Mythbusters Is Back, and It Still Scratches the Same Scientific ItchPhoto: Science Channel TV Features Mythbusters
After a year and a half, the most important show about addressing rumors with objective, often explosive facts is coming back on the air. Mythbusters, sans hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman (and the three co-hosts who left to found the similar White Rabbit Project on Netflix), is back. Its impact on the TV landscape is unquestionable, but more impressive is the fact that, even without any recognizable faces, the show is as good as it was in its heyday. And that’s all due to the unsung role of carefully constructed and replicated production practices in making Mythbusters so damn watchable.
The hosts had something to do with the show’s appeal, of course—otherwise they wouldn’t have been swept along with the phenomena. After all, Mythbusters, for all its formal draws, still needs the faces of the operation, to carry the torch of the show’s message. The series, which influenced History Channel and SyFy to do more experiential, “blow things up” reality programming and witnessed Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Nate Silver come along to sex up astrophysics and statistics (statistics!) during the course of its run, made the leap from the Bill Nye the Science Guy’s advocational education to something adults would sit down and weather ads for.
So the new Mythbusters needed to find two goons that were the natural extension of the learning/entertainment science bug that a generation of students were raised on. A pair of enthusiastic nerds who straddled the coolness/nerdiness divide well enough to be on TV without being too cool to get excited about calculating force and then making a Star Wars joke about the Force. This has been supplied by Jon Lung and Brian Louden, the two men that won the competition show Mythbusters: The Search.
Lung, a New York designer with a mohawk and infectious grin, has the schoolboy zaniness of Savage, while Louden, a sturdy pilot and rescue diver from Houston, is a bit more of the reserved Hyneman flavor. They aren’t necessarily breaking away from the set personalities of the original (and, before that, classic comedy pairings), at least not in the two episodes made available to press. But that’s not a huge drawback. Sameness is what makes this kind of show tick.
The biggest change to Mythbusters may be the addition of Bo, a cute dog that hangs out around the lab, and the upgrade of the oft-abused test dummy Busters to more futuristic versions. In fact, there is no real attempt made to differentiate it from its forerunner, down to the delivery style of the hosts: They don’t just have bouncy enthusiasm and a dry grumble, respectively—the timbre of their voices matches that of their predecessors. It’s a bit unnerving, but the similarity—like all the others to the old series—makes it slide down smooth, just as a “flip-it-on-while-I-eat” show should.
Speaking of smoothness, the always underappreciated announcer, Robert Lee, feels like the more important returning voice of the series, especially after narrating The Search. It’s not until the hosts have left that you realize Lee’s jaunty delivery, crisp explanations and fatherly puns were perhaps more important than the goofballs chopping heads off of dummies. As a through line—and, as a narrator, a unique throwback, aside from the subversive “formula” of Jane the Virgin—Lee humanizes the classic TV strategy of reproducibility.The Don Pardos of the world assure us of a product’s quality like a brand name or a seal of approval—only in Mythbusters, Lee is a vital narrative component, too.
Lee’s voice guides us through the same editing style and narrative construction that’s grown familiar in the fifteen years since these myth maniacs started busting: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is one thing, but Mythbusters is tackling TV with the same rigorous methodology as it does its experiments.
There are minor quality differences, sure. Any experiment has its margin of error. The set-up phase, introducing the myth through some delightfully hokey, contrived conversation, is more self-conscious than its previous iteration. Leaving Jamie and Adam after fifteen years means we lose their decade-and-a-half-long comfort with the template. Like a late-night talk show host’s replacement, the new pair will take time to go through a familiar cycle where their predecessors’ style is mimicked, negotiated, and eventually personalized. All master craftsmen add a signature flourish.
That distinction has yet to be developed, so the show’s core focus on physics—and its more exciting applications, in feats of engineered destruction—shoulder the show’s return. When you break it down, the relationship between Jamie, Adam, their cadre of plucky co-hosts, and the show was exactly what it needed to be: that of tour guides taking everyday folk through the a foreign world where people calculate force on napkins and make shank crossbows from prison supplies. The environment is the important part. We’re not hung up on listening to the guy tell us about the ride at Disney. We want to ride the thing.
That means the production design—goofy duct tape signage warning of blast zones; GoPro footage taken from everywhere strappable—is the driving force of fun. Dependably transparent, Mythbusters never shies away from including mistakes and hiccups: The exploration and testing of hypotheses—even those as outlandish as “whether you could cut someone’s head off so well that it lingers there before sliding off”—is normalized through its well-worn routine.
By deciding not to focus on the personalities of the hosts, and instead integrating them as new parts in a well-oiled machine, Mythbusters continues to make science itself sexy, rather than those practicing it. That’s what the show has over the recent revivals of classic game shows, which often leaned on their charismatic hosts, and over other reality shows, which so often focus on the personal narratives of the competitors. Here, objectivity is king, because everything else has been perfectly calibrated: The series is still the friendly, lazy-Sunday ambassador for science education it always was, reflecting science, in both content and construction, as only Mythbusters can.
The new Mythbusters premieres Wednesday, Nov. 15 at 9 p.m. on Science Channel.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.