Review of Mythbusters (2003)

Moving picture, 180 hours

Seen in 2017.

This review refers to the first 14 seasons, not the 2017 reboot with new hosts. All episode numbers include the pilot run and should follow Wikipedia’s “overall” numbers at the time of writing, though I have probably used some “in series” numbers (excluding specials) by mistake.

Supposedly 1100 “myths”, but not myths in the literal sense of foundational stories unfolding a culture’s world view or explaining its practices, nor in the alternative sense of fictions falsely held to be true. Mythbusters (stylized as MythBusters) does treat some urban legends and conspiracy theories, but is also about dubious technologies, viral videos, adages, fantasy entertainment—including video-game tropes and several premises of Wanted (2008) in multiple episodes—and news stories. Some such “myths” are deliberate deceptions on other science-based shows, including episode 113’s failed attempt to reproduce results from the aptly named Brainiac: Science Abuse (2003), a name not mentioned on Mythbusters for fear of legal action. At least one myth, tested in episode 141, is sourced from similarly unnamed purported experts in forensic science.

The producer’s original plan was to describe these “myths”, like a television version of Snopes. This plan was shut down, hence the addition of testing. Only rarely, as in the octopus-egg urban legend of episode 13 and the difficulty of flying a U-2 in episode 251, a verdict is reached by consulting experts, without experimentation. Therefore, the stipulative definition of a myth here is anything dubious that can make good TV. On more than one occasion, the show displays an awareness of how this usage diverges from the English language. For example, in episode 135 the narrator describes one of the hosts as believing “this myth is, well, a myth”, i.e. false by definition.

The names of the verdicts are similarly inverted. A “confirmed myth” on Mythbusters is confirmed not to be a myth. For subjects with purported real-world precedent, “confirmed” status is usually reserved for when the precedent itself is documented. Since there is no indication that testing takes place before the producers, researchers or testers find out about the documentation of “confirmed myths”, the testing sometimes serves no purpose other than visual pleasure. In episode 23 the victims of the real phenomenon are shown in the initial outline of the episode’s “myth”, reducing the role of the testers to investigating the necessary conditions instead of the plausibility of the overall concept. “We know this happened, we just don’t know why”, as one host puts it. When a test does not produce the prescribed outcome, the testers will exaggerate the circumstances until they have produced the mythical outcome.

The show is hosted by two professionals in the special effects industry, acting as testers. Extrovert fanboy Adam Savage has a high-school diploma. Jamie Hyneman has a degree in Russian literature. Heather Joseph-Witham, the show’s professional folklorist who gets fired after episode 20, is never seen interacting with them. Earlier in 2004 (episode 17) a “build team” is recruited to speed things up, soon becoming a second set of hosts up through episode 243, when they’re also fired.

The budget gradually grows with the success of the show and the fame of the hosts. In episode 10 they intentionally and seriously degrade a working Corvette, and in episode 13 they destroy some of the fuselage on a decommissioned and stripped DC-9. By episode 32 they’ve graduated to obliterating a cement truck under FBI supervision, and in episode 128 to a two-stage sled of Korean War surplus rockets flattening a car at 1000 km/h. Episode 251 is mostly about getting to fly that U-2, albeit without blowing it up. By then they’re totalling cars without a second thought. Episode 267 is an orgy of senseless destruction irrelevant to mythology.

The hosts are increasingly recognized in the course of their shopping trips for materials and in episode 18 a fan donates a car for them to work on. By episode 21, the “build team” works independently and a crowd of fans gather at a shooting location, gleefully shouting “This myth is busted!” from a safe distance. Time Team (1994) similarly attracted viewers to its urban shooting locations starting in 1999 (season 6, episode 1 of that show), but with less shouting and no explosives. In episode 172, Barack Obama pretends to decide on a subject “myth”, and 500 high schoolers are drafted to test it. Episode 228 has 150 more active adult volunteers in zombie makeup. The growing budget and popularity come together very well in episodes 242 and 243, which are tests at meaningful scale, thanks to volunteers.

Mythbusters is a self-described “science-based reality show”. It is indeed reality television, emerging at the time of US market saturation. Launched on the Discovery Channel, it survived when the channel’s ratings were otherwise falling because of other, discovery-unrelated reality shows.

While documentary television focuses on truth, reality TV focuses on characters in predictably dramatic situations because that is a cheaper way to attract an audience for advertisers. Uniquely, Mythbusters operates entirely within the dismal territory of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) while also being a celebration of skepticism and, more sincerely, of creativity.

Mythbusters is at its best when the hosts build stuff and test it without the pretext of a “myth”, as happens with the levitation machine competition in episode 20: just ingenuity and craft skills. Since the same episode is Joseph-Witham’s last, it clearly marks the transition away from an inferior original idea because of the testing of the show as such. Snopes is best in text form, but episode 229, “testing” Star Wars (1977) stunts while flashing fan tweets, is no smarter for all that. Even one of the hosts states on the show in episode 268, referring to a second Star Wars special in episode 257, that there is “no reason to test” such things. The transition is never completed.

