I had heard a while ago that Bill Nye was going to be starring in a new Netflix series, but honestly, there’s so much going on in entertainment these days and in my life in general that I had pretty much forgotten about it. Then, on Sunday morning, Jeremy said, “Hey do you want to watch Bill Nye’s new Netflix series?” And, of course, I said, “Sure!”
When I was in elementary school, I watched PBS shows pretty much from the time I got home from school until the time dinner was ready, which usually coincided with the start of the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour and the end of more interesting shows such as Wishbone, Where In the World is Carmen San Diego?, and, of course, Bill Nye the Science Guy. IMDB says that the original Bill Nye show started in 1993, when I would have been in preschool, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t start airing on my local PBS station until I was in first or second grade. That’s because I can remember feeling skeptical about this new show that was replacing my beloved Square One, which I know was on when I was in kindergarten and first grade. (My brain retains the weirdest things, seriously.) But I quickly grew to love Bill Nye the Science Guy, and I watched every episode I could, even the re-runs. And, like most kids of my generation, I remember watching episodes in science class at school — always a rare treat! I’m pretty sure every American in their 20s today who went to an elementary school with enough funding for those clunky TVs on metal carts can instantly recognize the “Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!” chant and will probably instinctively add “Inertia is a property of matter!” in a squeaky little voice.
When Bill Nye the Science Guy came to Netflix a couple of years ago, I immediately started re-watching those old episodes I loved, although I’ll admit that I got sidetracked by other things, and it eventually fell out of my queue, and I haven’t gone back to finish the series. I’ll bet anything that Netflix was gauging the popularity of the old episodes when they first became available to determine whether or not they should create a new show with everyone’s favorite Science Guy. I’m glad they did, because Bill Nye Saves the World is a really good show. I’d give it a 7.5/10, because it’s certainly not perfect, but it’s a pretty good first round. I hope there’s another season in the works and that the creators and writers will get some really good, constructive criticism that will help them craft future episodes that I can rate 10/10.
The first major difference between Saves the World and Science Guy is the intended age group, and that’s not a bad thing. Bill makes it clear in the very first episode that his new show is aimed at adults. Rather than talking about elementary and middle school science topics, such as volcanoes, gravity, and the human heart, Saves the World focuses on hotly debated scientific issues that are frequently in the news today, such as climate change, “alternative” medicine, whether there’s life on other planets, and human sexuality. Each episode begins with Bill doing some kind of experiment or other demonstration to introduce the topic at hand, and then there’s a previously filmed segment with one of the show’s correspondents (which happen to include supermodel Karlie Kloss, which is interesting and cool). Then Bill talks to the correspondent in the studio about what the audience just saw, and then it’s usually time to sit down with a panel of three experts. So far each panel has had at least one woman on it (sometimes two or three), and people of color have been very well represented. Sometimes the discussion with the panel is pretty short, and other times it’s much longer. If the panel is shorter, there will probably be one or two other bits — experiments, animations, or filmed segments with celebrities, and then the show usually ends with a celebrity guest appearing in the studio and doing something that may or may not be directly related to the topic that’s been discussed.
The panel discussions are usually very good, and some of the choices for panelists are really interesting, such as a former anti-vaxxer mom in the episode about vaccines, a sociologist in the episode about “designer” babies, and Wil Wheaton in the episode about the future of space exploration. (In case you didn’t know, Wil has space-knowledge credits well beyond his role on Star Trek: TNG). Sometimes good, lively debate gets going — the episode on fad diets comes to mind. But occasionally, the discussion just isn’t that riveting, or Bill will seem to cut off someone whom he disagrees with (and I had trouble telling if he actually did cut the person off, or if it was due to a rough bit of editing). And in the episode on pseudosciences, one of the panelists is an astrologer for a magazine, but he freely admits that he doesn’t consider astrology to be a science. Bill and the other panelists, however, continue to talk to him like he is claiming astrology is a science, and the whole conversation just kind of derails. Whoever booked the panelists for that episode should have done a better job of vetting and found an astrologer who does think they’re a scientist (because those people unfortunately do exist) in order to do a better job of proving the intended point.
Another problem with Saves the World lies in a number of its celebrity guest appearances. Now I realize that part of the point of having celebrity guests is to try to bring in more viewers, but I find these bits totally obnoxious and wasteful if they’re not educational. Sometimes the celebrity bits are right on point, especially when the guest helps Bill with a demonstration or experiment. Donald Faison from Scrubs helps Bill explain the science behind walking on hot coals. Tim Gunn from Project Runway appears in the “designer” babies episode and talks about families who chose to use IVF or other medical therapies to have children while those families walk a catwalk, and I felt that was educational and also very cute. But then there was the segment where actor Joel McHale pretends to be an astronaut and just sarcastically answers questions about what it’s like to go into space, and there’s another bit in one of the space episodes where this little kid who’s a basketball fan gets in a harness so he can be lifted up and dunk against a player from his favorite team, which I guess was supposed to be related to the lack of gravity in outer space. Honestly, I lost interest and wasn’t really paying much attention at that point. And there are two episodes in which Rachel Bloom unfortunately appears and sings a song. She’s the creator and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which you’d think would be totally up my alley since it’s a musical comedy show, but I don’t find it funny — I find it totally cringey and uncomfortable to watch, and her appearances on Saves the World are much the same. As someone who’s really interested in the science these episodes are about, it feels like I’m being short-changed when time is taken up by these useless segments of the show.
As I mentioned before, the celebrity appearances are probably the writers’ attempt to draw in people who wouldn’t simply watch the show because they’re interested in science, and I’m glad they’re trying to do that. I just wish they’d find another way to do it, because it’s plenty easy for those viewers to just go find an illegal YouTube clip of the short bit featuring their favorite celebrity and totally ignore the useful scientific information in the rest of the episode. I think Saves the World would be much better off if the writers consistently worked celebrities into truly educational segments. Here’s hoping.
All that being said, though, I’m really glad to see Bill Nye back in a lab coat and bow tie on my TV screen. I know a lot of the people watching are just like me — self-proclaimed nerds who never gave up the interest in science that Bill Nye helped foster in them when they were young. But hopefully a lot of people who haven’t paid that much attention to science over the last fifteen to twenty years but still fondly remember watching Bill Nye the Science Guy in school are also tuning in to see what he’s up to now. Any new show is bound to have some blips and mistakes during the first season while it’s still trying to get its legs under itself, and I’m both hopeful and confident that that’s all my current complaints about the show add up to. I’m already ready for more Bill Nye Saves the World — I’m pretty sure he can actually do it!