The terrible, entertaining beauty of tornadoes.

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Feb. 26 2009 10:53 AM

Twist and Shout

The Weather Channel brings us Tornado Week.

Tornado.
Tornado

One used to get the sense that the most die-hard viewers of the Weather Channel never actually left the house. If, say, you really want to know what the weather is like where you are, then the sensible thing to do is to pick up the paper or go to the network's site or to stick your pointy head out the window. Thus, the channel has traditionally felt like a kind of lightning rod for the attention of geeks, shut-ins, agoraphobes, invalids, people under house arrest, the genially senescent, and, I'm sorry, Asperger's patients. But when this column last checked in, a reinvention was under way; the network was airing an entertaining Casey Kasem-ian retrospective of top weather moments and elsewhere allowing the anchor team of Abrams and Bettes to wholesomely sex up the atmosphere. It's gotten hot in here.

Thus are we now in the middle of Tornado Week—appropriately, as this February has seen twisters of an intensity normally associated with May, as star meteorologist Jim Cantore pointed out on the phone last week. (In the moments before we spoke, a weather report, of course, interrupted the music on hold.) Tornado Week is to the new Weather Channel what Shark Week is to Discovery. Each is an extended opportunity to gawk at the splendors and horrors of nature. The viewer experiences jolts of primal fear, shocks of thrilling wonder—and also several laughs of belly at the tremendously corny frills accenting the more overwrought documentaries.

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In the last matter, I have in mind especially Storm Stories, the new season of which Tornado Week partly exists to launch. Cantore, donning the awesome title of "storm tracker," hosts the series, his manly voice rumbling over every scene. Each episode of Storm Stories proffers a survival narrative, a tribute to American resilience and Sebastian Junger-style narratives. Thursday's, titled "Boy Scouts Tornado" (8 p.m. ET), concerns a twister that ripped through the Little Scout Sioux Ranch in Iowa last summer during a leadership conference. Four children died, and the Weather Channel tells their sad stories with compassion.

But be prepared also to see, among the recent interviews and old news footage and Google Maps-assisted explanations, some ridiculous re-creations of that day: The boys—that is, the novice actors playing the boys—cower under their desks with their bare knees on the bare floor, the camera moving as if this were Blair Witch V: The Quivering. To represent the calm before the storm, the producers include a portentous medium shot of … a picnic table.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

The gusts of cheese were slightly more subdued the other night on an episode of Storm Stories devoted to the tornado that obliterated Greensburg, Kan., in 2007. Only now and then did computer-enhanced clouds roll across the screen like the wrath of a glam-rock God. And there was nothing maudlin in the way a kid remembered surveying the devastation the morning after: "Trees I'd known my entire life, you couldn't recognize them." Greensburg is now rebuilding itself progressively, in an eco-friendly way. "Better, Stronger, Greener!" is the motto, and the effort points to everything great about American ingenuity. It pains me to report that the Weather Channel's take on the town doesn't quite live up to the version presented on Greensburg, the only worthwhile show on the Discovery Channel-spinoff Planet Green. ( To repeat:Planet Green is the sort of network where TV personalities pretend to discover Manhattanites throwing out a coffee table and give them a lesson in how to remake it as a game table for only $40 or so—a bit of hipness predicated on the assumption that you have a plane saw in your apartment.)

The Weather Channel, despite its excesses, traffics in no such idiocy, instead presenting, both subtextually and up top, a pop-philosophical version of deep thoughts on ill winds. Salman Rushdie, in a great little book about The Wizard of Oz, noted the movie's play of the "geometrical simplicity" of home against the "twisty, irregular, and misshapen" look of evil. Similarly, David Foster Wallace, mathematical mind that he was, wrote about the way that twisters transfigured geometry: "Tornadoes were, in our part of Central Illinois, the dimensionless point at which parallel lines met and whirled and blew up." And in his very fine book F5, journalist Mark Levine concisely defined the sublime appeal of "the archetypal American natural disaster." The fascination with tornadoes is "beyond rational accounting," he wrote. "They are the weather-watcher's equivalent of charismatic megafauna." At its best, Tornado Week gives us terrible beauty and beautiful terror.

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