Joseph-Whitham commented on the most interesting thing about myths, which is why they arise. Here’s a fairly typical exchange from later on, specifically episode 46. It starts with Adam Savage reading from a blueprint title and pretending ignorance in a scripted scene. The show is, as he said, for instance at Silicon Valley Comic Con 2017, part of the sub-genre of “scripted reality”.

Savage: What the hell is a “border slingshot”?

Hyneman: Well, we have a new myth involving people that are wanting to illegally enter the country, and they’ve apparently developed a gigantic slingshot capable of launching them 200 yards, over the top of a fence, and supposedly it’s accurate enough to land them on a mattress on the other side.

Savage: [Dropping the pretense] Uh, well, I’ve heard they’re not only doing this with individuals, but they’re offering a family package where they can shoot up to four people over that fence and onto that tiny little mattress.

They cut from this into the attempt to replicate the slingshot. Notice how the immediate source is not named or dated. The ultimate source is also not investigated, and even the process by which the myth was discovered and selected is not shown. This is all in line with the genre’s absurd and distasteful acceptance of unexamined authorities.

The genre of reality television is a throbbing pain. The long-running and irrelevant personal conflict between the leads is deliberately played up to the effect that they lost interest in further collaborations. The near-lies include fake voice-over on an old medical public service reel in episode 161 to support its “myth”. In the myth lottery of episode 168, the hosts show their poor acting skills while editors apply cartoon sound effects to mask the emptiness of their tombola drum. Editors likewise apply stock animal sounds for almost every incidental shot of an animal near the set. It’s distinct from and opposed to the documentary.

In episode 46, which is long after Joseph-Whitham’s departure, the hosts prove the slingshot concept isn’t feasible, in line with Savage’s bias (“tiny little”), but even reaching this conclusion, there are no comments on the reasons why people might spread such a lie about migrants. The obviously poor plausibility of the myth is one such reason. It makes the migrants appear cartoonish. The lie is told because it is dehumanizing. Simply proving it isn’t feasible will not matter to those who repeat the myth because it is racist, spectacular, or comical. Even when Joseph-Whitham did appear on the show, her analyses did not go that far, nor even as far as The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).

Episode 207 has an even more extreme example. In it, Savage and Hyneman test the “myth” that one should not “bring a knife to a gunfight”. In reality, this is just a line from The Untouchables (1987). That fact is not mentioned, even though The Magnificent Seven (1960), True Grit (1969) and Blazing Saddles (1974) are all mentioned. Instead, the testers pretend that, in the words of the narrator, “Once upon a time in the West, cowboys were coached to never bring a knife to a gunfight.” Either they put no research or critical thinking into the “myth” or they knowingly lied to try a duel(!) of knife vs. pistol, despite being amateurs with both. The test useless, like the uncommonly lazy methods of the subsequent episode. The lie is disgusting.

The show does have researchers, but they lead a marginal life. When they’re seen at all, it’s usually not to convey their results. I sense a fear of being sued for royalties. It’s mainly when the immediate source of a myth is a poster on the show’s official Internet forum that the producers feel safe putting that fact in the script. Even then, the poster isn’t named. This is uncharitable and uselessly vague. When purportedly showing a physical letter from a fan in episode 168, co-host Hyneman pretends the signature—not shown—is illegible. The producers really go to bizarre lengths to avoid mentioning what is going on: half of episode 169 revolves around the aerodynamics of the Porsche 928, yet the make and model are never mentioned. In a 2021-06-11 Youtube Q&A, Savage related an incident from the production of episode 44, where a producer banned the use of all legible newspapers as construction materials, again for fear of legal action, so the team had to buy newspapers in Chinese to build something out of newsprint. That is creepy. Even beyond the Postman angle, where television as a medium buries other values beneath amusement, the entire show is embedded in litigious US culture, never rising above it for the sake of knowledge.

The hosts care so little about myths that in episode 267, Savage names the U-2 flight as his favourite, and Jamie similarly names a couple of stunts and builds, not any myths at all. With its alarmingly weak nominal concept, the show tries to survive on spectacle. Even in this respect, it works against itself and for the advertisers. The first handful of episodes at least cover their diverse topics in sequence, but starting with the cola segment of episode 8, topics are chopped up with teasers to drag viewers through the commercials, leading to boring recaps and breaking up the narratives. Episode 46 is the first full-episode treatment of a single “myth”, to good effect.

