“If this doesn’t work, we still get to blow something up, right?”

So…as should be pretty obvious by now…I like Mythbusters, the Discovery Channel show. A lot.

As should also be even more obvious, the show has inspired one of the most thorough fandoms in the history of teh interwebz. When the official site gives a link to the Wiki, it’s pretty much game over.

Never let it be said, however, that we here @ Shoe Central are daunted by intellectual ubiquity…well, we are, generally, but not in this case. Because we have come up with a bold new angle from which we are reasonably certain the show has never been approached before: We don’t care about the science stuff.

Really. This holds true for many aspects of our lives (got any jokes about intelligent design? Keep ’em to yourself). We like to be told about the science stuff, mind; it falls under the general heading of How the World Really Works, aka Huh, Never Would’ve Thought of That, and this fascinates us in perpetuity regardless of subject. It is in fact a major reason why we are likewise fascinated with history, also why it took us so long to realise that watching Dirty Jobs involved way too many excrement-based professions for comfort.

But in terms of my understanding the actual scienmitifical processes that Adam and Jamie throw out so casually, the line is drawn far short of knowing enough to comment, let alone critique. I have some vague idea that they’re not quite as rigorous as would be pleasing to the actual, serious for-the-benefit-of-mankind scientific community. Then again I have just finished a reread of my beloved They Got It Wrong!: The Guinness Dictionary of Regrettable Quotations, with its carefully detailed explanations from the same community re: why steam engines and then aeroplanes and then space travel would never work, so with all due respect I’m not much in the mood to kneel at their feet anyway.

Here, in fact, we have reason #1 why I like Mythbusters so much: it does not for one second claim to be benefiting mankind. Except of course inasmuch as mankind has a deep, primal need to see stuff get blowed up real good (“Jamie want big boom!”).
True, they carted around an in-house folklorist for the first season or so – an attractive lady named Heather Joseph-Witham, who related the details of the myth du jour and provided some perfunctory analysis of its relevance…usually on the order of ‘[myth] speaks to our need to root for the underdog’. Not surprisingly they were very shortly reduced to filming intros to her segments in which she menaced a scale-model Tokyo.
The thing is, as Joseph-Witham was forced to concede more than once during her brief tenure, urban legends are popular mostly just because ‘they’re good stories’. They do say something funny or snarky or clever – or ideally all three – about the human condition, but their broad appeal means that the message is ipso facto not all that complicated. Guy hooked a jet engine on the back of a Chevy? Let’s see what happens if he really did. Essentially, what we have here is a rigorous scientific examination of any given Jackass episode.

So after awhile they gave up on relevance. In refining the standard Earnest Discovery Channel Production format they also dropped one or two other unworkable distractions, notably an evident belief that it would be just too adorably zany! and whacky! to listen to Our Hosts on the phone, using their patented wit and charm to scare up, say, a jet engine. Translation: Adam and/or Jamie sit around a small office that looks uncannily like the one at the bathroom-fixtures warehouse in your local industrial mall, muttering imprecations against faceless bureaucrats. I think this airtime is occupied by the MythToons now.

(Of course, a decent part of the problem was Our Hosts themselves. As they make clear in interviews they are colleagues, not friends, and their pairing is the result of TV necessity, not organic interest. Watching them fumble around those early eps, clearly trying to figure out first what the hell was the point and then how to get to it without driving each other crazy – still something of an ongoing process, lo these many seasons later – is an interesting reminder that Odd Couples, no matter how naturally charismatic they prove to be in the end, are to begin with a matter of hoping polar opposites can somehow attract.)

OK, so the phone thing was a dud. Didn’t mean that the idea of wit and charm was dead, though; as witness all the magnificently eccentric ‘sperts that the show manages to dig up and toss casually at the camera on a regular basis:

— A respected audio engineer who reallyreally cares about capturing the echo of a duck’s quack.

–A quick visit to the guy with the biggest collection of oil cans in the world in the middle of the do-cell-phones-explode-gas-stations experiments.

–A ‘vocal teacher’ who claims to be able to break glass with his voice turning out to be…the lead singer of an 80’s hair metal band.

