Explaining steps world takes toward global warming

November 21, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"After The Warming" is an ambitious and impressive production by Maryland Public Television. At times, it seems like some of the best and most enlightened public television to be broadcast in a while.

But the two-hour look at global warming with James Burke also suffers from one of the worst sins of much commercial broadcasting -- overemphasizing personality at the expense of argument and coherence. "After The Warming," which airs at 8 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), is too much the personality of itsstar, who previously hosted PBS series "Connections" and "The Day the Universe Changed."

The show is basically about the greenhouse effect and global warming. The interesting approach taken by MPT is to place the show in the year 2050 and have Burke look back over how wisely or foolishly we have dealt with pressing environmental concerns between 1990 and 2050.

I say "basically" because this show quickly becomes essentially a two-hour lecture on weather and its relation to the history and future of human civilization. Granted Burke will remind many viewers of the best university lecturer they ever heard. But it's still one man lecturing from a script full of McLuhanesque connections.

McLuhanesque, as in Marshall McLuhan? Yes. For example, did the invention of the chimney in the 16th century really create social classes, as Burke casually declares? Burke's suggestion is that with chimneys you could have indoor fires, and so tribes of people no longer had to live around one great central fire.

And are the "flatulent cows" Burke refers to more than once really that much to blame for problems with the planetary carbon cycle? I'm only asking.

Among the more impressive aspects of "After The Warming" are the visuals, which the producers are calling "virtual reality."

The effect is that Burke can be positioned in a geodesic dome with 3-D images projected around him so it looks as if he is walking in and out of scenes ranging from a hillside in Iceland to a Mediterranean mountain pass. Such "virtual reality" does enhance the lecture considerably -- both in terms of making it more involving and understandable.

MPT says it is the first time advanced graphics and live action have been combined this way. But this process or one very much like it has been used before -- such as on NBC's ill-fated "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" show with Mary Alice Williams two summers ago.

The bottom line is that many of Burke's insights are brilliant and easily worth the two hours of time viewers will spend with this show. But viewers should try to be more discriminating than the producers were about what they accept and reject in Burke's electronic classroom.

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