Showtime Networks, 2009
written by Penn Jillette, Teller, et al. and directed by Star Price
around 275 minutes, not rated (contains nudity and foul languge)
Penn & Teller: Bullshit! has been airing on Showtime since 2003. The basic format of the show is: first, they introduce some topic that they consider to be bullshit -- something like, say, ouija boards or yoga or alien abductions or environmentalism. They use as much foul language as possible... because calling someone an asswipe or a cocksucker is not legally actionable like calling them a liar or a charlatan is. They make it funny, and often throw in some nudity for no reason at all. Then after the opening titles, they introduce some practitioner of whatever goofiness it is they're out to undermine this week. They let said practitioner go on at length making a fool of themselves. Then they introduce a second fool, and maybe a third. Then they bring out an expert in a suit, or two, to set the record straight, and go back and forth between the fools and the experts. They try a social experiment on people, seeing if actors peddling something obviously phony can hoodwink the public the same way the targeted bullshitters do. Then they weigh the evidence and make an editorial statement about how much of the targeted subject they can pronounce bullshit, and why, and how severe and harmful it is. And that's the end of the show, leaving them (if not always us) satisfied that the subject has been thoroughly investigated.
Penn does all the talking; as in their Las Vegas magic act, Teller remains mute. Sometimes they'll slip in a magic trick.
They position themselves as advocates of science over supersition, critical thinking over credulity, reason over illogic, and acceptance of facts over wishful thinking. But unfortunately, they're not just skeptics, they've got beliefs of their own. Those guests who happen to match their own philosophical leanings are too often exempted from critical examination.
I used to identify myself with the skeptics movement -- the people who try to debunk charlatans and hysterias and magical thinking in general. Nowadays... not so much. I got too much exposure to the kind of "skeptic" who is merely a cynic, and would rather believe a baseless "scientific explanation" pulled entirely out of his own ass, than take a chance on believing that there might still be some amazing and unexpected things going on in this world.
Despite my skepticism about skeptics, I ought to be the perfect audience for this show, because... well, guess what my favorite TV show happens to be. It's Mythbusters. On that show, they also take ideas that people widely believe, and examine them to see if they're true or not true, and make it funny and entertaining as they do so. The important thing is, they do it scientifically; they try to get at the truth in as unbiased a way as possible. But Penn & Teller don't really give a rat's ass about being unbiased. As often as not they're mainly looking to support their own preconceptions, and from time to time they will glaringly omit information or investigation that might lead them in another direction. They won't go against clear facts, but when there's wiggle room, they'll use it.
I am encouraged, however, by a statement from Teller that in their final episode, they plan to expose the bullshit in the methods of their own show. In the end, you might disagree with them strongly, they might sometimes be infuriating... but you can't deny that they challenge you and make you think, in a refreshingly open and exhilarating way.
The particular shows I am reviewing here are the DVD release of season 6, the most recent season to air. It's not very long; seasons 1 through 3 were thirteen episodes each, but seasons 4 through 6 are only ten episodes. (I guess that's what you get when people already have full time careers and are trying to make a TV show in their spare time.) Some episodes are around 29 minutes long, while others are only about 24; I don't know why. So the whole thing fits on just two DVDs, delivered in a normal sized clamshell case with "B.S.!" on the cover instead of "Bullshit!". There's a Showtime trailer at the beginning that you can skip either with the Menu or the Next Chapter button.
Let's briefly review each of the ten episodes.
The first thing you have to know about this episode is that they throw in brief clips of actual porn throughout. Nothing really explicit is allowed, so you won't see any actual pussy-pounding or cum-drinking, but there's plenty of phony moaning and oscillating breasts. The fools up for mockery are those who try to claim that pornography is pernicious and addictive and leads to sexual violence. They don't have evidence. The fact that people genuinely can get into an addictive relationship with the stuff is glossed over... but then, almost anything is capable of being abused in an addictive way by someone who gets the right mood-alteration from it. (Un)Fortunately, They don't try any fake experiments with actors in this one. I guess it's kind of hard to think of an amusing experiment that would pass ethical, or at least lawyerly, muster. All in all, this episode makes its point reasonably well.
In this one, they take on some truly deserving targets -- people who sell phony rituals and homebrewed magic as "healing". This one offers up a particularly hilarious version of the social experiment aspect, with actors offering healing practices using kazoos, slide whistles, and toilet plungers. It also offers the best expert-in-a-suit character of the season: the brilliant and dazzling Emily Rosa, who holds a Guinness record for being the youngest author ever to publish research in a major medical journal. She decided to do a blind test of the claims of one widespread form of ritualistic healing... and the results allowed Penn to crow "They got their asses kicked by a nine year old girl!" This is exactly what an episode of Bullshit! should be, making solid entertainment out of solid debunking. The high point of the season.
P&T decide to stretch themselves by looking for bullshit in something they like, namely the U.S. space program. They might be anti-government, but not enough to overcome their nerdy love of rockets and outer space. I loved listening to an awestruck Penn describe the visceral experience of watching a launch from three miles away. But otherwise, as they look for the bad side of NASA -- the side that, for instance, allowed the Columbia and Challenger deaths -- this episode was a bit tepid and wishywashy. They end with a rousing cheer for the entry of private enterprise into space, which is hard to disagree with. Not one of their brightest moments, but eh, it's okay.
