A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this tv show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this show is a comedy -- it is as much about humor as it is about "reality." It's less about establishing fact than it is a platform for name-calling, showmanship, and the hosts' views. Its target audience will find it hilarious, while its targets may well find themselves ambushed. Also, while some episodes are rated TV-14, others have had ratings for more mature audiences -- you may want to check before you view.
What's the story?
In Showtime's PENN & TELLER: BULLS--T!, the two famous magician-comedians debunk ideas they believe to have questionable basis in fact. From UFOs, ESP, and Ouija boards to feng shui and life coaching, to such venerated institutions as the Boy Scouts, the Endangered Species Act, and the Bible, almost any type of subject matter seems fair game to Penn Jillette and his silent partner, the one-named Teller. In each episode, the debunking duo generally ridicules the subject matter through skits, stunts, and commentary. Other elements include stock footage and interviews with proponents, experts, and sometimes victims of the featured idea or trend. And they also set up \"experiments\" that are more satirical than scientific; famously, in an episode about bottled water, they presented a variety of bottled waters with various brand names to people who were asked to select their favorite brand. Only after a winner was chosen was it revealed that the brand names were fictitious -- all the bottles had been filled by the garden hose behind the studio.
Is it any good?
The series' choice and treatment of topics is likely colored by Penn and Teller's own political and personal beliefs. They don't set out to investigate a complete situation or consider arguments opposing their own. Instead, they present a premise (that topic X is bulls--t) and set out to prove it. The results are often amusing, and sometimes even hilarious, but the humor comes before the pursuit of objective reality. Possibly to avoid liability, Penn slings around phrases like "ignoramus," "a--hole," "spineless bastard," and "state-funded knucklehead" to describe those whose views are being targeted. (Teller is always silent; that's part of the team's act.) Apparently, these phrases are only seen as vulgar abuse, while phrases like "liar" and "fraud" open doors to legal action for defamation or slander.
Penn and Teller's humor is smart, pointed, and inventive. Those who enjoy it may well find this show a laugh riot -- and those who can approach the ideas tackled here with an open mind might find themselves thinking differently about something they hadn't considered before. That's Penn and Teller's schtick -- they are the illusionist masters of disillusion. Just remember that they also use illusion to make their disillusionist point. Perhaps we'd be paying them the highest compliment by applying healthy skepticism to the views they support.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the nature of skepticism, and how facts are proven or disproved. What's the difference between an opinion and a fact? How could you go about investigating something for yourself? What types of sources are more credible than others? Why? Also, does the show want viewers to laugh with people who hold the views being debunked, or at them? Can we disagree with or laugh about an idea without laughing at (or disrespecting) those who believe in it?