TV Is Better Without People, and Other News


On the Shelf

A still from How It’s Made.

  • James Alan McPherson, the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, has died at seventy-two. An obituary in the New York Times quotes his memoir, Going Up to Atlanta, in which he writes about reading comics at the library in Savannah, Georgia: “At first the words, without pictures, were a mystery … But then, suddenly, they all began to march across the page. They gave up their secret meanings, spoke of other worlds, made me know that pain was a part of other peoples’ lives. After a while, I could read faster and faster and faster. After a while, I no longer believed in the world in which I lived.”
  • If we watch TV mainly as an exercise in escapism, then a show devoid of people—or even trace elements of the anthropomorphic—would offer the greatest escape of all. We’re in luck, because there’s How It’s Made, a half-hour paean to manufacturing that is, as Alexandra Kleeman writes, closer to full-on post-human than anything on television: “The show begins to take on a post-­apocalyptic flavor. Its images of manufacturing, you realize, are oddly depopulated … Humans are so scarce, in fact, in this world of throbbing, gleaming machines that when part of one comes into view, the first reaction is not recognition but confusion. ‘What is that pink thing?’ you might ask yourself, before realizing that it is a hand. Against the swift exactitude and raw power of machinery, the human anatomy—with its soft, squishy shapes and nerve-riddled interior—looks vulnerable at best.”
  • And why not surrender to the conveyer belts? There is much to escape from in this world, especially as an enclave of elite technocrats begin to rebuild it from the ground up, finding ever more novel ways of infantilizing us in their quest to monetize. “I have been obsessed with figuring out why I hate the Seamless ads in the New York City subway,” Jesse Barron writes. “ ‘Welcome to New York,’ one reads. ‘The role of your mom will be played by us’ … We’re in the middle of a decade of post-dignity design, whose dogma is cuteness. One explanation would be geopolitical: when the perception of instability is elevated, we seek the safety of naptime aesthetics … We cannot find food on our own, or choose a restaurant, or settle a tiny debt. Where that dependency feels unseemly in the context of independent adult life, it feels appropriate if the user’s position remains childlike, and the childlikeness makes sense when you consider that Yelp depends on us to write reviews, and therefore must, like a fun mom, make chores feel fun, too.”
  • Maybe you’d been hoping that literature could offer some solace from all this. Should you attempt to write in your effort to flee from despair, proceed with extreme caution: there is only more suffering ahead. Robert Fay writes, “One occasionally glimpses the true existential cost of the so-called ‘writer’s life,’ where writing is both an act of self-abnegation—with all of its consequent anxieties—as well as a struggle against such a personalized nihilism … The daily act of sitting alone for hours and purposely conjuring up emotions and disturbing memories—precisely the kinds of things people use Percocet, vodka, food, and Netflix to forget—serves as the ideal petri dish for anxiety.”
  • Might as well bookend this one with obituaries. The cartoonist Jack Davis—known for the defining style he brought MAD Magazine, where he was one of “the Usual Gang of Idiots”—has died at ninety-one. “Davis’s final cover for the magazine came in 1995—a picture of magazine-mascot Neuman plunging radio-presenter Howard Stern in a toilet bowl, which the spokesman said ‘remains a MAD classic.’ ”