Opinion: Discovery Channel series Mythbusters ends this month after 13 years. Will Wiles explains why its high-octane science experiments made viewers think more about the material world than any other TV show.
While I was growing up, my parents kept a few reference books by the dining table: an encyclopedia, a dictionary, and Halliwell's Film Guide. They were there to keep the peace.
My father had picked up the idea from a group of Jesuits he had encountered in India in the 1970s, who kept a Bible nearby at mealtimes to settle any theological arguments that might arise. And it was a very useful practice – Halliwell's, in particular, cut short a lot of circular discussion along the lines of "was it Donald Sutherland or Elliott Gould?" Finding an answer, in small type in a reassuringly heavy book, was always very satisfying.
Nowadays, of course, we come to the table with immensely powerful networked computers in our back pockets, which helps. However there are some matters that can't be settled with recourse to heavy reference, regardless of whether it's digital or between hard covers.
Will a car explode if you fire a bullet into its petrol tank? Could an inflatable life raft really be used as a parachute, à la Indiana Jones? Can you make a candle out of ear wax?
These topics are prompts to the kind of circular, contentious discussion that can really upset a family dinner or an afternoon online. Mundane facts will only go so far: it needs a practical demonstration to really settle the matter. The answers have to be seen. Here, we have much to be grateful to the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters, which this month ends after 13 years and 282 episodes.
Mythbusters was a miniature, weekly Enlightenment for the modern material world. It revealed that the mundane environment around us was still steeped in myth and magical thinking, a fog of un-knowledge rooted in half-remembered school science and essential human credibility, rather than the supernatural or divine, but no less murky and persistent.
The show began with a focus on debunking "urban legends" – could a person be killed by a penny dropped from the Empire State Building? – but quickly discovered fertile ground in tall tales from history and unlikely scenes from film and TV.
The magical thinking that pervades the modern world mostly concerns the properties of objects. We are, after all, surrounded by tiny technological miracles: internal combustion engines, for instance, are a continuous high-speed chain of small explosions harnessed to make a vehicle go forward, which we kind of know on a rational level, but can't really connect to putting a key in the ignition and hearing a tame, helpful vroom.
Some household substances have mysterious properties: exploding, creating fumes, corroding things. Others, we suspect, may have these properties. Planes stay up, but nearly everything else stays down. Popping candy, static electricity, ice, helium balloons, magnets, mirrors, alcohol – they all have their special properties and capabilities that, plausibly, could be scaled up combined or exploited in extraordinary or dangerous ways.
These were the territories of the material imagination that Mythbusters explored. Its hosts, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, were from the world of special effects, and simply set about trying to recreate tall tales in the most simple and straightforward way possible, to produce results that were observable and repeatable.
The show's recurring co-hosts – chiefly Tory Belleci, Kari Byron and Grant Imihara – were from similarly practical backgrounds, with an admixture of circus skills. The emphasis was on designing, building, engineering, observing and – crucially – destroying, as spectacularly as possible.
Which is to say, they did experiments. Mythbusters was fundamentally a science show, although it didn't really feel like one. Which isn't to say that the show distanced itself from science, or downplayed it, or that "pure" science is somehow separate from "dirty" practicality.
Mythbusters was animated by the purest pursuit of the scientific method, it showed that the practical was pure science. Among its most familiar sights was the fanatical steel in the Hyneman or Savage eye when confronting an obstacle to truth.
What Mythbusters did not do was fetishise the trappings of science in the manner of so many shows that tried to "make science fun". There were no ironic white coats or bunsen burners, no witty retorts*. They just got on and did things, and when the results of those doings failed to match up with the expectations set up by movies or the saloon-bar stories, they did them to excess, exploring both the truth of the matter and the truth of the story, the myth, setting out with special-effects pizazz to replicate the results when it could not replicate the circumstances.
An exploding car, it transpires, does not look the way an exploding car looks in the movies. (One of the most enduring lessons of Mythbusters: petrol is not as flammable or as explosive as you imagine. But, all the same, don't muck about with it, it can and will catch fire.) Nor will that explosion lift a fleeing hero from his feet, not without killing him. And how do you create one of those big, flowery, orange, movie-style explosions, anyway?
After a few score episodes of Mythbusters, Hollywood starts to look like quite a tease, if not an outright geyser of falsehood. It naturally prioritises excitement over realism, and is happy to stretch plausibility, let alone fact, to breaking point in the process. The number of fantastical properties we have come to associate with firearms, for instance: bullets don't spark when the hit walls, and they won't knock a man backwards.
But the real culprit is our monkey imagination and credibility, on the loose in a world full of wonder, which Hollywood has simply found effective ways to channel for entertainment.
In a recent book called Hollywood Action Films and Spatial Theory (Routledge, 2015), British academic Nick Jones discusses the way action blockbusters use, and are shaped by, the spaces around them. In using "iconic" buildings for action set-pieces – Tom Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Clive Owen shooting up the Guggenheim spiral in The International – films "flesh out" and reveal them to the audience in new ways. The architecture is opened up and explored.
Similarly, when a glass wall shatters under gunfire or the hero bursts through drywall, the material properties of a space are revealed and acted out in a rewarding manner.
Rewarding, but not always truthful. Mythbusters, however, had the same effect of revealing and exploring the material world around us in a way that was absolutely committed to realism, and no less rewarding. Whether it was firing chickens through plate glass or causing a water heater to explode like a bomb, Mythbusters was a weekly encounter with the familiar that both exposed its fundamental properties and made it utterly enchanting.
In dispelling inaccuracy and misinformation, it only made the world more remarkable and interesting. And for all the "busting" and debunking, it was never home to joyless pedantry or acrid cynicism. The heart of it was the immense charm of the hosts and the on-screen chemistry of their contrasting styles: the boyish, gung-ho enthusiasm of Savage, the deadpan ratiocinatory calm of Hyneman. When Savage looked nervous, or Hyneman looked excited, you knew something extraordinary was about to happen.
* science joke
Will Wiles is the author of two novels with architectural themes: Care of Wooden Floors, in which a man is driven mad by a minimalist apartment, and The Way Inn, a horror story set in an anonymous chain hotel. He is contributing editor at Icon magazine and a freelance design journalist.