Thursday, October 11, 2007

Philosophy on 4

KNTV is perhaps the most bizarre thing I have ever seen on television, and that’s saying something for someone who used to watch Eurotrash. It is a cross between the computer cartoons of Max Headroom, the great ideas of Radio 4’s In Our Time and the totalitarian setting of 1984, and is easily brilliant.

The premise is that two animated teenagers in the Communist state of Slabovia (“When the Iron Curtain fell, Slabovia was under it”) live in a warehouse and explain the theories of great thinkers to the audience. Subjects include Darwin, Einstein and Marx, pretty hefty names with pretty hefty ideas usually tackled in late-night documentaries, not mid-morning cartoons. Even the name suggests a great philosopher.

The one I caught was on Freud, but instead of fixating (as Freud might say) on all the sex, it actually gave lucid explanations of his background, his theories and his afterlife. They covered his predecessor and major influence on the talking cure Josef Breuer, explaining what the case of Anna O’s hysteria meant for psychoanalysis. There was discussion about Freud’s personal neuroses and obsessions, and there was even a neat diagram to explain his concept of id-ego-superego.

But just in case this seems either unbearably dense or unendurably dry, it is leavened with a sprinkling of cheesy yet hilarious jokes, illustrative videos and sly English voice-overs from the suspiciously-named Burgess McPhilbin (how many ten-year olds off school sick get that joke?). The videos are particularly weird – they look like rejects from the Estonian version of You’ve Been Framed, c.1997 (according to the clips’ timestamps) – but nicely serve to illustrate the origin of phobias or OCD behaviour.

Every so often a fearsome general’s voice will sound out over a loud-speaker, telling the boys – named Kierky and Nietzsche, by the way, to bang home the theme – they must conform or else. It’s a nasty jolt that creates a much more rounded world within the show.

This type of programme is what Channel 4 specialises in – odd educational programmes and documentaries in the mid-morning hinterland between reruns of American sitcoms and Krishnan Guru-Murphy on the 12 o’clock news. Tune in any morning during term-time (holiday stand-by ER is off air) and you can find five-minute tours around the National Gallery or Tate Modern and shows about young adults which actually talk to young adults.

Channel 4 knows who its audience at this time is – school pupils who haven’t gone in, hung-over university students, the post-university unemployed – and it suits it perfectly. The programming is not patronising but is amazingly edifying without the Open University’s beardiness or BBC2’s infantilising. KNTV is the perfect example: as a lucid primer on great ideas, it certainly beats the nine o’clock lecture (whether from a tutor in a hall or Melvyn Bragg on R4).

Carry on, Channel 4 – the education you’re give the nation goes some small way to making up for the intellectual void that is Big Brother and its cronies.

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