Skeptics, rejoice! MythBusters no longer is the only show that aims to teach its viewers to question their perceptions of reality before deciding what to believe. Instead of taking popular assertions and trying to verify them, though, this show makes its own assertions and dares you to figure out which one is fake. And who better to serve up such a program than the master illusionists and debunkers Penn Jillette and Teller?
The format of Discovery Channel’s new show Penn & Teller Tell a Lie is this: The pair present, in their trademark entertainingly sarcastic way, six or seven stories, each to some degree difficult to believe. Each story has a demonstration — sometimes performed by Penn and Teller themselves and sometimes by others — and interviews to support it. Some seem pretty reasonable after seeing their stories, while others still strain the bounds of credulity. Yet all stories but one in each episode are real. And that “but one” is, of course, the whole point.
It wouldn’t work if they didn’t tell you until the end that one of the stories was a lie, letting you believe all of them until that point. The fact that you know up front — heck, it’s even in the show’s title — that one of the things you’re watching is a fake makes you question everything you see. You look hard for any signs of fakery: camera tricks, signs that someone is acting, clues deliberately put in by Penn and Teller, and anything else that just seems off to you. And then, at the end, they tell you which one was meant to dupe you, and exactly how they pulled it off. What’s more, the show has a social aspect to it in that you can go to its official website or use its official iOS app to vote on which story you think is fake, and then before the reveal see live results on the show telling you what all the other viewers thought.
Not only does it help teach you to think like a skeptic, though: it also provides some very entertaining and unusual stories. In the premiere, which airs tonight at 10pm ET/PT — right after a new MythBusters episode — for example, you’ll see stories about alligators getting excited by tubas playing a particular note, a fairly lightweight woman who can prevent very strong men from picking her up just by changing her stance, a man getting away from a tiger intent on killing him by making it gag, and, in the piece that gives the episode its title (“A Head of Hair Can Lift a Mustang”), the hair from one person’s head being used to lift an entire car with several passengers. And of course each story is told in an entertaining way. So even if you knew which story was fake ahead of time, the show would still be worth watching.
The show isn’t without a few problems, of course, but they’re fairly minor ones. First, and most noticeably to me, was that Teller seemed very underused. Since he and Penn don’t appear in every story, they mostly serve to narrate and tie the segments together, and of course Penn does all the talking as always. When Teller is involved he’s funny, also as always, but it seems to me even more Penn’s show than their late Showtime series was. Of course, I’ve only seen one episode, so that could easily change. I also was a bit surprised when one of the stories in the premiere — that people can alleviate pain by swearing — was straight out of MythBusters, so that anyone who’s seen that episode will instantly know whether or not to believe that one. There’s likely to be a lot of crossover in the viewership of the two shows, so I would hope to see Discovery make more of an effort to make sure they don’t cover the same material.
Penn & Teller Tell a Lie airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET/PT on the Discovery Channel, starting tonight. It doesn’t contain anything terribly offensive, though the premiere does mention the existence of sex (between alligators) and use the word “horny.” It’s very far from graphic, though, so I’m personally not terribly concerned about my kids watching it, but I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t warn other parents so they could make their own determination.
In summary: It’s a very good show, which MythBusters fans will almost certainly enjoy and which non-MythBusters fans (if there are any who read this blog) should give a try. I’m really looking forward to the rest of the season.
Photos copyright by, and courtesy of, Discovery Channel.