The United States of America was founded on one idea: that all land-owning white men have the right to be free. As other groups have made clear their intentions to be included in this premise, the nation’s history has adjusted. From the American Revolution and the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation, struggles for freedom in the United States have frequently been fierce, ugly, and violent. Though he is often slagged for saying it, George W. Bush was onto something when he pronounced, “Freedom isn’t free”.
Penn Jillette and his silent partner, Teller, believe firmly in individual liberty, and they have made it their (multi-million dollar) business to argue for their version of it. Now in its fourth season on Showtime, Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! aims to strip away the misinformation, lies, and propaganda enslaving the minds and bodies of Americans. The show is loud, brash, aggressive, and arrogant -– in other words, utterly American.
Penn and Teller made their names as a magic and comedy act, performing mainly gory tricks and subsequently explaining how they did it. They carry this spirit of debunkery onto the set of Bullshit!. During the first three seasons—now available as an essentially extrasless DVD set—they expose the fecal matter behind so-called paranormal activities (talking to the dead, ouija boards, alien abductions), social issues (animal rights, the War on Drugs, gun control), and popular social practices (recycling, circumcision). Penn and Teller make no attempt to disguise their disdain for religion; they are as fundamentalist in their atheism as any Bible-thumping creationist is in his Christianity. (Their take on organized religion can be aggressive: on two occasions, in episodes on other subjects, Teller tosses a Bible in the air for Penn to shoot with a gun.)
For all their social activism, Penn and Teller have cited Harry Houdini as a major influence on their work (they were originally going to call the show Humbug!, one of Houdini’s favourite terms), so it’s not really surprising that episodes focused on the paranormal and/or nonsense science are most effective. Sometimes, Penn and Teller will simply apply one of the methods Houdini used over 100 years ago to embarrass the hucksters of his day. To prove that ouiji boards don’t connect us with the spirit world, the crew blindfolds a group of people who have just experienced the seemingly magical pull of the board and asks them to try again. The board is then placed upside down, yet the hands move to the spots where the participants believe the words and letters are inscribed.
Taking on the “ancient Chinese science” of feng shui—which posits that the rearranging of furniture in accordance with the “right” energy forces will bring good fortune and happiness—Penn and Teller ask three different feng shui designers to apply the techniques to the same home. If feng shui is in fact a science, they argue, the three designers should come up with the same design. They do not. Is the experiment scientific? No. Is it effective? Very.
As Penn is fond of telling us, Bullshit! is “biased as fuck.” The show’s debunking premise ensures that the argument’s conclusion has been determined before the reporting is completed: the show is more like an opinion column than a news report. At the same time, Penn and Teller claim, “We always try to be fair.” Now that’s bullshit.
The ouiji board episode features an interview with a group of “witches” that pushes the product. Journalistic fairness demands that once the debunking experiment has been completed, it be presented to the witches for a response. That doesn’t happen. The three feng shui designers are all told that they were the only person working on the house. That wasn’t necessary. Lying to sources is not a fair practice, and cases like this, when the show’s intent is clearly in the right, this kind of nonsense hampers their credibility for no good reason. This is even more problematic when they deal with political and social issues.
The three seasons package offers little in the way of extras. Season One offers some crazy interview footage with twin sisters who believe they have married and had children with an alien, but Two and Three include only trailers, photos and biographical garbage. We want more because Bullshit!‘s tactic of fighting fire with nuclear bombs is often refreshing and hilarious. The “world famous unscientific experiments” include serving restaurant patrons expensively packaged bottled water that came from a hose and putting snails on people’s faces to eliminate wrinkles. Penn predicts the future using lyrics from “The Wheel’s On the Bus” to discredit the loose interpretive methodology of Nostradamus scholars, and he offers snarky narration, incorporating his now trademark phrase, “And then there’s this asshole”, to introduce proponents on the opposite side of an issue.
Such delights are less frequent in the third season. Topics from the previous seasons are repeated in different guises and the gimmicks start to feel stale. Subjects like circumcision and life coaching don’t merit Penn’s righteously angry delivery. Such lapses are almost overcome by a great interview with Christopher Hitchens, who downs one glass of scotch after another while chain-smoking and bashing Mother Teresa.