This month Showtime brought two original documentary programs into its spring lineup: the first, Penn & Teller’s Bullshit!, is a returning series (first of the season is their fiftieth episode), while the second, Ira Glass’ This American Life, has a fan base from its year running as an NPR radio series. Watching both season premieres, I can see myself making a point of catching the rest of Life’s season via Video-On-Demand. I suspect I'm gonna be a whole lot choosier when it comes to Bullshit! — and I was already on-board with the show's opening topic.
Bullshit!'s modus operandi is to take an obviously bogus subject — something like belief in alien abductions or abstinence-only education — and subject it to a loudly scornful debunking. Penn Jillette takes his skeptical asshole persona to eleven on this show, and the results can be more than a little irritating. "If we're only preaching to the converted," he observes at the start of this season, "then that's okay 'cause the non-converted are largely idiots." What works in the context of the duo's magic act (where most of us in the audience already know we're dummies) doesn't always go in a show like this.
This season's premiere, like I said, centered around a subject where I'm already one of the converted: a takedown of the scare tactics and shoddy science used to promote anxiety about the nation's "obesity epidemic." Many of the usual suspects get trotted out — spokesfolk from a diet convention; author Paul Campos, who has written a book attacking The Obesity Myth; members of a Seattle chapter of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), and so on. And to add a bit of mildly comic spectacle to the proceedings, the show also stages a Fat Guy Olympics, pitting a group of "obese" adult men against a single average-weight guy in three track-and-field events. None too surprisingly, considering the show's agenda, one of the fat guys wins.
To a large extent, the counter-arguments made by Penn and Teller are strong ones. They're suitably merciless with the BMI — the Body Mass Index currently utilized by the medical industry to categorize folks as "overweight" or "obese" — though I was surprised to see that they missed one of the more interesting aspects of the current BMI — that it was revised less than a decade ago to meet new standards, turning a whole new segment of the adult population "overweight" overnight, and that to some degree our growing "epidemic" is as much a matter of numbers fiddling as anything. Too, for two guys who are so unapologetically horny, I was disappointed to see only a limited consideration of the aesthetics of fatness — the fact that for centuries, the Western ideal of attractiveness included more than a little avoirdupois, while our current ideal would've been seen as symptomatic of ill-health and malnutrition — but, then, this was only a half-hour show.
Still, as much as I agreed with the opening show's messages, there were times I grew annoyed with the presentation of it. Spokesmouth Jillette is so smug about his contrarian positions that, while I wouldn't say I found myself reactively turning toward the other side, I did start to take note of the times he stacked the narrative deck. Plus: he used the same pie joke one too many times.
Ira Glass can have his smug moments, too, though usually they're more of the aren't these people interesting? variety as opposed to aren't they a buncha dumb-asses? The first offering of This American Life featured a short opening reminiscence, plus two longer pieces. The first of these centered around a rancher's attempts at cloning a beloved bull named Chance into Second Chance; the second concerned a public prank played on a newly formed rock band called the Ghosts of Pasha.
In both cases, the central figures are mercilessly slapped in the face by reality. The rancher, who eagerly wants to see his cloned Brahma as a reincarnation of his first gentle bull, is gored in the groin by Second Chance; the neophyte rockers, doing their second gig in New York for a crowd that is unbelievably responsive to the band and their music, learn that the crowd was faked: a troupe of actors who've even gone so far as to learn the group's songs off the web so that they can sing along from the audience. The moment of performing triumph which the band experienced that night was all staged by a professional prankster to make them "feel good."
Glass (who narrates the bull story) and his fellow reporter/essayists don't belabor the episode's "reality check" theme too strongly, though you still can see 'em massaging each piece to fit under the title. Still, the differing documentary approaches make for a telling contrast 'tween this and Penn and Teller's sandblast proselytizing. While our magician debunkers preen over their truth-at-all-costs rhetorical stance, Glass and crew recognize that sometimes we all need a little bit o' bullshit! to make it through our daily lives. Doesn't necessarily make us idiots, but it can make us more entertaining.