Bill Nye has an admirable mission but an unenviable task: to combat scientific illiteracy in an era that doesn’t value expertise and reason. The title of his new Netflix TV series “Bill Nye Saves the World” isn’t hyperbole at all. It’s his hope to get viewers psyched up enough about science that they’re not just curious; they want to create a change for the better.
With that in mind, most of the topics driving each episode are ones that people find highly divisive, even politicized, such as vaccinations and another topic dear to his low-carbon-footprint heart. “Did you think I’d get a new TV show and not talk about climate change?” he asks rhetorically in one episode.
Although Nye built his television career hosting a science show for children, “Bill Nye Saves the World” is aimed at adults, and more specifically Millennials, although he never says this explicitly. It’s clear though that some of the choices — from his celeb guests and young correspondents to his use of slang and the fist bump (more on that later) — are meant to appeal to a younger, cooler viewership.
At times, this attempt to reach the Millennials plays out in horribly awkward ways, which is a shame since the topics are well worth discussing. Here’s a breakdown of what works and what doesn’t on “Bill Nye Saves the World”:
While this is clearly the least important aspect of the show, it’s too excruciating to ignore. Nye doesn’t just content himself with a regular fist bump, but instead prefers to “blow it up” often with his correspondents and certain guests.
What Works: Points for trying?
What Doesn’t Work: Let’s be clear: It’s not Nye’s age that makes it awkward but the fact that he doesn’t treat this as a casual gesture but one that’s imbued with far too much importance. Not only does he perform this too often, but he’d also verbally call attention to it and once even chased down Zach Braff to get him to reciprocate. Chill with the fist bumps, Nye!
The Guest Stars
Celebs from the worlds of film, TV, music and sports drop by for various filmed packages or in-studio interactions that can range from helping Nye with an experiment or to singing a song.
What Works: The more structured the better. The best of the bizarre but hilarious bits: Rachel Bloom singing a song about how she imagines life started on earth, UFC champ Randy Couture dressed in a giant tardigrade (water bear) costume, and Prashanth Venkatetc ranting about how Asian religious symbolism has been appropriated as wallpaper for alternative medical practices. Oh, and the new theme song by Tyler, the Creator is awesome.
What Doesn’t: When there’s no clear point to a guest star’s visit. It’s great that Steve Aoki dropped by, but it feels like his talents were wasted by having him only drop liquids into a beaker. Couldn’t he have been instrumental in a sound experiment? And we’re still trying to figure out why Zach Braff felt the need to yell at people.
The Talk Show Format
The show packs in as much as it can in its half hour, including interviews, correspondent packages, skits and demonstrations.
What Works: Anything that is well-scripted and constructed seems to work, especially if it maintains a lighter, more humorous tone. Nye switches from bit to bit with ease, but never sacrifices the informational intent.
What Doesn’t: While it must be nice for Nye and anyone on stage to feel the energy from the studio audience, they can be annoyingly loud and react to the most ridiculous things. It doesn’t always feel genuine. Also, the camera loses some of what’s happening on stage when it tries to be kinetic and swoop around to include images of the audience — such as when Nye demonstrates the history of life on earth with fun stuffed dinosaurs and other props.
In the six episodes given to critics for review, Nye tackles vaccinations, GMOs, alternative medicine, artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial life, and climate change.
What Works: While Nye brings enlightenment to all topics, the more speculative ideas — such as robots taking over (AI) and the possibility of extraterrestrial life — really bring out the show’s creativity in hilarious and inspiring ways.
What Doesn’t Work: On occasion, the things that Nye is most passionate about, such as climate change, are a little heavy-handed without pausing to allow viewers to really process and feel the outrage themselves.
Field reporters in their 20s or 30s film video packages that explore the episode’s topic in more depth by highlighting an example in a foreign land, interviewing experts or visiting with people on the street to get their take on it. Afterwards, they share their thoughts directly with Nye in a sit-down interview capper.
What Works: While everyone seems comfortable and qualified in the videos, Derek Muller and Joanna Hausmann were given the assignments that were funniest in tone, which played a lot like the “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” or “Daily Show” field pieces that make their points through humor.
What Doesn’t: Unfortunately, this means that more serious ones, such as Emily Calandrelli’s exploration of those who didn’t get the polio vaccine in time, are discordant with the rest of the show. Karlie Kloss, a model and Taylor Swift’s friend, is also somewhat distracting when it’s unclear why she’s on the show as a correspondent – except that she likes to code. Her segment on climate change still feels like an unnatural fit.
The Panel Discussion
Near the end of each episode, Nye brings on a panel of three people who can discuss the episode’s topic with some measure of authority.
What Works: The discussion works best when the panelists are clearly having fun or engage in healthy debate. There’s an effort made to occasionally include one panelist who represents a less popular viewpoint, such as a woman who initially did not vaccinate her kids until they all came down with rotavirus.
What Doesn’t: Sometimes, the odd man out on the panel gets overrun, such as the poor guy who tried to argue that some alternative medicines were legit and based on a measure of science. Maybe it was just the editing or time crunch (each episode is a half hour), but it felt like he was getting cut off far too much.
Netflix built a huge, open, two-story set on a stage that looks like a glass-encased hexagon filled with lab tables, more hexagons (nature’s strongest shape!) as a motif in the furniture and ceiling, and a spiral staircase in the background. The front of the stage opens and closes to create a clear barrier that can double as video screens.
What Works: It’s a gorgeous, bright and modern set. That nifty glowing globe in “The Young Pope” would fit right in.
What Doesn’t: That panelist table is dark and takes up far too much room. There’s something about having all three panelists lined up with so much space between them and Nye on the end of the table that feels heavy and awkward.
Overall Tone and Approach
What Works: While the show works best when it’s more light-hearted, that doesn’t mean it can’t be serious. Nye at his most invested and full of energy is infectious, and that usually happens when he’s trying to relay information in layman’s terms. He is in his element. The crazy skits work!
What Doesn’t: Nye needs to stop trying to be what he imagines young people think is cool (see: fist bumps) and instead just emphasize what works for him — science geekery, passion, even anger and outrage. Nye could learn from two people: Alton Brown, who actually appears on the show to help Nye with an experiment, figured out his way to convey cooking techniques through science and often self-deprecating humor; and Martha Stewart has kept her career alive by playing against type such as on “Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party” in which she drinks martinis and utters hip-hop phrases with a knowing, self-aware smile.
All 13 episodes of “Bill Nye Saves the World” are currently available to stream on Netflix.