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HBO Max’s ‘World of Calm’ the only show he can stay awake for

Christopher Borrelli
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
A scene from the HBO Max show "A World of Calm": Season 1, Episode 1 is "The Coral City narrated by Lucy Liu."

My “sleep hygiene” is bad.

My “circadian rhythms” flutter like the pigeons having sex outside my bathroom window every morning. To paraphrase the language of sleep researchers, my “sleep quality” sucks.

And yet, right now, more than the risk of stroke, the fear of obesity or any “increased irritability” — all long associated with a disruption of a healthy sleep routine — my concern right now is that my sleep habits are so unmanageable I will never get through any of the new Oscar nominees.

My sleep problem is not that I don’t get enough sleep. I definitely don’t.

But my problem here is that I fall asleep way too fast when I watch movies and TV series at home, on a couch, at night. Sometimes I’m snoring after five minutes. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes — my ceiling for sampling a new TV series is 22 minutes or so. Either way, it’s rare I don’t fall asleep at some point. It’s a problem that’s gone unaddressed by cultural critics and the think-piece industrial complex, who apparently have seen everything, generated thoughtful responses and have no previous commitments in life. Yet I can’t be alone.

My situation predated the pandemic. I often found it hard enough staying awake when theaters were the official playing field of awards season. Now that my living room is my red carpet and nominees are available at a whim, through a potpourri of streaming services, I wonder: Will I ever watch another Oscar film?

I was riveted, for example, by “Nomadland,” though when it began Frances McDormand was staring off into the middle distance, and when I woke up 100 minutes later she was staring into the middle distance, and somewhere in the middle is a whole movie I’ll need to watch again.

The obvious crack here is that the movie is boring — that Oscar films are tedious and self-serious and if the Academy nominated movies “real people” watched, I would have stayed awake. Not necessarily true. Dr. Lisa Medalie, a sleep specialist at University of Chicago (and creator of the DrLullaby sleep app), told me: “Simply finding more engaging programming might only be a Band-Aid. It is possible that if you engage in more mentally stimulating content, you actually fight the urge to sleep. That said, listen to your body’s signal to get yourself more Zzz’s.”

Sorry, doctor, no, I will not comply with common sense.

Oscar beckons.

And right now, far as I know, “Sound of Metal” tells the story of a heavy metal drummer who is doing well and leading a fun transient life and everything goes great, end of movie. It’s practically a Hallmark film. Except, get this: I hear it’s actually about a guy who develops hearing problems and goes into a downward spiral! Doesn’t sound like my “Sound of Metal”! Also, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is the story of good-natured rabble-rousing youth who anger Richard J. Daley but everything works out and the trial proves uneventful. The so-called critics may say differently. In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Viola Davis hires Chadwick Boseman to play in her band but then Chadwick Boseman stabs a man to death and the movie is over. In “One Night in Miami...,” Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown meet in a hotel room, then everyone goes their separate ways. “News of the World” is about Tom Hanks moving through post-Civil War America and reading newspapers for change. That’s all.

My wife claims I missed some stuff.

But I don’t know about that.

Medalie  pointed out the inclusion of a sleep timer on Netflix, which allows viewers to forcibly limit the amount of TV they ingest — which is usually the issue with TV and healthy sleep. Countless sleep studies have suggested too much of the former tends to mean not enough of the later. (“One-third of our population is sleep deprived,” Medalie said.)

My problem feels somewhat inverted.

For instance, my favorite new series to stream right now is HBO Max’s “A World of Calm,” which was created specifically to settle down a racing mind using pretty images of solace, right before bedtime. Ironically, it seems to be the only thing I have been able to watch lately without falling asleep. I have gotten through most of the 20-odd minute episodes while completely alert. And that’s a feat: The first episode I watched featured Keanu Reeves narrating glacially paced footage of a man carving a canoe out of a tree. The second episode I watched had Oscar Isaac describing a soba noodle recipe handed down by generations of a Japanese family.

Confused by my attentiveness, I contacted Chris Advansun, a writer/producer for “World of Calm.” He’s also the chief storyteller and writer for the Calm healthy sleep app, which created the series as an extension of one of its popular features — famous people narrating bedtime stories in reassuring voices. (Yes, you can pay to Matthew McConaughey yourself to sleep.)

Advansun said he thought that he understood why the show had a paradoxical effect on me.

“World of Calm” wasn’t created entirely to put people to sleep, but rather, the goal was lull the audience into relaxation, “calling on principles of mindfulness.” In other words, by paying close attention, by recognizing the show itself intends to alter my consciousness, I was less passive than, say, watching “Judas and the Black Messiah” or a new “WandaVision” episode.

“There is nothing terribly dramatic in the show,” he said. “There are no twists. We take traditional storytelling techniques and slow it all down. The cutting is slow, the pacing is slow. We spend a lot of time on gentler word choices — nothing too harsh or abrupt. Even in a nature documentary there’s need for drama. We’re deliberately choosing subjects that aren’t that contentious.”

Of course, he’s Canadian.

But he’s on to something. The genius of “World of Calm” is in subtle and active engagement. The plots of the Oscar films I’m trying to watch are likely removed from my day-to-day. But “World of Calm” — or Netflix’s even more intentional “The Headspace Guide to Meditation” — announces itself as snooze I can use. I am mindful to settle myself. That is, assuming I ignore that there’s also something sweaty about a sleep app looking for new revenue streams and extending its brand through focused content, and that in the archipelago episode, Lucy Liu neglects to mention the oceans are warming. Instead, a sea turtle is serviced by small fish who “polish” its shell. When Idris Elba coos about “endless permutations of texture and form” in an episode on the universe, there’s an unspoken recognition that TV itself can be an unwinding routine.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, you are doing something.

You are actively slowing down.

About 15 years ago, a Dutch researcher named Jan Van den Bulck conducted one of the few studies out there about people who tend to fall asleep watching TV. Now a professor of media psychology at the University of Michigan, he told me that when he presented the study (which was never published) “the response was basically I was looking at the most trivial subject, and why even bother on something like this.” But he never did like how the links between TV and sleep were treated by other researchers. According the National Sleep Foundation, about 60% of us watch TV before bed and most of us do it too much. (If you don’t like the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines on wearing maks, you probably won’t love their suggestion to avoid screens two hours before heading to bed.) Van den Bulck doesn’t necessarily dispute those warnings.

He just thinks the concerns don’t often consider the context.

“Some of us have family time around a TV. That’s when we find time to be together. Or if you are a parent of small children, you might often feel a kind of switch flipping in your head and the lights going out after you settle on the couch and pretty soon — what episode is this? It’s not a trivial concern, because for a lot of people, TV time is the time of day when they are free of chores, they want to do something for yourself, and before they even get relaxed, they’re out.”

Exactly. And to be robbed constantly of free time by unwanted sleep — it’s exhausting.

It’s a circular problem: I don’t get enough sleep and so I can’t stay awake for TV, and so I try to sleep less to stay awake for TV, and so on. It’s also a problem of personal narration: Heading out to a theater pulls you out of yourself temporarily. And an Oscar season spent on the couch is just another Tuesday. It’s not transporting, it’s not jarring. I can watch hours of TikTok before bed without feeling sleepy, probably because brief narratives doled out in minutelong chunks are forever jarring, constantly nudging. I can read entire chapters of books at bed without fading.

Because reading requires me. There is no steady unwinding.

And so Pixar’s “Soul” — well, that’s the story of a jazz musician who lands his big break.

The end.

Nothing else.