Instead of adding substance in place of flow, the producers make the boring “V.O. guy” a character on the show, as evidenced by his “pausing” episode 88 to “make up” extra puns and drag the pace down further. Amazingly, even after Joseph-Witham and the build team are all gone, that narrator is still needlessly repeating information with poor alliteration. Studio scenes like the border slingshot exchange are awkwardly staged after the fact, and some editing tricks are used to make even the testing seem more spectacular than it is. Notice, for instance, the cuts in the finale of episode 144, masking a failure to set off an explosive charge at the right moment. Editors compulsively include host reactions to such explosions, and especially the exaggerated, often fake exultations of the build team. I’ve seen fan re-edits passed around, including some without the narrator, without bumpers etc., restoring the order of the “stories” and reaching two thirds of the original length. It’s a significant jump in quality.

Discovery taglined the show “Science Simplified”. The intended meaning seems to be that Mythbusters encourages scientific literacy and experimentation, as stated by Stephen Colbert on The Late Show (2015), and by Neil deGrasse Tyson and others in episode 268. The truth is that Mythbusters barely encourages literacy in its most basic form: The ability to read. In a 2020-11-15 Youtube Q&A, Savage stated that the show had no educational intent whatsoever and that it took until the middle of season 1 for him to figure out that science could be involved. Problematically, both Savage and the narrator refer to activities on the show as if they were literally science. The appropriately qualified “popular science” is very rare, appearing for the first(?) time in episode 156. Savage himself has explicitly recanted in his later career on Tested, stating that they were not doing science. He has also admitted that a lot of reaction shots were staged (cf. the Q&A at the Silicon Valley Comic Con 2018). The hosts are not methodical because they are more concerned with casual entertainment than with truth. Still, viewer interaction does extend to laborious retests, a pale imitation of scientific review and replication. On the other hand, because of the availability heuristic, the hosts’ purposeful adjustment of circumstances to get a spectacular result every time will cloud the viewer’s memory of the verdict.

In episode 39, co-host Hyneman explains the balance of science and entertainment: “I think if we actually knew what we were doing around here, it wouldn’t be near as interesting for people to watch. You know, we’d be some scientist that is just reading stuff off of a chart, you know, people’d find it boring. This is an adventure for us to actually figure this stuff out. The fact that we’re learning as we go is a lot of fun for us and it comes across on film I think.” In a 2012 Reddit AMA, he added that “I do wish we had more time to explain and explore the science in these stories we take on. Television and ratings seem to require that we keep things to a relatively shallow level, which I find frustrating.”

Extra content for the web, which becomes a routine occurrence in season 6, is not any more focused on science than the show itself. Before that point, every explanation by experts is always cut down to a couple of sentences. Starting in season 7, there is an occasional silly attempt to remedy the situation: The editor inserts split-screen composites with definitions of some technical terms in a ridiculous SISD font, green on black, to make the explanations cool à la 1995. The presentation of simple facts and figures does not become clear until season 13, which is the second to last. Maths is so marginalized that it takes until episode 161 for the hosts to formulate E = ½mv² in a cluttered notebook image, designed like the SISD font in a state of anxiety to avoid an impression of seriousness. Still, the basic methods of testing are often good, including the presence of a control case when they can afford it, but reproducibility is rarely checked, and N isn’t Bayesian. In episode 26 the testers conclude from their control case that talking to plants will plausibly make them grow faster: an inadequate statistical basis with no prior plausibility, never revisited. In a 2021-02-28 Youtube Q&A, Savage regretted doing a similar story on pyramid power, which is pure superstition.

Scraping along with a level of integrity comparable to Terrace House (2015), the show does display an ambition toward science communication and consumer safety information. However, in the tension between skepticism and commercial interests, commerce wins. This is most apparent when Mythbusters cross-promotes other commercial products, including contemporary shows on the Discovery Channel. While celebrating illegal liquor to sell the fake Moonshiners (2011), Mythbusters hosts do not mention impurities or other health risks in drinking the stuff. In a 2009 segment, hosts similarly promote the Volkswagen Jetta as a paid advertisement on their own show. Because their testing is inadequate as usual, the hosts are deceived by the advertiser. In this way, Mythbusters aided the harmful EA189 “Dieselgate” scam. When they endangered lives more directly by accidentally firing a cannon into a residential area in episode 215 (compare Time Team killing a re-enactor in 2007), they apologized as part of the show, and then returned to the topic in episode 268 to explore the error in more detail. They never pointed out the far more harmful Dieselgate scam even after they realized their mistake, presumably because it illustrates the severe and intimate defects of the show.

Like reality TV in general, Mythbusters prefers to entertain through drama, noise and glitter over relevance, truth and understanding. It is not a documentary. High on waste and Postman’s harmful side effects, it rewards casual viewing and punishes intent viewing. Slight video acceleration is recommended if you’re going to keep your eyes on the screen, especially for the huge number of episodes about cars, guns and explosives: Hollywood’s USA.

moving picture reality TV fiction series