Scare science

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The programmes I watched this week served only to scare. Death is near. Trust nothing. Certainly not a cucumber wrapper. The plastic will leach into the fruit and play with your sex hormones. Worse; oven pizzas. They clog up you arteries like Polyfilla. And if you sugar your tea you’ll be diabetic by the end of March. Watching all this crap you marvel you’ve made it this far.

The most buttock-clenching programme of all was Meteor Strike: Fireball From Space. The meteor that struck Russia last month was a sensational event for sure. Sensational enough without Channel 4’s manhandling of it. From the onset we are peppered with questions that only mysterious music can answer. The narrator’s voice waivers between a low calm that seeps deep into the brain – the sort of voice you hear in planetariums – and a shaky hypnotist-suppressing-an-orgasm excitement. Members of the Russian public are given such strong accents they sound like parodies of medieval serfs.

The whole thing drips with pseudo-drama: “Thousands of windows shattered. Many hundreds were injured… a lot of people suffered from cuts on their feet.” Cuts on their feet! Here the music switches from fast-paced violin strokes (that got me inhaling into a paper bag) to something mournful and slow, better suited to a scene of battlefield decimation.

Towards the end our nerves are tightened even further: “We know there are asteroids up there that could kill us all … We’re overdue a giant meteor strike … There is absolutely a potential the Earth will be hit and that it will wipe out humankind.” I fasten my bike helmet and bend into brace position. What is the purpose of this if not to scare?

Supersize vs Superskinny is into its sixth series. The premise: an obese person is paired up with an underweight person and they move in together for five days. They are meant to help each other overcome their eating problems. Help comes in the form of a diet swap. The skinny people have to eat gigantic portions of grease-soaked food, while the obese ones feast on a Drumstick lolly or nothing.

The staple of the programme is shots of these people clad in over-stretched or over-sagging underwear giving a thumbs up at the camera, or weeping at their mirrored reflection, or looking forlornly down at their feet, where the camera is, which gives a sort of worm’s-eye-view of eating disorders.

We shoot over to Eastville, Indiana. This is “America’s fattest city” where 38 percent of the inhabitants are obese. We meet people dying of chronic heart failure and are shown abnormally large caskets where they’ll eventually end up, and we’re repeatedly told of the dangers of soda, excessive sugar, fast food.

The overriding feeling throughout the show is one of unashamed patronization. And the presenter, Dr Christian, is an unashamedly patronizing guy. He is in devastatingly good shape, well-dressed, attractive – the quintessence of physical perfection. And he has the coldness of character you’d expect from someone like that. He points out – with the smugness of a lizard pointing out the destiny of a fly sitting on the tip of its nose – that these young people might not live that long. He shows them photos of tumours and clogged arteries. Invariably they are shocked, upset. Some cry. It certainly makes for uncomfortable viewing.

So two things puzzle me: how has a programme like this got the legs for six series? Maybe it entertains precisely because it patronizes. Perhaps even because it scares. And how have so many people been duped into filling the episodes?

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