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What do magicians Penn & Teller think of feng shui, alien abductions, chiropractic medicine, creationism, and carcinogenic secondhand smoke?

It’s all Bullshit!

Appropriate Response

Bullshit! is a very appropriate response to credulous TV programming
Bullshit! is a very appropriate response to credulous TV programming

Showtime entertainment last week released the complete first season of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! on DVD to coincide with the start of their second season. Each week, their half-hour show debunks the wrongheaded things Americans believe. As you can guess from the title, they don’t pull any punches. In the episode on speaking to the dead, Penn calls TV psychic John Edwards “the biggest douche of the universe.”

Topics include talking to the dead, alternative medicine, alien abductions, secondhand smoke, feng shui, bottled water, ESP, and environmentalist doomsayers.

The series is a welcome alternative to TV shows that “reunite” audience members with dead loved ones, or credulous “news” stories on haunted houses and crop circles. With that sort of programming in mind, Bullshit! is a very appropriate response.

-Tainment

The show is as entertaining as it is informative, but it could be more of both.

For example, I often catch myself feeling sorry for the believers of bullshit, who are often made to look gullible or stupid. One man, crying at the joy of hearing his dead mother’s voice is shown in closeup while a skeptic speculates about why people believe stupid things. The juxtaposition is insensitive, especially considering that Penn purports to sympathize with the victims of fraud and quackery.

“This is a picture of my extraterrestrial husband. The marriage ceremony was really cute ... it was the honeymoon part that was scary.”

They carry the insensitivity further in the name of proving a point. And while it’s often funny, it can also be a little disquieting. In many of the episodes, they stage their own segments where an actor posing as an “expert” will embarrass bystanders. At a mall “health fair,” they see whether people will agree to a “snail mucus facial.” They hire their own skeptic to show how easy it is to speak to the dead. The show might be more entertaining and less stressful if I know whether these victims agreed to be televised before or after they were let in on the joke.

I even feel sorry for some of the charlatans exposed on the show, although Penn is usually quick to point out how much they charge “clients” for their worthless services. As for the guy who calls Hillary Clinton a practicing witch, or the man who says both presidents Bush are reptilian aliens, well, it’s a little harder to feel sorry for them.

Info-

The show often gets the details right. In the episode on feng shui, they argue that if the practice is really science, as its practitioners claim, then three different practitioners should reach the same answer. As any skeptic might have predicted, they disagree completely on what should be done with the same living room (and one “expert,” apparently forgetting his mike was still on, can be heard saying, after his job is done, “it still looks like shit.”)

But a 26-minute TV show is not the best way to convey a lot of detailed information. The episode on secondhand smoke, for example, only had two facts of value amid all the bluster and name-calling. First, one study cited in smoking bans that purports to show a link between secondhand smoke and cancer has been ruled invalid by a judge. (Is one U.S. judge all it takes?). Second, the other major study cited in smoking bans doesn’t actually show a link, in spite of its misleading title and summary page.

If they played this fast and loose on all their episodes, true believers would unlikely be moved, fence-sitters might be turned off by the bluster and scant evidence, and only the choir would enjoy the preaching.

Mediums and Media

It’s easy to pick nits. After all, TV isn’t the best medium for describing involved science and statistical data. But it is good for showing some things, like exposing tricks used by cold readers who purport to speak with the dead or, as in the “bonus” ghost episode, how a simple trick can make it look like a ghost appeared in a used car lot.

“I have moved a few things with my mind every once in a while, but I need to practice”

Nevertheless, Bullshit! is a big breath of fresh air. It’s so refreshing to see that somebody is finally programming an alternative to the bullshit I too often see on TV. Special “exposés” on my local Fox station promise UFOs, haunted houses, and crop circles. “You decide,” says the promo, but the unscrupulous producers deliberately slant the evidence to make you decide in favor of the supernatural and the unexplained.

Finally, someone on TV (even if it is only on pay cable) is identifying this stuff for what it is: Bullshit!

Picture and Sound

Penn & Teller: Bullshit! is shot on video. That means picture quality isn’t gorgeous, but at least it is well photographed. Occasionally the show uses footage from hidden cameras, so picture quality sometimes decreases. But the DVD presentation is as good as possible.

The same can be said for the sound quality. From clip to clip, the quality of the source may vary; the studio footage is carefully miked, but sometimes people are interviewed at conventions or meetings with heavy background noise. The DVD presents it cleanly, except for, strangely, the Showtime logo at the very beginning of the disc, which cuts in and out on my older player.

DVD Extras

The extra features complement the disc, but one could enjoy the episodes without ever seeing the outtakes, for example, or the “bonus episode” on the haunted car lot. Many of the outtakes come from the “Sex Sex Sex” episode, which features lots of nude men and women mingling with Penn & Teller.

The most noteworthy extra is an interview with fellow magician and skeptic James Randi, in which Penn opens up and talks about his beliefs and how they relate to his sense of skepticism. Importantly, he speaks about the difference between skepticism and cynicism, emphasizing that his view of the human race is really quite optimistic.

The worst features, ironically, reveal what goes into making the show. It is apparent that the segments are produced by worker bees, and that Penn & Teller don’t actually do any of the legwork. And the image of intimacy you get from watching the show dissolves when you see the small, cold studio in which it’s produced.

But whether you watch the extra features or not, Bullshit! is a good DVD to pop in for a quick half hour of info-tainment, and it can be had for less money than subscribing to Showtime for the season.

  • Maksutov: Sorry P&T whacked some of your sacred cows in the udder.

    Pretty good review until you started commiserating with the victims, and then, BION, actually expressed sympathy for the con artists.

    If some day you are terminal, I wish you the best of luck with your psychic surgery. July 16, 2007 reply
  • Marty Mapes: I felt sorry for the magnet guy. Here's this 70-year-old man who thinks he's making the world a better place. He's mistaken; he's not helping. But he didn't seem to have any malice in him, nor did he seem to be making huge profits -- his normal-looking house attests to that. So it's a little painful to see him humiliated on national TV. Yes, he's mistaken, but for him that's more a cause for pity than for scorn. July 16, 2007 reply