The weekend’s most talked-about series finale will likely be “Downton Abbey,” but while I’ll miss that slyly modern take on old aristocracy, the show I most want to see get a farewell hug at the Emmys is the Discovery Channel’s “MythBusters.” It closes up shop on Saturday, March 5, after 13 years of applying science to its investigation of urban legends, common idioms and Hollywood set pieces. It has been nominated seven times for Best Reality Program, but it has never won. Now’s your last chance, TV academy.
The series will best be remembered for its fondness for high explosives and artillery, but what I’ve always loved the most is its approach to problem-solving. Every myth contains a set of variables that must be identified, isolated and observed. That’s true whether they’re testing Walter White’s machine-gun turret from the “Breaking Bad” series finale, or literally trying to punch their way out of a paper bag. One step at a time, they find a method in the madness.
You’ve seen a fictionalized form of this in “The Martian,” in which stranded astronaut Mark Watney explains, “You solve one problem, and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.” Watney would have made a great MythBuster, and testing the film might have made a great episode if the series had one more season to keep Hollywood honest.
And the science is always accessible. True, most of us don’t have access to munitions experts, bomb ranges or professional ninjas (you really shouldn’t try this at home), but what has made the show such a comfort over the years is how it shows the world around us as infinitely discoverable down to the smallest details of everyday life, like whether it’s more fuel-efficient to make only right-hand turns, or if a good slap really can refocus your senses when you’re inebriated.
The chemistry between hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage has been another chief pleasure of the series. Savage’s on-screen exuberance is balanced nicely by Hyneman’s cool reserve. It’s a classic yin-yang combo — like Felix and Oscar, Mulder and Scully — that personifies the show’s mix of methodical rigor and giddy wonder; as Savage once said, “The only difference between science and screwing around is writing it down.”
This final season, which has aired since January, has included the usual mix of big and small myths, booms and busts. Can a household vacuum cleaner lift a car if you distribute the suction? Will a railroad tanker full of steam implode as it cools? Are gummy bears a viable rocket fuel? What’s really the best weapon for surviving a zombie attack? That last one they tested twice, and I still think they got it wrong, but the ability to challenge their methods is another part of the show’s appeal; they have frequently revisited myths based on input from viewers, and often achieve different results.
For five years (2009-2013) the show was nominated for the Emmy for Best Reality Program. It earned two more bids (2014-2015) in the newly split race for Best Structured Reality Program, but it still hasn’t won. For the last two years in a row the award went to ABC’s entrepreneurial hit “Shark Tank,” which will have plenty more chances at the title. But it’s now or never for the “MythBusters” team.
A few years ago, Hyneman and Savage actually tested whether it’s really better to end with a bang, and the verdit was mixed. But I bet it’s even better than that to end with an Emmy.
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Photo credit: “MythBusters” by Discovery