By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
9:00 AM EDT, March 20, 2014
"None of the Above" and "The Numbers Game" (National Geographic Channel, Mondays). A brace of stunt-science shows -- edutainment is the word. And is actually a word. (First known use: 1973.) Like the network's "Brain Games" and "Duck Quacks Don't Echo," each is founded largely on the proposition that much of what you think you know is wrong and finds its fun in demonstrating that fact, using other facts. (This is that famous troublesome fact-based reality some are loathe to embrace.) Each series has a colorful, comical host -- tall and gregarious Briton Tim Shaw for "None," hipster-nerd "data scientist" Jake Porway for "Numbers"), a quick pace, a taste for animated infographics, and a yen to amaze, like Mr. Wizard in days of old.
"None of the Above" is a demonstration show, mostly about chemistry and physics, in which ordinary citizens out in the world are asked to suggest or choose from a number of things that might or might not happen if a certain thing was done to a certain other thing. That is just a framework, of course, like making the questions the answers in "Jeopardy." The results are often counterintuitive. (Spoilers ahead). What would happen if a person sat on a Tesla coil in a suit of armor. (Nothing.) What happens to a pickle when you run electricity into it. (It lights up.) What happens to ice when you mix in cotton balls. (It becomes uncrackable.) What happens to marshmallows in a vacuum? (They get super puffy.) What happens when you mix melted ice cream with self-rising flour and pop it in the microwave? (You get bread.) How do you get an olive into a wine glass without touching it? (Centrifugal force is your friend in this bar trick, performed in a bar. Shaw also goes to Compton in his Ford Ranchero, to Bludso's BBQ, to demonstrate what happens when you drop a frozen turkey into a huge vat of hot peanut oil. You might get that one right.)
The zippy "The Numbers Game" takes statistical probabilities regarding human behavior and presents them in a way that suggests that knowledge of how a certain sort of person is likely to act in a given circumstance can transform your own behavior -- to help you act like a hero, or to be less of a sucker. Such transference seems tenuous to me, but, again, this is really just a way to turn science into television -- and that, as Martha would say, is a good thing. The facts are interesting without the folderol -- there is a hidden-camera, prankish component to the show -- but the folderol makes the facts concrete. It's interesting to know that brain chemistry explains things con artists know from practice, and amusing, and alarming, to watch host Porway gather $125 in an hour by asking strangers for money for gas in a manner that surreptitiously creates trust. We learn too from a professional mentalist that a mind reader's best friend is a head already full of facts -- about geography and population distribution, regional accents or the generational likelihood of a first name beginning with a given letter. What looks supernatural, we learn, is "observation and statistics, pure math and science."
"Doll & Em" (HBO). British actresses and lifelong friends Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells are the stars and authors, with director Azazel Jacobs ("Terri"), of this low-boil friendship comedy, set in the wilds of moviemaking Hollywood. (With Stephen Merchant's late "Hello Ladies" and the ongoing "Episodes," you could make yourself a nice little television festival of shows about Britons lost in Tinseltown.) Mortimer, known here for "Match Point," "Hugo" and "The Newsroom," and Wells, known in Britain for "Spy" and "Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy," but not so known here, play versions of themselves: Em is in a big Hollywood movie, playing a mob boss; Doll, reeling from a breakup, has come to Los Angeles to recuperate and visit Em, who has hired her as her assistant, which makes everything between them unclear. (Doll: "You're the best friend that anyone could ever have." Em: "That's what a good assistant would say.") Power relationships wobble this way and that. ("I keep forgetting to pay you," says Em to Doll, who is being sent to buy coffee, with no money. "I've just been given all this cash, it's totally perfect.")
The tone is intimate, offhand, improvisational; the style is hand-held, fly-on-the-wall documentary without the pretense of being a documentary. (Jacobs comes out of the world of independent film.) It is not heavily plotted and is never played for laughs; its absurdities are, at most, only slight magnifications of those Hollywood lives daily, if a long literature of the industry is anything to go by. It's as complicated a duet, in its way, as that of "True Detective," and as well-played and rewarding, the more so as series about female friendship are in proportionately short supply. (Touch plays an unusually important role here, as a way of defining -- in ways both straightforward and ironic -- the characters and their connections.) A picture of a friendship under stress, but a picture of friendship all the same.
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