If you're sceptical about human-caused climate change or the safety of vaccines, would being berated in front of a live studio audience by a bombastic old man make you change your mind? Then congratulations, Bill Nye's new Netflix show, Bill Nye Saves The World, is literally just for you!
Wait...where'd you go, bud?
I was excited when I heard that a new science show for adults was hitting Netflix, especially one starring '90s-kid nerd hero Bill Nye. But either the science guy's jokes haven't aged well or his schtick — a zany dad-figure in a lab coat stirring beakers full of coloured liquids — doesn't quite work when he's bellowing, red-faced, about the dangers of climate change denial, alternative medicine, and the anti-vaxxer movement. While seemingly aimed at the average layman who holds some science-sceptical views, Nye's new show delivers delivers so little information in such a patronizing tone it's hard to imagine a toddler, let alone a sentient adult, enjoying it.
The format of the show — which blends live studio interviews, field reporting, and Nye shouting into camera on subjects ranging from artificial intelligence to GMOs — does have potential. Many of the studio guests are interesting and engaging. For instance, the first episode, which focuses on climate change and energy, features Mark Jacobson, a Stanford engineer who recently authored a paper on how we could run the entire world on renewables by mid-century. It would have been fascinating to hear Jacobson give a detailed summary of his idea for transforming the energy grid — and I'm sure he would have been happy to oblige.
Instead, we watched for an excruciating five minutes as Nye pitted Jacobson against another of his round table guests, energy and environment reporter Richard Martin, to explain at a ten-year-old level why Martin is like, totally wrong and dumb for thinking nuclear power should be part of our energy future, too. The entire exchange was apparently intended to bolster the (not exactly scientific) viewpoint Nye interjected throughout the segment: "nobody wants nuclear power."
This, unfortunately, is quintessential of the show — a small amount of information packaged to promote a cartoon-caricature understanding of a complex science issue, slanted to the POV of an unabashedly political science comedian.
Probably the best part of Bill Nye Saves the World. Image: Netflix
During Episode 2, which debunks alternative medicine, Nye and science communicator Cara Santa Maria repeatedly gang up on another guest, the mild-mannered filmmaker Donald Schultz, when he suggests that some non-Western medicine practices might not be entirely bogus. In a later episode focused on GMOs, correspondent Derek Muller visits a farmer's market to interview some crunchy hippie-types about whether or not they consider genetic modification safe. Muller's interviews are packaged into a sort of freak-show highlight reel, which Netflix viewers get to cringe at alongside the studio audience, the crowd roaring with laugher every time one of the hapless veggie-lovers says something silly.
Are you feeling pumped about science yet?!
To be fair, I haven't watched every single episode, and most of them do seem to have one or two solid segments. Muller visiting the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to speak with astrobiologists about the search for life on Mars, or travelling to South Korea to discover how K-pop is transforming views on gender identity and sexuality, were both palatable and mildly informative. And every now and then, the show manages to be downright funny, like when wrestling champion Ryan Couture is trotted on stage dressed as an indestructible tardigrade. As Gizmodo space writer Rae Paoletta put it, that "single handedly saved the [space] episode."
Most of the entertaining bits share a common theme. The angry science man is nowhere near them.
Let me be clear. I believe climate change is real and human-caused, I believe that vaccines work, and I believe that most alternative medicine is a load of malarkey. Like Nye, I'm outraged to see anti-science beliefs promulgated at the highest levels of our government. Nye and I are on the same team — and yet I still felt like I was being talked down to throughout his show. How will the average viewer feel?
Perhaps, they will feel a bit like the live studio audience, laughing nervously during Nye's tirade about how Miami's going to be underwater if we don't get our collective shit together, and wishing they could be anywhere else.