Mainstream, nonfiction

The Habitat : a failure to launch

I like the NASA space program. A lot. When the Curiosity rover was landing I planned my day around being able to watch the livestream from JPL. I kept a papercraft model of the Orion capsule dedicated to the unmanned test flight on my desk for years. I really enjoy anything even tangentially related to the space program.

Gimlet’s newest non-fiction series The Habitat trades on that that childlike wonder for anything involving space in hopes you’ll excuse the fact the series is, in actuality, a low-stakes reality show about six people slowly becoming tired of each other. The only legit space travel content takes palce in the first three episodes whenever host Lynn Levy (late of Radiolab and Studio360) interjects relevant/fun facts about space exploration history.

The Habitat is a seven-part “serialized documentary about a group of six volunteers who travel to a Mars-like section of the Hawaiian islands to spend one year in a mock-up of the habitat NASA will use on the Orion missions to Mars.” The HI-SEAS project (which stands for Trying Too Hard For A Cute Acronym) seeks to simulate 365 days of living in a Mars-bound environment to study how a crew of three men and three women will interact. As far as NASA is concerned, everyone’s het in space I guess?

For one year the crew must conserve supplies as if on Mars, only eat food that would survive the trip to Mars, and can only go outside while wearing pretend space suits. All outside communication is made through e-mail on a delay to simulate the time it takes signals to travel from Mars to Earth and back.

Oh, and Levy tossed one of the crew members an audio recorder just before they went inside. Over the course of the year Levy would send questions over e-mail, the crew would then record their responses and e-mail them back.

Fortunately for Gimlet – and unfortunately for us all – the less stoic of the crew slowly began to use Levy’s recorder as an outlet for gossip they normally would have kept to themselves. Granted, the point of the titular habitat is to run the six residents through a stressful environment. Of course they’re going to talk shit about each other through any method available. The problem comes from the fact we are hearing it on a podcast that is pretending to be a science show. The first three episodes put on airs that this series is going to be part reality show, part science series. Instead listeners are treated to scene after scene of someone being irritated with another person. It gives the impression the producers ran out of actual content to use past the first three epsiodes and had to pivot to a more MTV-esque drama focus to make the podcast something more than bland audio diary footage recorded in a semi-interesting location.

Gimlet: NPR but like, chill.

Gimlet products generally give off an air of something produced by a company desperate to prove their headquarters is full of people who think they’re the cool person at the office. “If I ran this place there’d be an air hockey table” kind of attitude. Non-fiction podcasts from Gimlet usually ape NPR/WNYC style programs, which makes sense since Gimlet’s hiring process starts by headhunting people from bot places. Yet while those vanguards of Radio Getting Into Podcasting have an air of professioanlism and the funds to be able to ditch a project if it doesn’t man out, Gimlet slathers its shows in a thin veneer of relatable casual attitude.

Make no mistake, I like Lynn Levy. Their work on Radiolab in the past has been awesome, there is plenty of evidence that they can research/host the hell out of a science-based podcast segement and make it interesting. Yet Levy as presented by the producers of The Habitat is less NPR and more YouTuber.

That’s not to say every host who touches on science has to be a stuffed shirt talking head. Wanna tell me about the scientific method while casually swearing? Go for it. Alie Ward’s out there on Ologies every week showing the world you don’t have to be a chaste dude in a labcoat to be an effective educator. The problem with Levy’s presentation of Habitat stems from the gulf of difference between the two halves of the podcast. The first three episodes have the same vibe of a cool science-y miniseries you’d see on YouTube or Netflix. Levy casually swears in the first few episodes, then drops it entirely until blurting out “that’s goddamn adorable” in a crowd of other journalists and families of the faux-astronauts. It feels as if there was no small amount of re-working in the edit bay that might have stripped the cohesive vision from The Habitat.

When the compost toilet breaks we get a goofy interlude about the mechanics and realities of pooping in space. It’s one of the best-edited segments of the entire series with awesome deep-dive clips from the Apollo program brought in for comedic relief. Yet, this is also the moment where that off feeling to Habitat‘s narration shines. Prior to the toilet situation the word ‘shit’ is bandied about two to three times (Shoutout from the future where Gimlet sold for hundreds of millions yet not a damn transcript to be seen), yet when it comes time to face the feces side of space travel they pivot to primarily calling it “poop,” as if suddenly it’s a family-friendly on-air This American Life segment.

The language creates this odd disconnect as the crew, being constantly monitored by NASA, only communicate in safe-for-live-television language. Whenever the astro-nots are talking things feel like a family-friendly WNYC podcasting experience. Then we’ll jump back to a sound-designed interlude with Levy gleefully informing the audience early astronauts “holding a paper bag to their buttholes.”

It might feel like I’m focusing a lot on the conversations about the composting toilet breaking, and there’s a reason. It’s the beginning of the end for interesting episodes of The Habitat. Except for a segment discussing how astronauts getting pissed off at each other and NASA during long-term confinement in small quarters (which sadly does not mention my favorite example of this: the Skylab mutiny), the reality show content takes a front seat.

