This week’s “Ask a ScienceBlogger” question is easy: The best science TV show is Mythbusters.
Let’s face it: most TV science programming is downright awful. It dumbs down the content, and tends not to explain the really interesting part of the question at hand. As I wrote recently over on Word Munger,
Whether it’s Nova or the National Geographic Channel, every documentary I’ve watched recently seems to follow the same pattern.
1. Introduce “mysterious” or “controversial” element
2. Bring in a tiny bit of factually relevant material
3. Interview a sexy or “culturally diverse” expert. There are no ugly experts any more
4. Present either (a) a cheesy dramatic reenactment of the tiny bit of factual material or (b) a crappy computer-animated rendering of the tiny bit of factual material
5. Sum up what’s been presented before
6. Remind viewers that we’ll soon hear about the mysterious or controversial element
7. (if on commercial TV) break for a commercial. On public TV, you have no choice but to move directly to step 8
8. Sum up what’s been presented before AGAIN
9. Remind viewers that we’ll soon hear about the mysterious or controversial element AGAIN
10. Repeat the above nine steps, ad nauseum, making sure to use the EXACT SAME reenactment or animation at least five times
11. At the end of the episode, when the mysterious or controversial element is finally addressed, it will inevitably be either untrue or have a completely boring explanation
Mythbusters follows this pattern to a certain extent too. There’s a little too much recapping, and not quite enough new stuff. But I like the fact that the two experts-in-chief seem like real people. It’s true, the underlings look a little too stylish to be believable, but even they always appear to be genuinely excited about the results.
What I like about the show is that each episode tackles several different “myths,” sometimes arranged around a theme but often not. Then the team tries to replicate it in a (relatively) controlled manner, either busting or confirming the myth. The most telegenic myths, of course, involve explosions and death, but even relatively benign myths such as whether using a cell phone can actually disrupt an airplane’s navigational system are tackled with similar enthusiasm. Even if a myth is busted, the team always seems to manage to create a spectacular explosion or disaster to finish off each show.
You really can learn something about the scientific method and experimentation by watching Mythbusters, and it keeps you entertained at the same time. That’s a combination that’s hard to beat.
A couple runners-up:
Junkyard Wars (called “Scrapheap Challenge” in the UK). Similar to Mythbusters but rather less science content.
Scientific American Frontiers. More of a straight documentary, this show managed to avoid repetition and keep things interesting. Host Alan Alda’s enthusiasm was infectious.
Good Eats. Not technically a science show, but Alton Brown always sneaks in some science content about food.