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Mr. Wizard wouldn't approve

'Look Around You' successfully parodies science education on BBC America.

December 02, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Debuting tonight at the unusual time of 10:40 -- between "The Office" and "Trailer Park Boys" -- BBC America's new mini-miniseries "Look Around You" is a pitch-perfect parody of educational films of the late '70s and early '80s. (British educational films, but not so different from the domestic variety.) It captures its model not only in its picture quality, design and antique synthesizer score, but also (in a rare and laudable show of restraint) in the way that none of the jokes refers to or reflects our present day -- nothing violates the bygone mood.

Created, written, enacted and scored by Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz, each of the eight episodes -- or "modules" -- last 10 minutes or less, an example many television series could profitably follow. It will probably be funniest to people who remember the era, especially to those who were in school then, but it should work on anyone with a bent for the absurd. You don't need to be a scientist to get the humor, either, but it would be good at least to know that water doesn't actually boil at 1,000 degrees, that the normal human temperature is not 96.4 degrees and that there already is a name for a circle ("this unusual shape, a uniformly curved line that somehow joins up with itself"), and it's "a circle." (It's good to know those things anyway.) Much depends on the deadpan panache with which narrator Nigel Lambert delivers a line like "What are birds? We just don't know."

The pacing is authentically pokey, allowing time for each lesson to sink in, with lots of close-ups of indicating hands, bubbling beakers and ancient machinery, nearly everything marked with embossed Dymo labels. Experiments are conducted step by slow step, with frequent exhortations to "note that down in your copybook": These include getting a disembodied brain to guess the number of nuts in a jar, culturing germs from a moth's wings to create a little tree ("It's a different sort of moth to one you might enjoy in a sandwich") and adding sulfur to champagne to make "sulfagne."

Tonight's subject is math, or maths, as it's called over there -- for Mathematical Anti-Telharsic Harfatum Septonin, supposedly. The weeks ahead include the study of germs (which come from Germany), music ("music is the name given to any sequence of notes designed by man -- and increasingly by women -- to effect mood change"), ghosts (ectoplasm is "perfectly safe to eat") and the brain -- "basically a wrinkled bag of skin filled with warm water, veins and thought muscles. Think of it as a kind of modified heart, only with a mind, or brain."


'Look Around You'

Where: BBC America

When: 7:40 and 10:40 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)

Peter Serafinowicz...Scientist

Robert Popper...Scientist

Nigel Lambert...Narrator

Producers Robert Popper, Peter Serafinowicz. Writers Robert Popper, Peter Serafinowicz. Director Tim Kirkby.

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