The Habitat : a failure to launch [Review]


I like the NASA space program. A lot. I kept a paper model of the Orion capsule on my desk for years after an unmanned test launch, I planned a day around being by a computer when the Curiosity rover was supposed to be landing. I really enjoy anything even tangentially related to the space program.

Gimlet’s newest non-fiction series The Habitat trades on people like myself’s childlike wonder for space travel and anything involving space. Unfortunately the majority of that wonder is reserved for the first three episodes when host Lynn Levy (late of Radiolab and Studio360) cuts away from the main point of the series to discuss relevant facts about space mission history.

The Habitat is a seven-part “serialized documentary about a group of six volunteers who travel to a Mars-like section of the Hawaiian islands to spend one year in a mock-up of the habitat NASA will use on the Orion missions to Mars. The HI-SEAS project (which stands for Trying Too Hard For A Cute Acronym) seeks to simulate 365 days of living in a Mars-bound environment to study how a crew of three men and three women will interact, because as far as NASA is concerned only biological gender and hetero sexuality exists, I guess. For one year the crew must conserve supplies as if on Mars, only eat food that would survive the trip to Mars, and only go outside wearing cheap knock-off space suits. All outside communication is made through e-mail on a delay to simulate the time it takes signals to travel from Mars to Earth and back.

Oh, and Levy tossed one of the crew members an audio recorder just before they went inside. Over the course of the year Levy would send questions over e-mail, the crew would then record their responses and e-mail them back.

Fortunately for Gimlet, and unfortunately for me, the less stoic of the crew slowly began to use Levy’s recorder as an outlet for gossip they normally would have kept to themselves. I get it, the whole point of the titular habitat is it’s a stressful environment, but the lack of non-fiction content beyond “oh no they’re getting irritated with each other, let’s listen” gives the impression the producers were stumped. They couldn’t figure out anything better to do with a year’s worth of bland audio diary footage from a semi-interesting location, so they just worked with what they had.

Gimlet: NPR but chill.

The Gimlet products I’ve listened to have always left me feeling like I’m talking to someone desperate to prove they’re the cool person at the office. Non-fiction podcasts from Gimlet usually ape NPR/WNYC style programs and the network seems to go out of its way to headhunt people who used to work for WNYC and/or NPR as an entity. Yet, in what appears to be an effort to be more approachable, Gimlet’s hosts are oddly casual with the topic at hand.

Make no mistake, I like Lynn Levy as a host. Their work on Radiolab in the past has been awesome, there is plenty of evidence that they can research/host the hell out of a science-based podcast segement and make it interesting. Yet Levy as presented by the producers of The Habitat is less NPR and more YouTuber.

If one is going to be the kind of host who talks about science-y topics while casually swearing, fine. Sign me up. But to do it early on then kind of fade out until one more time in the finale (upon seeing a cute sign Levy, surrounded by journalists and strangers, blurts out “that’s goddamn adorable”) feels as if there was a lack of cohesive vision for The Habitat.

When the compost toilet breaks we get a goofy interlude about the mechanics and realities of pooping in space. It’s one of the best-edited segments of the entire series with awesome deep-dive clips from the Apollo program brought in for comedic relief. Yet this is also the moment where that off feeling to Habitat‘s narration shines. Prior to the toilet situation the word ‘shit’ is bandied about two to three times (I wanted to double-check before posting but, as with most Gimlet shows, not a single transcript), yet when it comes time to face the feces side of space travel they pivot to primarily calling it “poop,” as if suddenly it’s a family-friendly on-air This American Life segment.

I was expecting this fast-and-loose PG-13 swearing to indicate the crew members would slowly begin swearing as well later on. No dice. One of the crew members talks about farting quite a bit, maybe a couple of burps. Meanwhile Levy has no qualms going into intimate detail on how early astronauts had to defecate by “holding a paper bag to their buttholes.” Because of Levy’s brand of causal swearing for no real reason, I’ve gone in expecting an all-ages WNYC experience and find myself sitting in an R-rated movie.

Going back to the toilet incident: this feels like the beginning of the end of The Habitat. Except for a segment discussing how astronauts getting pissed off at each other and NASA during long-term confinement in small quarters (which sadly does not mention my favorite example of this: the Skylab mutiny), the reality show content takes a front seat.

