[18 March 2012]
Since Mythbusters premiered on Discovery in 2003, numerous imitators and ripoffs have tried to replicate the show’s winning formula of experimentation and destruction. The Discovery Channel itself has been responsible for some of these second-rate shows. (Remember Smash Lab? If you don’t, count yourself lucky.)
For Unchained Reaction, two teams compete to build complex, Rube Goldberg-style contraptions around a theme, while original Mythbusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage serve as hosts, narrators, and judges. The premise isn’t exactly original, but the show combines old ideas in fun and entertaining ways.
The setup of Unchained Reaction recalls TLC’s early ‘00s engineering competition show Junkyard Wars, itself a repurposing of the UK original Scrapheap Challenge. In Junkyard Wars, teams scavenged junkyards for materials to use in creating mechanical devices, usually racing their finished contraptions at the end of an episode. While the teams in Unchained Reaction don’t have whole junkyards at their disposal, they do have a vast array of equipment from which to choose, and both teams start with the same materials. They also don’t have to spend precious hours picking through a scrap heap to find what they need, so the bulk of the five-day competition is spent on planning and building.
The new show also uses elements that will be familiar to viewers of Mythbusters. Early in each episode, the teams rough out the plans for their contraptions, which must contain at least 10 steps. When each team has a basic plan ready, the audience sees little stick figure-style animations of the plans. Aside from the animations taking place against a white background instead of blueprint paper, the style is the same as the schematics that Mythbusters uses to explain experiments.
Unchained Reaction‘s first episode—airing 18 March—does a good job of choosing teams with different approaches. The Blecha Brothers are Hollywood set carpenters, so their approach tends towards a combination of practical and flashy. They know how to build on a deadline, and often think in terms of visual sleights of hand. Crash Space, by contrast, is comprised of electronics experts and general nerds prone to playing with physics and engineering.
These different starting points mean that each team goes through different kinds of trials and errors in making their schemes material. Like so many Mythbusters episodes, a good part of the fun of Unchained Reaction comes in watching failed tests and the subsequent tweaks. The first episode sets a theme of “heavy versus light,” and both teams are working on how to manage gravity. One constructs a stage where furniture is supposed to descend from the ceiling, flip, and land gently on the floor right side up. The result is a montage of smashed furniture that both entertains and effectively demonstrates the time-consuming difficulty involved in getting the assignment right.
While most of Unchained Reaction is entertaining and educational, a few details can be improved. Hyneman and Savage aren’t directly involved with the teams while they’re building, so a surrogate host, Charles Kane, checks in with the teams periodically and gives them advice, but in the premiere episode, he’s not very helpful. Similarly, when Hyneman and Savage offer their own comments on the teams’ processes, they’re sitting close together and watching footage on a tiny laptop screen, not an especially compelling setup for the rest of us, as it’s hard even to see what they’re talking about.
The episode ends with Hyneman, Savage, and another expert judge coming in to watch each team show off its finished device. The teams set the machines in motion and hope they all work as planned, and the panel declares a winner, based on how well the teams incorporate the theme, how clever their contraptions are, and of course, how smoothly they actually operate. It’s wonderful to watch the complicated devices in action, and we end up rooting for both teams to be successful. Their winning or losing is secondary to our enjoyment. Accordingly, the winner each week receives no prize beyond bragging rights.