The Mythbusters Effect

MythbustersIn a month's time, the Discovery series Mythbusters will be celebrating its tenth anniversary. That show has been a staple for us. It's relatively safe television for the kids that we adults can enjoy, and it has helped instill a love of science (particularly the science involving explosions) in both Nora and Vivian. It has gotten us into trouble on occasion, like the time Vivian's pre-school teacher looked askance at us and said, "Vivian said, 'Beer before liquor, never sicker, BUSTED!' today. What's up with that?" But there was also the time that the mad scientist came to Vivian's birthday party and asked who knew what combustion was. All the boys, and Vivian, put their hands up for that one.

The influence of Mythbusters can also be seen in the television shows around it. There have been some knock offs of varied success. One show we've come to enjoy is the Discovery series Smash Lab. This series involves a team of four mechanically-minded individuals (including a young woman who is billed as "the Scientist" -- yay!) who take revolutionary new materials and see if they can be applied to solve tricky problems, for example using a magnetic rail system as a high rise fire escape, or aerated concrete to slow down out-of-control vehicles. I like this series because it really does focus on the scientific process, particularly the trials and errors, and it's not afraid to show that failure is always an option, and a really quite valuable option at that.

But some knock-offs have been quite shameless in their use of the Mythbusters formula. One example is HGTV's House Hazards. There, a team of mechanically minded individuals (including one woman -- okay, truthfully, they may be stealing more from Smash Lab's setup than Mythbusters) investigate the sorts of things that might go horribly wrong in the home, from electrical fires, to grease fires, to furnace explosions... well, let's just say that there's a lot of destruction on this show.

It's not just that HGTV is rather sadly aping the Discovery Channel in a desperate attempt to look hip and cool (and action-oriented). House Hazards violates its own rules by going beyond the realistic bad things that can happen to your home, and jumping onto the looney tune scenarios that couldn't possibly occur, but still look spectacular on television.

For instance, there was a segment on the dangers of ceiling fans. House Hazards ably demonstrated that if you are not careful changing a lightbulb around these things, you can give yourself a serious concussion. But then they decided to ramp it up, by modifying the ceiling fan with machete blades, powering it with a lawnmower motor and having it slice through a watermelon.

Not only is this a direct copy of a segment Mythbusters did years earlier, it's a bad copy. Mythbusters approached this segment from a different angle. They said, "there is an urban legend about a man jumping onto a bed and getting decapitated by a ceiling fan. Is it true?" They try an experiment with a dummy and a standard ceiling fan and showed that couldn't possibly be true. Then they asked, "what would you need for this to have actually happened?" At which point they ramp it up with a lawnmower motor and sharpened blades, and even then they couldn't get a clean decapitation (though the resulting slow-motion footage was disgusting to behold).

You see the difference? In the case of Mythbusters, it makes sense to ramp things up in order to conclusively debunk the myth. By comparison, House Hazards tries to show what the real danger of a real ceiling fan is, and then goes into territory not found in a typical household. There is no need to ramp things up. There is a fine line between engaging in science and just fooling around, and House Hazards crosses it so many times, it's just embarrassing.

But that is the way with copycats. It's easy to tell who has a good premise and who is just trying to milk the success of others. And it's no surprise that Mythbusters continues to go strong ten years after the airing of its pilot episode, and why I suspect we won't be hearing much from the producers of House Hazards by the end of 2013.

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