Commercial television is a business, and that business is entertainment. Shows that capture and retain viewers prosper, regardless of any other aspect of their quality. Those that fail to, die, regardless of their value to society.
That is a simple, if inconvenient, truth.
Therefore, while I feel very positively about the crew that Brian and Ryan have assembled, and I believe we can create top-notch skeptical content – none of that matters if we cannot compete to keep viewers glued to their TV screens (or convince no-nonsense executives that we can).
Science and skepticism have been fairing a bit better on commercial television of late, giving me some hope that the timing might be right. Everyone thinks immediately of Mythbusters and Bullshit – both highly successful shows built around a format of debunking. Recently, though, there has been a growing lineup of science-based entertainment programming. Some of it good, some of it not so much.
I was initially very enthusiastic about The Mentalist. The lead character, Patrick Jane, is a stage mentalist who used to pretend to be a medium, but now plays for the good side. He proclaims without apology that there is no such thing as psychics. He shows off his mentalism skill in every episode. I still retain some hope that the show will be a home-run for skeptics, but the last few episodes have been a bit stale.
The problem as I see it is that the mentalism is being reduced to window dressing. Jane is playing the part of Columbo – figuring out quickly who done it by keen observation and social instincts. He then spends the rest of the show contriving a situation in which the guilty party will be exposed or confess. Mentalism and skepticism are not driving the plot. The audience does not sharpen their critical thinking skills as they follow Jane through the process of solving the crime. Rather, he just shows off his talent.
Before you argue that what I was hoping for cannot be done (or at least not in an entertaining way) you should check out the BBC series Jonathan Creek. Creek is a inventor of stage illusions. Too dorky to perform himself, he was the real genius behind the tricks. Each week he used his knowledge of illusions to actually solve crimes, and the audience could not help but become a bit more skeptical while being entertained.
I had hoped that The Mentalist would become an American version of Jonathan Creek – so far, it has not.
Then there is another new show, The Eleventh Hour. On this series Jacob Hood is a science adviser to the FBI – using his preternatural knowledge of science to solve the most difficult and dangerous cases. The show definitely portrays science in a positive light, and Hood is a very likable character.
Two quibbles so far – first, the science is a bit inaccessible. Brilliant scientists are often portrayed as magicians, dispensing their arcane knowledge to the normals. This could have the negative effect of pushing people away from science because it seems so unreachable. Hood is almost too smart – the show would work better if he had to struggle a bit more, and he were more vulnerable. Bring him down to earth, and show the audience that anyone can do science. There is nothing magical about it.
Second – the science gets a bit wonky in places. It’s too early to tell how grounded they are going to keep the show. It is all too easy for bad or sloppy writers, however, to fudge the science whenever they need a quick plot device.
This show was lifted directly from a BBC show of the same name, starring Patrick Stewart. I much prefer the Stewart character. He was more realistic, less ethereal, and came off as more dedicated to the process and integrity of science.
I hate to say this, but I get the distinct impression that high quality science-themed British shows are dumbed down for US television. This does not bode well.
So where does The Skeptologists fit into all of this? Well, we would be more of a reality TV show, like Mythbusters, and not a drama. It would simply be impossible, given the cast, for us to compromise on the science. It seems as if we found a way to make it entertaining – and we have a great deal of experience collectively making science accessible to a general audience.
But making science fun for science afficionados is not the same as making it fun for the broad public. That will be our challenge. The Mythbusters get to blow stuff up every episode. Our formula is less violent, but has the same – let’s explore something really cool and see what we find. We all really love what we do, and that is going to be the best hook that we have.
The formula for the show is still evolving. We understand that no matter how good the science and critical thinking education is that we squeeze into each show, if it is not compelling and entertaining TV, the show will not survive or even happen in the first place.
That is the reality of TV.