Commentary: ‘MythBusters’ to close up shop; who will bust our myths now?
“MythBusters,” which uses the scientific method to vet the claims of pop culture, received wisdom, urban legend, unquestioned assumptions, unexamined history and figures of speech, will end its run in 2016, it was announced Wednesday; the next season, its 14th, which begins in January on Discovery, will also be the last.
It is a matter of cancellation, not of resignation, though there was probably some sort of ticking expiration date coded into the partnership of hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, an odd couple held together over the many years by mutual interests, a shared talent for building things and a television show that let them blow stuff up. (Creation and destruction, the yin and the yang, birth and death. I could go on.)
Among reality shows -- a term that now encompasses so many varieties of fictionalized programming that it means just about nothing -- “MythBusters” is more than usually devoted to the real. There is an element of “let’s pretend,” to be sure, and of entertainment -- one of the things, apparently, that Hyneman, the practical partner, never liked -- but no fudging the facts, no faking the tests, no cooking the results. The whole point is to get to the truth, or as far toward the truth as time and the budget will allow.
The series, which debuted on Discovery Channel in 2003, came along at a the right time, accompanying the rise of DIY culture -- the first Maker Faire was held in 2006, right around the time that 3-D printers started to become available for home use -- and a new emphasis on STEM education: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It was also a time in which movies and TV were increasingly driven by action films, the deconstruction of whose stunts and tropes makes up much of the show’s business. (Its theme can be pretty much boiled down to a single question: Could that really happen?)
The subjects addressed have ranged so wide as to make the word “wide” sound narrow. Will diving underwater protect a person from bullets? Can vodka cure bad breath? Can a glider be made from concrete, a person with no experience land a jet airline by instructions from the tower? Can you catch a bullet in your teeth, an arrow in your hand? Will you slip on a banana peel? Is an ax or a gun better protection against zombies? Can you herd cats, catch a greased pig? Can honeybees lift a laptop? There have been James Bond-themed episodes, “Star Wars"-themed episodes, and tests inspired by “Breaking Bad.”
That these experiments have a handmade feel and a don’t-try-this-at-home flavor makes “MythBusters” at times a little reminiscent of “The Little Rascals” and other times of “Jackass.” But with science.
Born about a decade apart, Hyneman and Savage, who are famously not friends offscreen, are both veterans of what Savage described to me in a 2012 interview as the “era of the big hands-on special effects shops,” driven by “people who are interested in a little bit of everything and getting their hands dirty in every process they can think of.” The whimsical younger partner, Savage has a background in theater; Hyneman, more inward and intense, “grew up on a farm, ran a diving charter business, a sailing charter business in the Caribbean” and “always looked at special effects work as another means of earning a living that involved the lifestyle I considered important: being able to deal with anything that came up.”
Savage wants to do more television; Hyneman has declared himself ready to bid the camera goodbye forever. Whatever happens, one hopes that the end of “MythBusters” does not betoken a growing public disinterest in fact-based reality. The great gift of the series has been to remind us that the world isn’t always what we want or believe it to be, that your beliefs can be tested and might be proved wrong -- which is not at all the same thing as “losing.” Indeed, if you prize fact over faith, you can only win.
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