[12 May 2010]
The general thrust for Penn & Teller’s long-running Bullsh*t! series is that the magical duo try to prove other professional hucksters wrong. Whether they target psychics, people who want you to mow your lawn, sleep consultants, people who say porn leads to sex violence, or your congressman, Penn & Teller don’t care. They just want you to know they’re full of sh*t – all of them.
While this line of work draws its lineage back to Harry Houdini, who regularly took breaks from hanging upside down from buildings to expose séances, in order to take the seventh season (and any other season of the series, for that matter) seriously, you have to suspend your sense that the way Penn & Teller build their cases, present their arguments, and generally carry on here, is a more specialized kind of bullshit. The kind they get paid to put on TV.
Seeing as this is the seventh season of Bullshit!, out now on DVD with no extras to speak of and curiously missing the controversial episode about the Vatican, it’s not necessarily surprising that the sacred cows targeted by Penn & Teller have become considerably less sacred. According to Penn & Teller, there is a nationwide movement where people are forced to mow their lawns, and that’s bullsh*t. Okay, fair enough. There’s also a movement that says people aren’t having good orgasms, and that’s bullsh*t. And have you heard about organic food? That’s bullsh*t, too.
That said, the episode on violent videogames here is probably the best case anyone anywhere has made for the lack of a connection between real violence and videogame violence. Penn & Teller, or rather, one of their experts, point out that videogames are the norm today, as in most kids play violent videogames, and if the games really do lead to more violence, crime rates would be skyrocketing. Instead, teen violence has dropped steadily over the years videogames became ubiquitous. In an especially poignant scene, they have a ten-year-old boy who loves playing Call of Duty shoot real guns, after which he cries like a baby out of fright.
Yet the fact that the one good episode of the season is sandwiched between episodes about Astrology (Yeah, the people who do it are making it up.) and the Apocalypse that will hit us in 2012 (ditto) undoes the great work in that single episode. The whole, “Look at this jerk who is ripping people off!” thing Penn & Teller do over and over again has gotten old. Basically, their point is you shouldn’t give your money to anyone, and you can do it all your own. Which is noble, I guess, but it’s preaching to the choir. It’s not like someone who goes to an Astrologer regularly is going to quit doing so because they see the episode.
It also doesn’t help that Penn & Teller’s way of making an argument devoid of intellectual sparring, instead devolving into a tease-fest where Penn & Teller never, ever have to actually engage with the people they’re calling bullsh*t on. It generally works like this: a producer interviews someone about lie detectors who says they are 100 percent correct, Penn & Teller call him an a**hole in a scene that invariably boasts a naked woman (this being Showtime, after all), and they have someone else say lie detectors don’t detect anything, and call it an episode. Penn & Teller present the show like they’re taking these people to task and beating them on an intellectual plane, when really, they’re debating an edited interview where someone’s thoughts on a subject is whittled down to about 45-seconds. That’s not how Harry Houdini did it.
I think I should mention that I generally agree with everything Penn & Teller say here. People shouldn’t waste their money on their lawn, or be evicted for having a wild lawn, or break up relationships over lie detector results, or give away all their belongings because the Mayan calendar ends in 2012. It’s just that watching these nine episodes, I longed for a show that didn’t dumb down arguments to this extent, and didn’t present arguing with video clips as some kind of solid, final debate. That show definitely isn’t Bullsh*t!.