Sunday, February 1, 2015

New Mythbusters Format: Plausible

Mythbusters debuted in 2003 and has run for 13 seasons.   It's a program I've followed closely since the pilot, and I've missed, possibly, 3 or 4 episodes of the show, if that.  Really, it's amazing, because I haven't ever watched a show as long as I've kept up with Mythbusters, and  I certainly haven't stuck with any other non-scripted programming anywhere neat that long that didn't include "the news" or "sportsball".

I clearly remember when the show was fairly low-budget, and starred just Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage.  They tried out various myths they dug up from urban folklore or from old newspaper stories.  In the first season it was just them with occasional glimpses of other people in their shop and these cut-aways to a folklorist who would explain why a myth held on to the popular conscience. She was pretty good, but the show shifted perspective.

The episodes spent a lot of time focused on how Adam and Jamie were going about testing the myth, including the basic science of the myth and then the engineering of how they would recreate the myth.  Failing a proof of the myth, they began to test what they'd need to do to get the results of the myth.  Animations were useful, some cut-aways to scientists, things like that were useful and made the show seem more legit than it had to be.  And imitators would appear for a season, fail, and disappear.

In the first or second season "the build team" were named on camera, and you got to see them a bit more.  And, at some point, the build team were given parts of the myths to tackle or small myths to do on their own.  That was the Tory, Keri, Scottie combo where you might occasionally see Grant Imahara in the scene, but he wasn't one of the main team.

Scottie left after a season, reportedly because she found the production schedule a drag, and Grant came in.  And that's kind of the Mythbusters everyone thinks of, the split episode structure as both teams worked independently on a myth with a common theme, from superhero physics to whatever they could make explode.

The show certainly would chase whatever was popular about the show at the time to its logical conclusion.  I mentioned explosions, and for a long time, "seeing what stuff looks like while it explodes" became the focus of the program.  And then the personalities became a focus.

There's no question that The Build Team came off as the goofier undergrads to the more serious PhD candidates Adam and Jamie could often seem.  Even when Adam was being silly, you could feel the focus underneath the mania.

I don't really know when I felt like the show was starting to change, but it did in subtle ways over a few years.  The scientist talking heads got cut out unless they were speaking directly to the cast.  More time was spent on the antics of the build team or Jamie and Adam.  Then, last season, it seemed that the show jumped from pitching the myth to testing the myth, and I realized they weren't really talking about the methodology in any depth - just sort of over simplifying it in little cartoons.

And many of the myths were just lazy.  At the end of the last season, they outfitted Kari with fake boobs to see if her tipping would be better in a coffee shop (it really wasn't).  But there was no talking with psychologists, no survey data or even a discussion with coffee shop staff.  There was an assumption someone made and a pair of fake boobs available.

As the season ended, the news broke that - when the show returned we were losing The Build Team.  The audience kind of freaked out, but I guess I saw it differently.  I had been aware the show had strayed further and further from the original idea, and while I didn't think they should necessarily go back to trying to dig up urban legends for every myth, I really missed the process part of the show.

I knew I'd miss the three folks of the Build Team, but I also knew that they all had the potential to land their own show or shows.

I'm not entirely clear on what what down.  According to a surprisingly candid interview with Adam Savage, it just sounds like a salary issue.  Certainly other things must have taken place, and no doubt the cast that departed were aware they had other opportunities.


Look, I miss those guys, but the show is hitting on all cylinders again and feels a lot more like why I came to Mythbusters in the first place.  I want to see the concepts, the builds, the trials, the failures.  There's still room for commentary and whatnot, but there's a whole lot more explanation of process, and that's a part of the show Jamie and Adam always seemed to do a bit better than their colleagues.  Given more time on the show to cover their bases, the show feels like they're actually trying to convey information again, rather than to merely entertain.

The myths so far have been based around movies and video games, but it does feel like the show earned those myths rather than just letting the cast recreate stuff from the movies they liked.  I'm not sure they can do that every episode, but a "video game physics Fruit Ninja vs. Adam waving a samurai sword at apples" comparison was pretty spot on, if you're going to do it.

Looking forward to the rest of the new season and seeing where The Build Team lands.

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