if something's happening, there's no Plan B. No escape pods exist for these people, nor even the crew when something catastrophic happens. (On the flip side, I suppose that if the world gets nuked while people are on planes, those lucky few people get to deal with the new world order...)
The kicker is that all of these episodes are true stories... this really really did happen, and not in a Claire Danes Titanic kind of way. If you've paid enough attention to news or recent history, you may have even heard about one of the accidents that ends up getting featured on the show, or known about it because it's affected your sports team ever since it happened (Man U, 1956 through Lokomotiv, 2011). When they list names, that person was involved. When they reenact the pilot/co-pilot dialogue, in many circumstances you're listening to the last words of someone, literally, who managed to be in a place to have those last words recorded.
In some ways, this is disaster porn of the highest caliber. George Kennedy never got killed ONCE by an airplane, no matter how many "Airport" movies were filmed. However, none of these poor souls ever thought for a second that one of those variables would get changed on their flight, and paid for it in injury or in death. The only way that this sort of disaster porn could be of any greater vintage would be as the world's most insane snuff film, where there are no actors. As it is, it's certainly macabre enough.
Of course, my justification for liking these shows is what happens afterward. After whatever event befalls the poor victims, the show turns into a procedural for whatever's left of the time, crossed with a reality show. They have people being interviewed that take you through their mindset, telling you about the theories they tried, the clues they found, the investigations that they ran. In this way, the second half really is the Bud Light, where someone would point to the reality of the matter, where the people interviewed really do their level best to try to take you back to the past and tell you their mindsets as they were going through the investigation. On the other hand, there's an honest-to-goodness investigation going on, and clues will be had... sometimes by the truckful, but for every time they have one of those, there's a damaged cockpit voice recorder or flight data recorder lurking in the weeds.
Just as the variable change fascinates me in the beginning, there's other things that fascinate me in the procedural part of the show. Some of my favorite moments are when the investigators use the data they *don't* have to make a judgment. I typically think through problems in as few paths as I can, and seeing the mental gymnastics that these investigators are called on to do is absolutely amazing. There are times that these investigators can isolate problems, down to a single cork within a propeller blade, or a discolored panel, that they are able to find inconsistencies and figure out exactly why something happened.
I have to try to pick my way into the next statement carefully, but I want to make sure that I pull no punches. As far as me, personally, I would like to think that if an event was so momentous that it caused my death as well as the deaths of others, it would be nice to realize that it would not be a death in vain. If I were to die from a random traffic accident, or from an illness that looked enough like something common (e.g. pneumonia), there would not be an investigation into why I died, and the same problem has a high likelyhood of happening to someone else again. It's nice though, to see from these investigations, that when a plane with people comes down... even if no one is injured... that event is investigated from every single angle, and the industry is made safer. To be trite, the death (or injury) has a cause behind it, and for darned sure everyone would be warned about making that mistake in the future. Even when the pilots were found to be completely ignorant, methods were figured out to make them less oblivious in similar situations and these professionals are trained in those methods.
I know that this could sound horribly insensitive, but the for-instance comes from my wife's family. Her grandparents were killed in a drunk-driving incident. Nothing was learned from this... the drunk driver ended up getting some jail time for involuntary manslaughter, and that's the extent of the punishment. The worst part is that I don't even know if the original drunk driver learned anything from this, and this kind of accident will happen again... guaranteed.
At any rate, disaster porn with a side of reality-show and police procedural is my current drug of choice, of which I am a junkie. There is also a fallout amongst people who love the person who has fallen victim to this vice. Mine may be extremely insidious... of my children, I managed to make two of them scared to even take a step into an airplane. I have no idea what the future may or may not bring as far as air flight, peak oil, etc... but I can't imagine that this is a healthy attitude to have going forward for them, especially since now they expect every single plane that has ever gone up into the sky to come down in a horrible, fiery wreck. I have not been party to an intervention just yet, but there's always a chance.
As you can see, I can't exactly be subjective about the topic, so there's really no chance for a "rating" per se. Just rest assured that if they manage to combine more genres, I'll be there to check it out.