–And my personal favourite: the lady who runs the bone shop – that is, the place the Mythbusters go to find skeletons for the ballistics-gel dummies – chatting casually about the possibilities of getting a shard of exploding lava lamp to wedge between a set of ribs. (“You’d have to get it up through here…then there’s a big bone in behind this…”)

This stuff, these characters, are the point. This is where Adam and Jamie found their common interest, this is their spiritual home: frolicking happily among the smart people who obsess over strange things and care passionately about small details, the grownups playing with toys. People who (to borrow a handly catchphrase) have long since rejected mainstream reality and substituted their own. In short, this was and is a show by, for and about grade-A geeks.

Suddenly the Discovery Channel found itself the darling of the 18-24 demographic for the first time in its long and earnest history. It nearly wet itself with joy over the possibilities – unfortunately, as per the network reaction to Survivor, this resulted mostly in stuff like Monster Garage and Criss Angel: Mindfreak. But hey, Dirty Jobs at least beats all hell out of Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness reruns.

The Mythbusters, however, will always remain the alpha geeks. They have the market cornered on cleverness and the authority to take it places that seriously fascinate. As soon as they mapped that route, they were off and freewheeling down the road to real cutting-edge coolness. No ‘build’ was too outlandish or complicated so long as it ended with a video clip that could be posted, and then endlessly debated, on the Net. Today they crack the escape from Alcatraz, tomorrow…well, tomorrow they drop a Caddy from a giant crane. And the day after that, they figure out how to set the Diet Coke and Mentos height record…with quiet intervals spent building the perfect buttered-toast-dropping rig.

I still consider that Alcatraz escape pretty much their finest hour, incidentally. Not only is the myth itself the most interesting ever told on the show…at the very least, it had the best setting…there’s a nice urgency about the build itself: if it doesn’t work out, helloooo San Francisco Bay at midnight.

Something about these historical myths generally – and not surprisingly, I guess – pushes my fun buttons. The ep where they construct an entire (if simplified) glass train-station canopy to see if a pilot’s fall was really broken by an explosion at a real one unfortunately is missing from my collection, but the Civil War ‘son of a gun’ legend is here in all its glory. As a sufferer from mild claustrophobia, I also like the satisfying release from spookiness attendant the myth that involves burying Jamie alive (“farewell, cruel world!”).

The one where they test the Hindenburg’s paint job for explosiveness, combining as it does all of the above attractions, is also excellent value. It has the best ‘splody bits – including one where they accidentally set one of the scale models of the dirigible on fire – plus one of Adam’s best lampshade-throwing lines, referencing the practice of obscuring the labels of dangerous substances (working for this show must be a liability lawyer’s nightmare): “This product is made with blur. This product also has some blur in it. You should never mix blur with blur, it’s very dangerous.”

The only aspect of the modern Mythbusters I’m not completely crazy about is the supporting cast. In Buster the crash dummy they seemed to have found the perfect off-beat solution to the problem of assistants, and I have never quite gotten over the idea that having real ones tips the scales from cunningly implied live-action cartoon to, well, real live-action cartoon. I have some passionate views on the subject of what TVTropes calls The Cousin Oliver and/or The Scrappy, and regularly waffle between them and cutting the Build Team a break for being actually pretty cute and useful, as these characters go.
There’s some fairly nifty chemistry going on between little redheaded Kari, skittering through the show like a sort of Sprite of Mass Destruction, and big gormless Tory (short for Salvatore). It’s generally helpful, in shows like this, to have at least one dude on whom you can unload the beatings and call it comic relief. I just miss the…no, not intensity exactly…creativity of the days when that dude was exclusively Adam. Grant and his robo-cat-zombies kind of waver between fun and vaguely creepy and Scottie the Wrench Wench (again, thank you TVTropes) was just sort of…there, muttering imprecations at various machines. Then again, reading the forums, maybe I’m just the wrong gender to appreciate that quality.

All-in-all, it’ll do quite nicely to feed my inner fifteen-year-old until the definitive complete WKRP in Cincinnati box set shows up. Or until Shoemom’s mutterings about missing her decorating shows lead to decisive (re)action on the cable front. Stay tuned…


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