Back in the late `80s and early `90s, budding science geeks everywhere plopped down in front of “MacGyver” on ABC, to watch resourceful secret agent Angus MacGyver (Richard Dean Anderson) escape from bad guys, foil evil plots and basically save the world with a Swiss Army knife, duct tape and whatever happened to be lying around.
Wednesday at 9 p.m. EST, cable television’s reigning science geeks, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters,” decide to put some of MacGyver’s more creative escapes to the test, in the show’s landmark 100th episode.
“It’s a natural for us,” says Savage. “It took a while for us to work out the various details with the original `MacGyver’ producers, but `Mythbusters’ and `MacGyver’ have always been two peas in a pod, at least philosophically.”
“In a way,” says Hyneman, “we’re the real deal, where a lot of the stuff that `MacGyver’ did - and that’s what the myth is about - maybe is not necessarily realistic.”
In one segment, Savage and Hyneman decide to see whether MacGyver could indeed blow a hole in a wall using pure sodium metal dropped into water.
Next, the show’s Build Team - Troy Belleci, Kari Byron and Grant Imahara - try to build an ultra light airplane using raw bamboo, a small engine and MacGyver’s ever-present duct tape.
Then, the Build Team challenges Savage and Hyneman to a four-part ultimate “MacGyver” challenge. They have one hour to pick a lock, develop film with common kitchen liquids, build a compass and devise an aerial signal for a helicopter.
“The idea that Jamie and I are the perfect analogs for a real-world MacGyver,” Savage says, “means that the finale of this episode, where Tory, Grant and Kari actually present Jamie and I with a set of real `MacGyver’ challenges, is probably one of the best marriages of material and execution that we’ve ever had.”
Asked if “MacGyver” inspired his and Hyneman’s career path, Savage says, “If only in the absolute idea that whatever you’ve got at hand is probably enough to solve the problem that you need to solve. The thing about MacGyver is, he’s so much of the cultural lexicon of `can-do-it-ive-ness,’ and at this point, we have become that, too.
“Honestly, this isn’t, by far, the last `MacGyver’ episode that we’ll do. There’s a ton of fertile material there. We’ll probably tackle this four or five more times.”
“There’s a thing behind `MacGyver’ that is very similar to what we do,” Hyneman says, “in the sense that a good myth typically has at least a grain of truth in it.
“I mean, we’ve done some pyramid power and a couple of other things that we don’t like to talk about, but the bulk of the work that we do starts out with a grain of truth.”
For example in the “Sodium Jailbreak,” Hyneman explains that “some of these certain metals, like sodium or potassium, when they’re exposed to open atmosphere or water, are explosive.
“So we deal with that, and the question becomes more, `How explosive are they?’”
Savage adds, “And I think if we’re all going to be honest with each other, the key word would be `explosive.’”
Considering that “MacGyver” was on the air for seven seasons, winnowing down the myths couldn’t have been easy.
“There are hundreds,” Savage says. “There are lists online, but they’re not nearly complete. We have all the episodes, and we’ve been slowly working through them. There are little, tiny things he does that no one even lists in the plot synopses that are awesome for us to test.
“But as long as it’s got a grain of truth to it, and hopefully some fire and explosions and often bad guys getting hurt, it’s perfect for us.”
If “MacGyver” is having an impact on “Mythbusters,” at the same time, “Mythbusters” is having an impact on other TV shows - in particular CBS’ forensic crime drama “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
“We did an episode last season,” says Savage, “called `Big Rig Myths,’ about big trucks. One of them was, if an 18-wheeler’s tire blows on the freeway, can a flying piece of rubber actually behead you in the car?
“We tested it, and we actually proved that it was entirely possible for that tire to go through your windshield and behead you.”
It turns out that the “CSI” writers were watching, too, and the results showed up in an episode called “A La Cart,” which aired on Oct. 4, 2007.
“Some of the writers from `CSI’ actually incorporated not only the myth,” says Savage, “but the experiment that we built, right into the `CSI’ episode that was aired last year.
“When we contacted them, they were glad we weren’t upset. We actually exchanged a bunch of T-shirts and hats and scripts and stuff. They’re all big fans of `Mythbusters.’”
The show’s reach apparently even extends beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
“Just like `MacGyver,’” Hyneman says, “we’re aware that we’ve penetrated the subconscious of pop culture. There have been references to `Mythbusters,’ what was that…”
“The International Space Station,” Savage says. “Those are absolutely our core audience.”
“They were doing something,” Hyneman says, “something happened, and they decided to do a little `Mythbusters’-style test to determine what was going on with it. It worked. It’s definitely out there.”
When the question of “Mythbusters” in space comes up, Hyneman says, “That’s tops on our list. But, of course, we’d have to build the rocket. We’d go out there ourselves.
“Generally, most of the stories that we’re turning around are done in a couple of weeks or less, so we’d have to build the rocket, get out to the moon and get back in two weeks, or they would never allow it.”
“And that’s pushing it,” Savage says, “even for us.”