Even before becoming the host and face of the new Netflix series “Connected,” Latif Nasser knew that one of the keys to science-based storytelling is enthusiasm.
“I don’t think of myself as this made-for-TV person. I hope that the fun of the show is that it’s like, ‘Oh, this is like a kind of a goofy guy, just bouncing around the world.’ I just want to show you this amazing thing that I found out, you know?” Nasser told IndieWire.
In “Connected,” Nasser travels the world, outlining the fascinating (and sometimes fragile) connections between ideas and objects as seemingly disparate as migratory bird patterns, musical frequencies, and lunar bacteria. It’s a similar kind of passion for the unknown — or at least the under-known — that’s evident in Nasser’s work on “Radiolab,” the popular podcast that frequently focuses on the kinds of scientific oddities that power “Connected.”
That audio background really comes across in the show’s many conversation-based segments. Whenever Nasser nods, you can almost sense his years of experience in engaging with a subject’s expertise while getting clean audio tape. But even now as that interview process translates to a visual medium, that same kind of curiosity is powering both pursuits.
“It’s funny, as a science reporter one of the things I’ve really learned is that there’s the story and there’s the information you have to learn from whoever you’re interviewing. And then there’s also this shadow body of information that you assume either you had in your head or the average viewer has in their head. They almost have to unlearn to learn the new thing. You have to kind of disabuse them or yourself of certain ideas before you’re open to learning what a new thing is,” Nasser said.
Narration plays a big part in making the “Connected” connective tissue, easing those jumps across different continents. It’s impossible for that element to not be at least a little personal. Just like those conversations are driven by an innate interest in how these disparate pieces fit together, synthesizing all that information becomes even more impactful when delivered by someone with a perspective of their own.
That also plays a big role in the terrific six-part, Nasser-hosted series that Radiolab released earlier this year. In “The Other Latif,” Nasser details the life of a Guantanamo Bay detainee while tracking the various attempts to secure his freedom. Through the experiences of one man, Nasser and a team of producers trace a dense global geopolitical history that, like “Connected,” is rooted in evaluating basic assumptions about how the world works.
“To be good at anything, you have to live inside of it. Both of those shows are really trying to crawl in and trying to imagine every corner of every possibility,” Nasser said. “I crave that mental thing about getting obsessed with something. But there’s also something in your heart that’s like, ‘Oh, I want to dive deep into a story that is really meaningful to me and I think it’s profound.’ I want to be able to keep doing that forever.”
In turn, as these stories are refracted partly through Nasser’s interests, they then go out to an audience with a wide variety of prior knowledge and personal interests. With his TV and podcast work, Nasser’s approach is to tap into something universal by removing any significant thresholds. By respecting any viewer or listener, the end goal is to make something that invites an active learning experience once they take the journey.
“In a way, I hope the viewer comes in with less. But then I want them to work a little bit and imagine, ‘Oh, what are the what are the ways this could connect? Where’s this even going? How could we possibly wind up over there?'” Nasser said. “I hope that the barrier for entry is low, but then when you get in that you’re doing a little bit of mental gymnastics to keep up with the logic and the storytelling. To me, I find that very pleasurable. It’s like doing a puzzle or something.”
One of the biggest challenges of science reporting is grappling with the ever-changing nature of science itself. Our conceptions of some phenomena or natural processes can change by the day. Tracking the evolution of an unfolding story is certainly something Nasser encountered while working on “The Other Latif.”
So, when laying out the groundwork for “Connected,” this was a chance to present audiences with something that was less an interpretation of an ongoing question and more sharing ideas with a firmer foundation.
“There are a lot of science shows out there that cover controversial topics that are on the cutting edge and are in dispute. One of the things I said early on was I want to cover stuff that is, by and large, true. It’s incontrovertibly true and it’s stuff that you can take to the bank,” Nasser said. “I’ve done a lot of science reporting. So I know the tricks people use — for good or for bad — to make ambiguous science or very small findings look like they’re bigger. I didn’t want to do any of that. There’s not as much tension or scientists throwing mud at each other, but that’s not the thing that I wanted.”
Adding a new visual layer to his usual storytelling approach turned out to be filled with pleasant surprises. Working with a team of graphics and design artists, “Connected” manages to take some of the more abstract ideas of the show and express them in ways that are digestible without being oversimplified. Part of what makes them engaging is that they’re tapping into the same immersive sensory experiences that the best audio stories allow you to conjure for yourself.
“There were so many moments where I would throw down what I thought was an impossible challenge. And then they just made it work somehow. They’re mad, Terry Gilliam-esque geniuses,” Nasser said. “The way my brain works, I need things to really be tangible. I have to chew these stats up just to understand them as a reporter and I want to do that same thing for the audience. So the things they made, they really used paper and tape. They physically made it. I found it even more impressive that so much of it was actually physical stuff because they took that note and they made it literal.”
Regardless of how audiences are absorbing them, the value of these stories is in how much they’re able to introduce new ideas and provide a fresh perspective on the world. Whether it’s hearing a family in Morocco awaiting the return of a loved one or seeing how dating apps function in Paris or following explorers across the Bodélé Depression in Chad, these are shows that make life a little less unfamiliar.
“I was so lucky because the production company that I’m working with, Zero Point Zero, they’re the folks behind all of Anthony Bourdain’s TV shows. When we were pitching the show, that’s around the time that he died, and I remember reading one of his obituaries. It said that he was this guy who showed the rest of the world isn’t a place to be scared of,” Nasser said. “Even though I never met him, I kind of imbibed that from his work. It’s important for us to not just portray these places on TV as these places that CIA agents run through. The wider world is pregnant with amazing stuff you’ve never heard of.”
“Connected” is now available to stream on Netflix.
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