Pop quiz! What do an aging man laughing at his own jokes, a serious scientific panel, a live audience, and supermodel Karlie Kloss all have in common? Answer: they’re all key components of Bill Nye (the science guy’s) new TV show, “Bill Nye Saves the World,” whose first season debuted on netflix in April.
If that sounds at all disjointed, it’s because it is. Nobody–save perhaps for Nye himself–knows exactly what “Bill Nye” the show is, or is supposed to be. To make matters worse, it seems as though they tried to figure out how to create the show for only a few minutes before giving up. The end result is a product that, instead of searching for its most effective self, seems to scream at the audience, “Self?! What self? And who needs one when we can throw all this stuff we thought was cool at you instead?”
The series takes a look at a different hot button scientific issue every episode, and uses a dizzying variety of formats. It starts with Nye’s monologue, then flits between panelists, cut aways to pre-filmed interviews, and basic experiments performed.
The first episode starts with Nye, in a combination of a fake science lab and real TV show set, speaking to the camera. From behind, we hear laughs and cheers. Is it a live studio audience? A laugh track? Small children made invisible through Nye’s pseudo magical science?
Eventually, it becomes clear that the audience is a) present and b) made up of fully visible adults, but only after at least five minutes where the audience is left confused and disoriented. Five minutes is way too long, something I learned the hard way after the mystery of the disembodied laughs threw me into a pit of existential angst and self doubt.
Not unlike this reviewer, Nye never seems to get fully comfortable with the studio audience. He can’t decide whether to address the netflix users the show is destined for or the people sitting right in front of him, which only draws more attention to the strangeness of the set up. The best late night hosts–be it David Letterman or Steven Colbert–know how to straddle this line, so that every audience member or viewer can convince themselves that the host is talking to nobody but them. Because Nye is unable to bridge this gap, he never truly connects with the audience. As a viewer, your relationship to him always feels a little forced, a little fake. You never come close to forgetting that you’re watching this through a screen.
Nye’s co-host–and I only use that word because I don’t know what the right one is–is Karlie Kloss. Who came up with that one? Was it Nye himself? An executive himself? Or some strange boardroom game of word association? (The first round was Kendall Jenner/Pepsi/Black Lives Matter). It’s not that Kloss is bad per se; neither is Nye. It’s that they feel like the hosts of two totally different shows, who, due to last minute cuts in airtime, were forced to collapse their projects into a single shared one.
Ultimately, though, Nye is a cultural classic for a reason. He’s charming, (sort of) funny, and his passion for the science he covers in the show is, at a basic level, energizing to watch. At the end of the episode, the only thing that makes sense about “Bill Nye” the show is Bill Nye the person. If you already love him, this show won’t change that. You might actually enjoy it. But for me, Nye’s personality wasn’t enough to carry his show. I would rather watch all the shows “Bill Nye” encapsulates–the stand up comedy, the 4th grade level lab experiments, the serious discussion, and the supermodel-dipping-her-toe-into-journalism–separately, or perhaps not at all. ♦