PBS series on life expectancy aims to give ‘200-year view of the present moment’

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Courtesy of ©Nutopia

David Olusoga, co-host of "Extra Life: A Short History Of Living Longer."

When Steven Johnson began work on Extra Life: A Short History Of Living Longer in 2017, he had no idea of the relevance that the show would have upon its release. 

“I wanted to tell the story of how life expectancy has changed over the last 100 years,” Johnson said of the public TV series, which debuts Tuesday on PBS stations.

The best-selling author of nine books, Johnson wanted Extra Life to hit screens in time for the 100th anniversary of the end of the Spanish flu epidemic.

“I thought there would be a nice symmetry to it, as that was the last point in which life expectancy really plunged,” he said.

In April 1920, as the influenza virus that killed somewhere between 20 million and 50 million people worldwide finally tailed off, the global life expectancy was just 42. Now, over 100 years later, it’s 72.81 and rising. Johnson had always wanted to break down the scientific and medical innovations that lead to such remarkable progress. 

“Steven told me the idea and said, ‘The biggest achievement in human history over the last 100 years was the doubling of the human lifespan,’” said Jane Root, CEO of the television production company Nutopia.

“I just thought it was an amazing idea,” said Root, who oversaw the creation of the series. “The story of public health is one that, until a year ago, nobody ever talked about. Then, suddenly, it became something everybody spent their whole time thinking about.” 

Bill Gardner, VP of programming and development at PBS, had a long history with both Root and Johnson, having previously worked on How We Got to Now. In that 2014 series, Johnson examined how accidental genius, brilliant mistakes and unintended consequences shaped the modern world. Gardner said that he was immediately receptive to the concept of Extra Life

“It just seemed like a really interesting time to do it,” Gardner said. “Steven is such a great storyteller. He’s so good at pulling together how systems work, how we got to where we are, and why that is. He takes a hybrid approach. History isn’t just a series of events — it’s really the actions of individuals and how society reacts to that. I think that’s a fantastic way to tell history at PBS.”

‘Right in the middle of history’

It wasn’t until January 2020, when COVID-19 started to sweep the globe, that PBS decided to greenlight Extra Life: A Short History and its production was finally given a start date. 

“It felt like we were right in the middle of history and we had a unique perspective on it,” said Johnson. “We were sitting on a whole project about the importance of public health, vaccines, behavioral change and all these themes that were suddenly front-page headlines of every newspaper in the world.” 

Johnson also began work on making the series of four hourlong episodes even more relevant, “specifically designing” each episode so that it would relate to the pandemic. 

“We wanted to have a show with a 200-year view of the present moment,” Johnson said. “We wanted people to be watching the COVID vaccine being shipped in, then be able to learn about variolation in Africa, Mary Montagu, Edward Jenner, and all of these long developments that lead up to the present moment.”

Johnson and Olusoga (Photo courtesy of ©Nutopia)

Over the course of each episode, Johnson and co-host David Olusoga explore how vaccines, medical drugs, data and behavior played a central role in increasing life expectancy. The hosts visit locations across the U.S. and Great Britain, where they break down the stories of the scientists, doctors, self-experimenters and activists who spearheaded this public-health revolution over the last 300 years. 

Both Johnson and Olusoga, a renowned British historian whom Gardner and Root had chosen as a co-host when Johnson originally pitched the show, also wanted to make sure that viewers were aware just how much work, struggle and sometimes even luck goes into these incredible breakthroughs and achievements. 

“There is something in the way that our minds work that means we struggle to notice this history in a way that we really should,” said Olusoga. “We’re not very good at thinking about things that didn’t happen. The history of medicine, public health, and vaccines is about the deaths that didn’t happen, and the calamities and pandemics that were avoided.”

Thus, Johnson wanted Extra Life to “create a new set of heroes.” 

“We have a tendency to look for the single hero in the stories we tell,” he said. “But, in particular, when you talk about science, technology, and medicine, it’s inevitably that it was a network of people who really developed the idea. It’s almost never one lone genius.”

