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Mar 21 / Great Apes

Reflections On Mythbusters

Mythbusters aired its final episode recently.  That seems to mark a good time to talk about why it was such a great show.

As I was watching the final episode of Mythbusters, I noticed that it hit me kind of hard.  That seemed weird to me.  Other shows I’ve really enjoyed have aired their final episodes in recent years (30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, for example), but I haven’t had much of an emotional reaction to their finales.  I think the main reason my reaction was different this time is that Mythbusters starred real people.  When a sitcom goes off the air, you’re not saying goodbye to Tina Fey or Amy Poehler, you’re saying goodbye to some fictional character who doesn’t exist outside the space of that show.  Those characters were always gone, in a sense, every time the show ended.

But the Mythbusters were real people, and because the show was on air for so long (13 years), viewers got to watch them age in something approaching real time.  Now that the show’s gone, we’re not saying goodbye to characters so much as we’ve witnessed the ending of a long chapter in the lives of real people.  Obviously I don’t actually know any of them on any meaningful level, but for some reason it still feels like leaving friends behind when you changed jobs or move to a new city or anything like that.  And because the people are real, the time they’ve given feels more real too.  They’re all 13 years older now than when the show debuted.  So am I.  And 13 years is a lot of your life to say goodbye to.

What made Mythbusters so good?  Part of the appeal was that it was a show about nerds; and I mean that it was really about them.  The Big Bang Theory gets talked about as a sign of the mainstreaming of nerd-dom, but it’s not really a show about nerds at all.  What it is is a show about laughing at stereotypes about nerds.  Mythbusters, on the other hand, wasn’t using the nerdiness of its hosts as a set-up to laugh at them, but as a cool thing to aspire to.  The Mythbusters were weird and quirky and smart and awesome.

Being a Mythbuster is pretty much my dream job.  Not because of any particular thing they did or any particular skill they expressed; I have absolutely no knowledge of electrical engineering or welding or pretty much any of the kinds of activities they got up to.  No, it’s my dream job because it was about always having something new to learn.

Most jobs eventually become rote.  It’s basically the nature of a job that no matter how interesting it is when you start, eventually you’re going to be doing the same kinds of things an awful lot.  There’s not much of a way around the fact that going to the same place for 8 hours every week day for years on end is going to involve some level of drudgery.  But what the Mythbusters got to do every day was learn how to do something new, and then go out and do that new, exciting thing.  And then go do another new, exciting thing.  And another.  That’s really what I want out of life – constant discovery.

As I’ve been thinking about Mythbusters, I’ve realised that one of its primary appeals is something that it has in common with my other favourite TV show, the British comedy panel game QI.  What’s at the core of both of those shows, I think, is the idea that it’s fun to be surprised.  In a sense, part of what those shows are about is letting you know that you’re wrong, and you’re going to learn something interesting about how and why you’re mistaken.  That ethos is really strongly opposed to almost all media, which is about reassuring you that you’re right.  QI even has a round called General Ignorance, which is about things that are commonly believed to be true, but aren’t.  I think it’s much more compelling to be willing to admit that you’re wrong – indeed, to expect that you’ll sometimes turn out to be wrong – and to still pursue the truth because it’s a worthwhile endeavour even if it makes you feel a bit silly.

Mythbusters was like that too.  One of the most interesting parts of Mythbusters is that I would often see the results of something they’d been testing, and say “I never would have predicted that!”  I love things that I never would have predicted!  Life is much more exciting when you discover how much of it you still have left to discover.  And I think that’s a really big part of why Mythbusters was so fascinating.  It wasn’t just a show about knowledge (anyone can make a boring documentary based on existing research). Rather, it was a show about learning; about putting our ideas about the world to the test, then observing the results and adjusting as necessary.  That’s very rare in television, but it was unique and exciting, and I’m sad that it exists no longer.

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