Pop Culture Roundup: This Week

tags: pop culture roundup

In the spring of 1959, NASA introduced Americans to a new kind of hero -- the astronaut. But deep in the New Mexico desert, far from the Project Mercury spotlight, the Air Force would soon be launching a man towards the heavens. With a fraction of NASA's budget and none of its renown, Project Excelsior would send Captain Joseph Kittinger 100,000 feet above Earth, lifted not by rocket, but by balloon. Though largely forgotten, this group of daring explorers would be the first to venture into the frozen vacuum on the edge of our world, testing the very limits of human physiology and ingenuity in this deadly realm. Written and directed by Amanda Pollak, produced by Pollak and Stephen Ives, and executive produced by Mark Samels, Space Men premieres on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Tuesday, March 1, 2016, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS.

A year ago, even most American history professors probably had never heard of Hercules Mulligan, the American patriot whose name sounds like a punchline.

Thanks to the musical blockbuster Hamilton, Mulligan finally is famous, 190 years after his death. Of course, the real Mulligan was not quite what Lin Manuel Miranda’s casting director sought: “Ethnically Ambiguous / Mixed Race, African Descent… able to sing and rap well … the life of the party, dripping with swagger, streetwise and hilarious…. Joins the revolution to get out of being a tailor’s apprentice.”

Hercules Mulligan was a discrete but silver-tongued Irish immigrant in New York City, who prospered as a haberdasher, tailoring garments for colonial aristocrats and British officers. He was also a member of the Sons of Liberty, and his passion helped recruit Alexander Hamilton to the Revolutionary cause. His work also happened to make him a great, meaning oft-overlooked, spy.

History’s Roots miniseries will premiere on Memorial Day 2016, May 30, and will air over four consecutive nights, simulcast on fellow A+E Networks channels A&E and Lifetime.

The late May holiday has become History’s preferred launching pad for high-profile miniseries. Mega hit Hatfield & McCoys was first, History Logo 2debuting on Memorial Day 2012, followed by Texas Rising, which bowed on Memorial Day 2015.

For the air pattern of the four-night, eight-hour Roots, History is sticking to the model used for the six-hour Hatfield & McCoys, which aired on three consecutive nights. With the eight-hour Texas Rising, History tried a different approach — a two-night launch followed by a two-hour episode airing each the following two Mondays. The Roots release pattern also mirrors that of the iconic original miniseries, which ABC aired on eight consecutive nights in 1977.

A brief history of swearing in the movies

"Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, Mary Cassatt, Käthe Kollwitz, Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman -- these were all women who resonated with me deeply during that first art history class. They’ve also landed on the AP’s revised list of required works, along with more women artists I didn’t learn about until much later.

Still, looking down the list I couldn’t help but burst with questions, like a detective in search of missing persons. Where’s Artemisia Gentileschi? Louise Bourgeois? Yoko Ono? Eva Hesse?

Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle—in which the victorious German and Japanese armies subjugate and split America—is a streaming hit: recently renewed for a second season, it’s Amazon’s most viewed original series to date. With the show’s extensive press coverage and its splashy ad campaign—including the arresting image of Lady Liberty giving New York the “Sieg Heil”—it’s managed to drag the long, complicated tradition of WWII fabulation out of the shadows. For the first time in American culture, the Nazi alternative history has gone pop.

On Jan. 30, 1945, more than 10,000 evacuees gathered in the German-occupied seaport of Gdynia, Poland, to board the Wilhelm Gustloff. Most, although not all, of the evacuees were German — a desperate collection of civilian refugees, wounded soldiers and military officials. Although the Wilhelm Gustloff was originally a cruise liner designed to hold fewer than 2,000 passengers, the refugees saw the repurposed ship as their last best hope to flee the advancing Red Army.

Within hours, a Soviet submarine torpedoed the Wilhelm Gustloff on the open sea, killing more than 9,000 people. Five thousand of them were children. The staggering loss of life that day was higher than the Titanic and Lusitania death tolls combined. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is one of the greatest maritime disasters of all times that no one has ever heard of.

Enter Ruta Sepetys, the critically acclaimed author of the young-adult novel "Between Shades of Grey," which tells the story of Lithuanian residents who were forcibly relocated by the Soviet government to Siberian work camps during the World War II. Sepetys loves historical fiction — particularly if it sheds light on events with which readers are unfamiliar. It's no surprise, then, that the Nashville author would be attracted to the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff, especially since her father's cousin narrowly missed boarding the ill-fated ship.

If you’re looking for a quick refresher course on Japan’s long and fascinating history, Bill Wurtz’s “History of Japan” is the perfect video for you. The nine-minute animation combines flashy graphics, music, jokes, and incredibly fast-paced narration (with just a bit of swearing) to tell the story of Japan from the time it was first settled to the present.

The video manages to pack in a huge amount of information, touching on the rise of rice farming, Buddhism, art history, World War II, and more. It’s an entertaining and informative retelling of the country’s history, and the ultimate video for anyone cramming for a History of Japan final exam. Check out Wurtz’s engaging and deeply silly visual history above.

EDUCATED Americans consider themselves a cosmopolitan bunch. We follow the conflict in Ukraine between Donetsk and Kiev, and can probably point to them on a map. We enjoy bibimbap and paella, which we try to pronounce with an appropriate accent. Some of us can identify the work of Igor Stravinsky, Youssou N’Dour and Ai Weiwei. The rest of us are going to go look them up on Wikipedia now.

But we are more parochial than our grandparents’ generation, according to one indicator: the New York Times crossword puzzle.

With the permission of Will Shortz, the Times’s crossword puzzle editor, I recently downloaded all of the newspaper’s crosswords from February 1942, when the puzzle began, through the end of 2015. I created an algorithm to search all 2,092,375 pairs of clues and answers for foreign language words and place names outside the United States.

The results are imperfect, since the puzzles can be tricky and there is a lot of overlap between English and foreign words. But the broad trend is clear. The puzzle today uses one-third fewer non-English clues and answers than it did at its peak in 1966, and makes two-thirds fewer international references than its peak in 1943.

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