Seeking far-reaching impact

Over the course of Extra Life, Johnson and Olusoga repeatedly show how most of the incredible medical innovations of the past two centuries were actually the result of international collaboration. 

“You can’t solve what are global health problems inside your national borders,” Johnson said. 

”If you take the long view of the history of medicine, you would have to say that the West played a very specific enlightenment role in it,” Olusoga said. “But lots of that knowledge at the beginning of that medical revolution came from the Islamic world.”

The addition of Olusoga was integral in bringing a worldwide view to these discussions, Root said.

“This isn’t simply a story of the great men and women of history,” she added. “We wanted to create a sense of how interconnected everything is. That was a big part of what David contributed. He brought a global perspective. Because it’s very easy to just talk about these things from a British or American perspective.”

Though Johnson and Olusoga couldn’t meet in person and had to record their conversations virtually, Root said, she was always confident that the pair would quickly become friends. Having also worked with Olusoga on the 2018 BBC miniseries Civilisations, she knew that they had the “same kind of inquisitive minds.” 

“We want Extra Life to impact people in multiple ways. That’s what PBS is fantastic at.”

Steven Johnson, co-host

But even she was surprised by just how well their personalities and specialties meshed. Johnson uses “history to talk about where we’re going,” she said, whereas Olusoga is much more “versed in deep historical research.” 

“Modern television doesn’t often have really smart people talking and enjoying each other’s company,” she added. “They’re having conversations. Both guys are so secure in what they do. There’s no stupid competition. They’re not trying to outdo each other. They’re just genuinely interested in the different perspectives that they can bring.”

This was especially vital because Johnson and Root had always envisioned that the impact of Extra Life would go way beyond the TV show. PBS, The New York Times Magazine, The Pulitzer Center and Riverhead Books have all teamed up to create an educational outreach program that accompanies the series. 

Not only will Johnson’s book of the same name be released simultaneously, diving even further into the history of pandemics and science, he’s also written a 10,000-word piece for the New York Times Magazine

Johnson said he wanted to ensure that the subject is taught more widely across schools. “Most high-school history classes don’t focus on the triumphs of mass vaccination, the eradication of smallpox, and the story of life expectancy,” he said. “It’s all focused on big political movements, wars, military conflicts and things like that.”

While PBS always creates classroom materials, Johnson broke down each episode into handy 10- to 15-minute clips. The segments highlight articles and sections to read from and provide questions and supplementary documents to enhance the educational experience. Over the next few months, Johnson will also hold events for teachers to discuss how the topic can be taught in classrooms.

The hope is for Extra Life to rival the impact of The 1619 Project, the August 2019 Times project that looked to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” Gardner said Extra Life’s team took inspiration from the 1619 Project’s “different way of making really impactful multimedia content.”

“We want Extra Life to impact people in multiple ways,” he said. “That’s what PBS is fantastic at.”

Johnson, Olusoga and Root are keen to make many more seasons of Extra Life and have discussed creating a podcast to go with it. “There’s so much to talk about,” said Root, including clean drinking water, food and automobile safety, and the reduction of famine and infant mortality rates, subjects that didn’t fit into the timeline of season one because COVID was so central. 

The situation is constantly evolving, too. 

“The Western dominance was a phase in history,” Olusoga said. “It’s not the naturally ordained way of things. We’re now entering the century which many people think will be the Asian century, where new technologies, new medical techniques, therapies, will be coming from Asia as much as they will come from the West.”

Johnson insists there’s still “room to grow” when it comes to medical innovations that will only increase life expectancy, too. “If we really do start fully curing cancers, there’s a bunch of extra years that we could get from that, because cancer is a big killer,” he said. “Heart disease is a big killer, and there’s some new progress on that.”

Some scientists even believe that they can tackle the “wear and tear of cells” and switch off the aging process. “It’s not insane. There’s some real science that suggests it’s possible to stop it on some cellular level,” said Johnson. “Then you’re talking about people really living long. That has a lot of ethical questions. Do we want people living into their 150s? What would that do to the population? There’s a lot to be done.”

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