Some people love to believe improbable stuff about dolphins. This episode features one of the most frighteningly dangerous new-age alternative health practices ever... plus one of the most appallingly transparent cases of spiritual seekers buying nothing for something. The dolphins themselves remain just as cute and fun as ever... the boys probably missed a good opportunity by not exploring the oddities of bottlenose sexual behavior. That, I bet, would get a lot of people to rethink their image of cetacean cuddliness.
An episode about all the different people who try to sell you something to give you a good night's sleep, from nine thousand dollar mattresses almost two feet thick, to mystic crystal heating pads. The prize fool in this episode turns out not to be any of the salesman, but a sample customer they decided to follow from merchant to merchant... Sometimes where you find the story isn't where you originally planned to look.
Now we're gettin' controversial. Penn and Teller don't like Al Gore and don't like "green guilt". But their number one target is something that very probably does deserve some serious investigative scrutiny: the businesses that sell "carbon offsets". Where does the money really go? How legit are the claims that they undo part of your carbon footprint? I have grave doubts that there's any way to take carbon out of the air by buying something; generally speaking, the way to reduce your carbon impact is to not spend money. Sadly, P&T don't do this investigation. They expose who owns and presumably profits from these companies and leave it at that, dismissing them as obvious scams that don't need further investigation. They may be that, but the investigation is needed.
The lowest point of the episode is when the boys quote someone from a "free enterprise think tank" as their expert-in-a-suit, and bring no skepticism whatever to their claims that humans don't cause global warming... a few years ago the same bunch of professional deniers were claiming that warming didn't even exist; they've had to retreat on point after point, the facts they assert keep shifting, only the agenda stays constant.
At the end, they're just itching to be able to say that the whole idea of global warming is bullshit... but they can't. They settle for saying that the jury's still out. This episode lowers my respect for our two intrepid debunkers, but they do show in the end that they have certain level of intellectual integrity that won't let them take their own biases too far from the facts.
News flash: when your corporate employer sends you to mandatory sensitivity training so nobody will cause any trouble by acting racist or sexist, it probably isn't actually helping. Since this practice consumes a lot of money and time, it's certainly worth a skeptical look. But I suspect there's a possibility that our boys are ignoring: maybe there's a right way and a wrong way to do it, so it doesn't necessarily have to be a waste of time. But what the hell, they might be right.
Eeek, our children are in danger! Guard them every second! Penn and Teller seek to prove that we're paranoid about dangers that are really quite minimal, and that there has never been a safer time to live as a kid. The biggest bugaboo, of course, is the risk of predatory child molesters who might abduct and abuse your child. They peg the risk of this happening to your kid as one chance in one point five million.
The fly in the ointment, of course, is that this high number comes just from defining the problem very narrowly; by ignoring all the abduction and molestation that happens outside this one scenario. Parents do need to be vigilant for the safety of their children; the total number who end up molested in some way is a lot closer to one in 1.5 than to one in 1.5 million. P&T do recognize this, more or less; they don't minimize the risks children really do face, they just let us know that many of us are misdirecting our caution. So I ended up feeling fairly good about this episode. And they manage to make it generally a fun show despite some rather grim material.
Oy. This one, I could write pages of counterargument about. Here they take on peace activists, whom they see as woolly-minded and dangerously naive fools who never accomplish anything real. Furthermore, they offer their own solution for how to really promote a maximum of world peace: it involves the mutual self-interest of trade partners. Hey, assholes, we had plenty of mutually beneficial trade with Iraq right before we invaded them.
Self-interest doesn't prevent war. War is, as often as not, an act of sheer misguided folly in which the perpetrator ends up destroying himself. I say that what does prevent war is an active democracy, in which the government truly represents the people, and if it doesn't, the people challenge and resist the government. As Herr Göring famously observed, "Naturally the common people don't want war... it is the leaders of the country who [must] drag the people along." People who refuse to be dragged do help prevent and stop wars.
This episode illustrates one of the core forms of bullshit that Bullshit! operates on: the fact is, it's easy to make almost any group of people look bad, just by picking their most foolish moments or the most foolish individuals within a larger group. That's what they do here... the peaceniks end up looking like idiots. Yet in the real world, they seem to have done a pretty good job of coming out on the right side of the judgment of history.
This episode also pulls out Cato Institute members in the expert-in-a-suit role. That institute is not an organization of experts, but of ideologues -- ones that Penn & Teller happen to agree with. Overall, this one is a low point in the series.
The boys challenge the whole idea of nostalgia: they seek to debunk the idea that there has ever been a better time than today. They investigate fans of the eighties, the fifties, and the fifteenth century. This is a lightweight episode; they're just taking it easy and having fun in this one. Lots of goofing around with pretending to be characters from other eras. Lots of harmless ribbing of the weenies who do Renaissance Faires. A pathetic look at some people who worship Leave It To Beaver, which doesn't need any criticism to make it look dumb.
Making people look dumb is kind of what the show does... but they also aren't reluctant to make mock of themselves. Perhaps their attitude is best summed up by the bit at the end of "Sensitivity Training" where they show off their idea for how they deal with the issue of other people's crass stereotyping perceptions: hire an insult comic to belittle you for five minutes a day until you grow a thick skin. If that idea makes sense to you on some level, you might like these guys' attitude. And whether they delight you or outrage you, they'll certainly make you think, and maybe take a fresh look at what you're sure you know. So check it out.
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