The HI-SEAS dome, NASA’s ultimate MARS simulation. Ignore the gas-powered generator clearly in shot that would need oxygen to work.

At its core this experiment has nothing interesting happening. None of the participants are astronaut candidates on a fast-track to be in the Orion program. None of them will be part of the first crew to go to Mars, they are simply guinea pigs for NASA scientists to study and use as data to figure out how to select the right people for Orion.

For me that fact settled in around episode three, and it feels like that’s also the same for the producers of the show. As soon as that veneer of these being exciting people in an exciting situation boils down to “Oh, we’re just listening to well-educated people slowly get bored of each other,” things get more gossip-y. The plot thread becomes a focus on the interrelationships of the crew. That previous sentence makes it sound a bit cooler than what’s actually happening. We learn such fascinating things:

The doctor is an non-nonsense buzzkill who occasionally plays didgeridoo, so everyone else quickly starts to not appreciate their tone when they talk shit about the crew requesting junk food in their supply drops.

One of the three men takes to cooking breakfast burritos every Sunday. Six months in the crew starts talking shit behind his back about how they don’t like the burritos instead of saying “Hey, we’re tired of burritos.” Oh, and any time he picks up a tortilla he shouts “tortilla” which is apparently super annoying. How dare someone have fun cooking.

Then we get to the main plot of The Habitat: Who’s going to date? Are these two going to fuck? Nah, they’ve adopted a more sibling-like relationship. Oh wait, Cyprien has a thing for Christiane, they must be date!

This obsession with finding a smoking gun that someone is boinking someone reaches a point when, even though there is plenty of evidence to establish reasonable suspicions, Levy presents a snippet of audio from a night the crew left the audio recorder on to record a rain storm on the habitat roof. The audio is boosted to an insane degree to highlight a bit of speech at the back. According to Levy, it sounds like Cyprien is saying “let’s go to bed.” To my ears it sounds like whenever ghost hunters accidentally record the sound of a refrigerator turning on and convince themselves it’s Old Man Whither’s ghost saying “I killed them.”

Another oddity of The Habitat is the experiment ends in episode six, yet we get a seventh episode. That final episode is a weird journey into patchwork reporting as, for whatever reasons, a good chunk of the six crew members didn’t want to get together with Lynn to record follow-up reviews. There’s an interview with Cyprien in which he is pressed on if he was “dating” in the dome, and he basically says “yeah, and?”

The doctor is asked if they knew the crew didn’t really like them, the doctor’s response can be boiled down to “so?”

Then we get the ultimate message of The Habitat: When the crew was training for the experiment the dudebro jokester of the group says “I expect to come out of this with five best buds.” It’s an incredibly dry “NASA PR coached me to say this in front of the press” kind of response, a relic from the time before any of the crew had gotten comfortable around Lynn. Yet Lynn takes this to heart as a genuine response, even months later when they have proof none of the crew members talk to each other anymore, not even the two who were romantically engaged.

Six HI-SEAS candidates celebrate the day of their release from NASA’s soul-extraction machine. 

Months after the experiment NASA sends another six people to live in the same building for 365 days, Lynn catches one of them on mic saying “I expect to come out of this with five new best friends.” The cynic in me shouts “Yes, that was a coached line from NASA, called it!”

Gimlet takes the opposite route and takes this blind excitement as a perfect demonstration of the human spirit. We’ll make it out in space because we love to go out and discover new things, even if it might not be the best idea to begin with. Throw some french horn over it and you’ve got yourself the Captain’s Log of a lesser Star Trek episode.

The Habitat is the podcast equivalent of a chocolate-flavored rice cake. Cool in concept, if you try really hard you can taste the good thing you want to be eating, but lacking in actual substance. With no transcripts or any extra information on the website beyond who made the show and how to subscribe to it, this project feels like it was either rushed to be released alongside Sandra or the producers had a hell of a time constructing a narrative out of a year’s worth of audio clips. The fluff factor is real in the latter half of the series, leading me to suspect the same message could have been communicated in three episodes, if not an hour-long This American Life or Radiolab segment.

Oh and there’s multiple covers of Starman by David Bowie, because of course there are.



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