Friday, June 08, 2007

TV: Discovery Channel

You know me: I hate learning. I'm almost violently opposed to the betterment of myself or others through education. So when and how did the Discovery Channel become my favorite TV station?

I used to actively avoid the channel. Science? Learning? Bah! But then my friend Forrest told me about the wonders of Mythbusters, primarily: "They always blow a bunch of shit up!" Well, as I've found, that's not all they do, but giant, unnecessary explosions are indeed a large part of the show and its appeal.

I quickly became enraptured with the show, in which hosts Jaime Hyneman (the dour one with the absurdly bushy mustache) and Adam Savage (the personable, goofy one with the catchphrase, "I reject your reality and substitute my own") put myths and urban legends to the test with a combination of rock-solid science, guesswork, model-building, firearms, insane stuntwork, life-sized mannequins destined for destruction, and, yes, a liberal amount of explosives. The myths are always fun and interesting, there's always one show-stopper experiment to top thing off (even if it's not strictly required), and it doesn't hurt that one of their assistants is a former Object of My Affection, Kari Byron.

Is this some kind of a bust?

Hit me with some science, tiger!

So Mythbusters drew me into the Discovery Channel, and once I was there, I began running across several other shows that roped me in. The first was Cash Cab, which, aside from Jeopardy!, is my favorite TV game show (sorry, 1 Vs. 100!). Host Ben Bailey drives a regular, non-descript taxi in Manhattan. But when passengers get in, they find that they're in the middle of a quiz show. Bailey begins driving, and asking them trivia questions. If they get them right, they win money when they reach their destination. But if they get three wrong answers, the cab pulls over immediately, and they get kicked to the curb! The questions are no harder than the average game show these days, but the elimination aspect makes it wonderfully entertaining.

One of my new favorites, which my sister got me hooked on, is Deadliest Catch, which is insane. It follows deep-sea fishing crews who risk life and limb -- literally -- to catch king crabs. These people are maiming themselves (a recent episode featured one of the crewmen prying the remains of a shattered tooth out of his own mouth with pliers), and fucking dying, for your seafood. And, with this show, for our entertainment as well. Huzzah! Every episode is packed with gut-wrenching, heart-stopping moments of danger. Plus, Bon Jovi rocks the theme song, so you know it's awesome.

Mike Rowe, the narrator of Deadliest Catch, also hosts his own program, called Dirty Jobs. Basically, he finds the people who have the toughest, most thankless, most disgusting jobs in the world, and he goes to work side-by-side with them. He's been a road kill removal specialist, a fish gutter, a racehorse inseminator, a shark suit tester, a sewer inspector, a swine groomer, and a chick sexer (which entails determining the sex of baby chicks with one's finger; he told this story when he was on The Daily Show, and it was nasty and hilarious). And he was even a crab fisherman, which I presume is what inspired Deadliest Catch. Rowe's easy-going manner and quick humor are what make this show so captivating, even when the tasks he's performing gross you out.

Recently, Discovery aired one of the most incredible programs I've ever seen: Planet Earth. It's an 11-part mini-series, narrated by Sigourney Weaver, all about nature -- seemingly every single facet of it -- epic and awe-inspiring, so majestic and gorgeous it brings tears to your eyes. Each episode focuses on a different natural environment (deserts, caves, the great plains, the poles), and it is photographed in stunning, revolutionary fashion. From the brutal to the beautiful, from sub-oceanic volcanoes to the tops of the Himalayas... I guarantee, even if you are a connoisseur of nature programming, you have never seen anything like it. Everybody should watch this, and be richer and wiser for it.

Also in the inspiring category is Ted Koppel's recent three-hour special, Living With Cancer. Koppel spoke to some of the 10 million Americans who have battled, or still battle with, cancer, including John Edwards' wife Elizabeth, Lance Armstrong, and Leroy Sievers, Koppel's longtime executive producer and close friend. Equally sad and uplifting, frightening and hopeful, it was brilliant television.

But it's not all highbrow fare on Discovery, and it's not just the big topics that seize my interest. It's gotten to the point where the smallest things will fascinate me. For example, with How It's Made (a program exported from Discovery's sister network, the Science Channel), I've found myself watching, with rapt attention, for minutes on end, the process by which frozen pizzas are created. Same goes for kayaks, or hockey sticks. It reminds me of the little educational videos they used to have on Sesame Street, about how eggs or peanut butter are packaged.

And there's also Stunt Junkies, in which lunatics and fools throw themselves off bridges or launch themselves off ramps or drop themselves out of planes, performing tremendously dangerous and idiotic stunts basically just for the hell of it. And I say: bravo to you! Your death-defying feats give me momentary diversion. Well done.

It's getting to the point where I could almost watch Discovery all day (and, now that we're in the dead zone of summer programming, if it weren't for Dodgers games, I just might do that). Check it out, why don't you. But beware: as Bill Cosby once warned us, if you're not careful, you might learn something.

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