The HI-SEAS dome, NASA’s ultimate MARS simulation. Ignore the gas-powered generator in shot that would need oxygen to work.

The problems with covering HI-SEAS is HI-SEAS, by designb is boring as hell. It’s a pressure cooker of mundane, monotnous tasks to see if people can survive in space effectively living as robots in the name of science. And for all of this stress, nobody in HI-SEAS actually has a chance of going to Mars. Nobody’s getting a fast-track to become an Orion mission. The trick to most reality television is the childish bickering and backbiting between contestants is, to some extend, legitimized by the existence of some sort of prize. An end goal that justifies the means to get there.

“For the love of science” doesn’t make the voyeuristic experience of listening to intelligent adults get sick of each other for six months particularly thrilling. As soon as the veneer of intercutting fun space facts fades away the listener is left with the truth of the situation: We’re all just here to listen to smart people get bored of each other.

The doctor is an no-nonsense buzzkill who occasionally plays didgeridoo. As a result the crew regularly gets pissed off when said doctor talks shit about people requesting junk food in supply drops.

One of the three men takes to cooking breakfast burritos every Sunday. Six months in the crew start shit-talking the burritos to the audio recorder. Instead of, perhaps, vocalizing being bored of the burritos we’re treated to people letting a problem fester to the point where they complain about how he excitedly shouts “tortilla” whenever putting a tortilla into a pan. How dare someone have fun cooking.  What an absolute asshole, he is.

As the relationships start to break down we get to the endgame plot of Habitat: Who’s going to date? Are these two going to fuck? Nah, they’ve adopted a more sibling-like relationship. Oh wait, Cyprien has a thing for Christiane, they must be dating!

There’s an obsession with finding a smoking gun of proof that someone fucked in the dome to the point where they use evidence as shaky as most ghost hunting reality shows. One of the nights a crew member left out the audio recorder all night to record the sound of rain hitting the dome. Levy primes the audience to listen closely to a fuzzy piece of audio with the gain boosted. Levy claims to hear Cyprien saying “let’s go to bed.” To my ears it sounds like every EVP ever collected on a ghost show, which is to say it sounds like nothing. It could by Cyprien asking a crewmate to go have sex, it could be the ghost of Mr. McGillicuddy, murdered thirty years ago on a night just like tonight, saying “get out.”

Another oddity of The Habitat is the experiment ends in episode six, yet we get a seventh episode. This finale is a weird journey into patchwork reporting as, for whatever reason, a good chunk of the six crew members didn’t want to get together with Lynn to record follow-up reviews. There’s an interview with Cyprien in which he is pressed on if he was “dating” in the dome, and he basically says “yeah, and?”

I’m a big fan of the doctor, upon being informed the crew didn’t like their attitude, effectively replied “so?”

There is an attempt at an overall message for Habitat, key word being attempt. During a training exercise before HI-SEAS began, the dudebro jokester is asked “What do you expect to get out of this experience.” In true coached-by-a-NASA-PR-rep fashion he flashes a toothy grin and says “I expect to come out of this with five best buds.”

That clip was recorded before the crew had gotten to know Lynn, let alone eacht other. Yet it’s taken the heart as a genuine response, even months later when there’s definitive proof none of the crew talk to each other after HI-SEAS. Even the two who dome-dated.

Six HI-SEAS candidates celebrate the day of their release from NASA’s soul-extraction machine.

Months after the experiment NASA sends another six people to live in the same building for 365 days, Lynn catches one of them on mic saying “I expect to come out of this with five new best friends.” Either I’m right in that NASA coaches crew members to give this response, or NASA is targeting pie-in-the-sky idealists for HI-SEAS.

The producers of Habitat take the opposite interpretation of this response. It’s not a foolhardy hope, it’s a demonstration of the human spirit. We’ll make it out in space because we love to go out and discover new things, even if it might not be the best idea to begin with. Throw some french horn into the mix and you’ve got yourself the Captain’s Log of a lesser Star Trek episode. One final grasp at trying to appeal to space nerds by gushing the same platitudes both science documentaries and science fiction use to get people stoked for space travel.

The Habitat is the podcast equivalent of a chocolate-flavored rice cake. Cool in concept, lacking in substance and delivery. If you try really hard you can taste the good thing you want to be eating. With no transcripts or any extra information on the website beyond who made the show and how to subscribe to it, this project feels like it was either rushed to be released alongside Sandra or the producers had a hell of a time constructing a narrative out of a year’s worth of audio clips. The fluff factor is real in the latter half of the series, leading me to suspect the same message could have been communicated in three episodes, if not an hour-long This American Life or Radiolab segment.

Oh and there’s multiple covers of Starman by David Bowie, because of course that’s what Gimlet spent money on.

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