Guys, I love Bill Nye.
Bill Nye the Science Guy ran from 1993 to 1998 and was one of my favourite television shows during that time. It’s kind of remarkable that a science show aimed at kids managed to gain that kind of ground with me, considering that it was also the golden age of The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead was enjoying its original run, and Much Music (the Canadian MTV) was at its most vibrant and entertaining. Nye’s show, though, was irresistible.
Housing an infectious, joyful enthusiasm for its subject, Bill Nye the Science Guy was a goofy and charming take on science education. Nye and his gang teased out the fun and exciting from dry topics, infusing their lessons with quirk and humour. They managed to be irreverent without tipping over into disrespect, and (in what is sort of a miracle for a show of this sort) never wielded a condescending tone. Bill himself seemed like the science teacher that every kid dreams of. His easygoing attitude, paired with the fact that he was a not-too-old guy with a good sense of humour made him instantly appealing. Hell, they used to put song parodies of popular alt-rock at the end of every episode, which was absolute catnip to an early-millennial/late Gen-X kid.
The show was perfect.
Imagine my excitement when now, as an adult, I hear that Bill Nye is launching a new series on Netflix. Even more so when I learn that it’s targeted at the (now adult) audience who watched him in the 90s. That’s me!
First off, Bill Nye Saves The World is a great idea and all involved deserve credit for taking a stab at this. It is a natural fit for Netflix. They have all of the world’s money and can afford to take a chance on this kind of thing. With the popularity of the BBC Earth series’ and Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, there’s some evidence that there is, in fact, a sizable audience for science television these days, but Nye has largely been low-key in the entertainment world for the last 20 years or so. This is not to get into his almost ubiquitous presence on cable news shows as an environmental science talking head during climate change discussions, but… perhaps we should get into it. We should get into it because it is tied to the central problems with this show, which all stem from Nye himself.
Bill Nye Saves The World is rigorously structured, and maintains the same shape from episode to episode. There are segments with a live studio audience wherein Bill will give a little monologue and do some quick “science experiments”, from which the show throws to canned pieces out in the field. These pieces range from documentary-style journalism to short, “hip” PSA clips on a range of topics. The show also employs in-studio panel discussions and shameless celebrity cameos.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the shape that the show is trying to take. In fact, when reading that back as a pitch for a modern Bill Nye show, all of those segments sound like great ideas. Where the show stumbles, and perhaps fails, is entirely a result of tone and execution.
The real elephant in the room is Bill Nye, whose performance seems to be plagued by nerves, agitation and bewilderment. Whoever decided to stage the bulk of this show in front of a live studio audience was completely off the mark. Bill Nye the Science Guy was a tightly edited and well crafted program that made the most of Bill’s strengths and allowed for his weaknesses to land on the cutting room floor. The guy is simply not built for lengthy “live” shots in front of an audience. He appears hurried, moving from one line to the next with a gusto that feels forced. When his jokes don’t land, he seems off-balance and vaguely annoyed. In fact, vaguely annoyed seems to be one of Nye’s go-to modes at this point, which points to the show’s tonal problem: This is a show about Bill Nye being pissed off.
Bill’s attitude is totally understandable. He’s spent the last 20 years of his life going on the news and arguing about the world’s most pressing concerns with dummies like Tucker Carlson, who – in wearing a bowtie and being a nondescript white man – seems to be kind of like a Bizarro Bill Nye. Dealing with climate change deniers and anti-science skeptics and religious fanatics has clearly taken a toll on Bill (as it would), and as a consequence this new show contains not a stitch of the joyfully wide-eyed wonder that made Bill Nye the Science Guy such an indelible treat. Instead we get a cranky Bill who is prone to fits of yelling.
And yell he does. There are planned monologue points where Bill is scripted to get upset about something and go off on a rant. These moments of shakily rehearsed rage (embarrassingly titled “I need a minute”) seem to be stand-ins for Bill Nye the Science Guy‘s “Consider the Following” segments, in which Bill would tackle a topic and explain to the audience why it might matter. It seems that Bill and his team have forgotten that his audience have grown into adults, and he’s now delivering blasts of “can’t you see!!!” condescension at them in a way that he never did when they were actual children.
I’m torn about the whole thing. On one hand, the world’s problems are undeniably dire, and a lighthearted science show may not have a place in this changing world. On the other hand, I can’t help but think that with a little bit of direction and creativity, they could have made these proceedings a lot more fun and a little bit less like being lectured by a very, very tired professor.
When I was a kid, we used to cheer in science class when the teacher would wheel in a television cart, because it meant that we were going to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy. I can’t imagine anyone cheering if someone wheeled a flat-screen into a classroom and put Bill Nye Saves the World on.
We’d see the TV coming and just think: “Oh, Bill is going to yell at us again.”