Unless you’re a big fan of Heroes character Mohinder Suresh, you probably don’t find explanations of genetics all that dramatic. On the other hand, the latest developments in genetic testing mean questions that were once mostly rhetorical — What diseases am I likely to get? What might I pass on to my children? — now may have concrete answers. In other words, understanding your own DNA might just change the way you live your life, which is quite dramatic, indeed. But can an exploration of genetics also be lighthearted, engaging and thoroughly entertaining? It can if it’s Routes, the new online docu-drama from England’s Channel 4.
Produced in association with UK-based charity The Wellcome Trust as part of Darwin 200, a nearly year-long program of events celebrating Charles Darwin’s bicentennial, Routes could have been as dry as it is ambitious. But it’s not, thanks to a cheeky attitude, a fun web site, and — most of all — the undeniable appeal of its star, Canadian comedienne Katherine Ryan.
In Routes, Ryan — a two-time cancer survivor who was recently diagnosed with lupus — submits to genetic testing, kicking off an eight-episode journey into her own genetic map. Charming, vulnerable and irreverent, Ryan comes off as a nice, funny person who’s had a lot of bad luck, health-wise. So by the end of the first episode, we’re invested right along with her in finding out how much of that “bad luck” is luck after all, and how much more of it may be lurking in her future.
Episode Two, to be released Feb. 2, kicks off the genetic investigation, as Ryan sends a tube of saliva for testing and puzzles over the initial results, eventually meeting “Scientist and Mate” Greg at a pub for a quick consultation. This is where the second half of Routes’ appeal kicks in; explanations come by way of casual conversations and joking banter, rather than droning narrations and static slide shows. It feels easy and unforced, capturing the fly-on-the-wall intimacy of good documentary filmmaking.
The Routes web site has some great supporting content — games, contests, extra science know-how — with promises of more to be added every week. The games will allow players to accumulate points, with top scorers every week entered into a drawing to win a Playstation 3. What’s more, as the site’s FAQ teases, there is a yet-to-be-revealed “star” prize: “All we can say now is that five lucky players who have really played will get to go behind the scenes of Routes.”
Smart science, wrapped in a highly watchable series and delivered with a side of cool interactive content? It’s enough to make a true web nerd shiver with delight. But the great thing about Routes is that there’s plenty for everyone to enjoy…even those whose “geek gene” is, sadly, dormant.