|Penn & Teller - Bullshit!: The First Season|
|DVD TV Shows|
|Written by Bryan Dailey|
|Tuesday, 30 March 2004|
The title “Bullshit!” may seem harsh, but after watching this hard-hitting yet funny three-disc documentary, which attempts to expose many of the concepts and ideas that are sold to the world as truth, it seems quite fitting. There is a lot of bullshit in the world and Penn and Teller are out to expose it. In the opening episode, Penn eloquently states that they are not calling anyone on the show a liar, a fraud or a cheat. They are merely going to lay the facts out and then, if they don’t believe what they see, they will call “Bullshit’ on a particular person or concept. This way they can’t get sued for slander or false accusations. I don’t know if this argument would hold up a court of law but it makes for a funny excuse to call a show “Bullshit.”
Originally a series on Showtime, the 13 episodes on these discs aired almost two years ago and, although this seems to date the show a little, such as in the scene were they are talking about a “possible ban on smoking “ in bars and restaurants in New York that has since been passed, essentially all of the material that is covered is still very relevant. Penn and Teller take on topics such as ESP, people who believe that aliens have landed on Earth, creationism vs. evolution being taught in schools, penis enlargement methods and faith healers, to name just a few.
The format of the show is essentially Penn blabbing to the camera to set up the topic with his big mouth style while the ever-silent Teller mimes his responses to what Penn is saying. Then a 20/20 style documentary on the topic at hand is shown, narrated by Penn. Occasionally the documentary stops and goes back into the studio for more words of wisdom from Penn. When they take on the topic of the ancient “science” of feng shui, for example, Teller starts re-arranging the furniture on the set, occasionally checking with Penn to see if he has gotten any richer. One of the theories that proponents of feng shui argue is that by creating the proper flow of energy in your home by arranging and orienting your furniture in a particular pattern, it can bring health and wealth to the homeowner. However, no matter what configuration Penn’s furniture is arranged into on the set, he still only has $23. These little exaggerated skits by Penn and Teller are intercut with real footage of interviews, hidden camera investigation pieces and other footage that help prove their points.
For the feng shui piece, Penn and Teller rig a southern California home with hidden cameras and microphones and invite three different feng shui consultants at different times to “fix” the house. These consultants all preach about how feng shui is a science, so it stands to reason that they should all arrive at roughly the same conclusion about the home and the placement of its furniture. It quickly becomes obvious that all three of the consultants have their own method of interpreting this “science.” It turns out that they are just arbitrarily moving pieces of furniture based on a few principles they believe to be true, then attempting to sell trinkets such as a $999 water fountain and a small statue of elephants and turtles to the homeowner. The home’s living room featured a bright red sectional couch that one consultant said was the worst color for the living room, while the other two consultants praised the homeowner for her choice of a red couch. In one particularly funny moment when the client was out of the room, the hidden microphone catches one of the consultants on tape looking at the newly rearranged living room and saying, “Still looks like shit.” Shortly after showing this very telling clip, the show’s field producer asks each consultant what he or she charges for their services. The prices range from $1500 to up to $7,000. The producer’s voice is not heard on camera the consultants’ own words and actions on camera speak for themselves.
My favorite piece in the series is the hard-hitting expose into the multi-billion dollar bottled water industry. A hidden camera is placed in an upscale Los Angeles restaurant and a “water list” similar to a wine list is printed up with expensive bottled waters, complete with full descriptions of origins of the water and their different flavor characteristics. A “water steward” comes out to the customer’s table and discusses the various bottles of water once the customers have had some time to taste them. Of course, each of the different brands of bottled waters are bottles with made-up names and labels and are all actually just Los Angeles tap water from a hose in the back of the restaurant. Needless to say, the looks on the diners’ faces when they realize that they were buying into this little experiment hook, line and sinker, is priceless.
Documentary programs like this can often be edited to make you believe that any point of view is the correct one, and often, Penn and Teller will find a much more articulate and knowledgeable expert to argue their side of a point, but most of the time, the hard facts that are presented make a strong impression. One segment on the DVD about faith shows a group of people who pay fairly large sums of money to walk on broken glass and hot coals barefoot, as well as bend metal rebar and break wooden arrows with their necks, all in the name of God. As they show these religious zealots participating in these rituals, they show a physics instructor doing the exact same things and explaining how these feats are very simple. We learn that walking on hot coals is not dangerous because the dead skin on the bottom of bare feet is a poor conductor of heat, as is wood, so your feet do not get burned as long as you walk over the coals quickly. The neck has a very strong piece of cartilage in it, so it’s very simple to take a thin wooden arrow with a blunt tip, lay it up against a wall and walk into the arrow until it breaks.
You may not agree with some of the topics on the show, but in the way that the material is presented, it’s hard to argue with the amount of data and facts that Penn and Teller have come up with to show us the “truth.” Even though they admit they don’t like smoking, there is a great deal of hysteria in this county over the dangers of second hand smoke. I don’t like it; Penn and Teller don’t like it either, but they very effectively point out that the number of deaths associated with second hand smoke each year are grossly exaggerated and are based on of studies that were ruled to be inaccurate several years ago in a court of law. Often, the people who are arguing a point are basing things on their opinions yet claim them to be facts.
The quality of the footage on the DVD is more than adequate for this type of show and the scenes that were shot in the studio with a high-contrast, stark white background give it a distinctive look and style. The audio is mainly just voice tracks, so don’t looking for this as any kind of workout for your speakers. This is the kind of DVD that is interesting because of its subject matter rather than the production values. It just so happens that it’s well put together technically, too. Pick up “Bullshit” today and it might surprise you. There is a lot of stuff in this world that seems true but is really a big pile of bullshit.