To those who grew up in the ’90s, few taught science better than Bill Nye. On Bill Nye the Science Guy, he was an odd and energetic presence who used whacky experiments and cheesy effects to make high-concept scientific topics engaging and easy to understand. One episode would explore the Earth’s crust using a parody of a Madonna song; another would explain energy with the help of lasers and racquetball. It was educational, yes, but it was also silly and fun, which is exactly why it appealed to kids. As Nye recently made his long-awaited return to television with Bill Nye Saves the World, a new generation could now benefit from his particular brand of kooky science.
Or so it would seem. By combining the panel-style discussion of Real Time with Bill Maher with some of the trademarks of his old show, Bill Nye Saves the World tries to appeal to both kids and adults. The result is an experiment that fizzles and pops, leaving both nostalgic fans and their kids feeling disinterested and disappointed.
Bill Nye the Science Guy succeeded because it knew exactly what it was: a kooky science show for kids. It had silly interviews and fun, interactive experiments that allowed young viewers to understand volcanoes or the digestive system in a way that a textbook or a lecture never could. Nye was a hipper, happier Mr. Wizard, a cool teacher fluent in both pop culture and the inner workings of mitochondria who hung out in an odd lab full of funky equipment. Bill Nye Saves the World was marketed as the Science Guy’s great comeback and seemed poised to recapture that neon-bathed, mid-90’s magic. The commercial proudly declared “Bill Is Back!” and offered glimpses of him taking on new topics with his signature wit, scientific authority, and off-kilter energy.
Saves the World instead takes a Last Week Tonight with John Oliver-esque approach. Nye begins each episode with brief segments on such topics as strawberry DNA. Then, he dedicates the majority of the episode to a discussion of a major topic such as GMOs. And while most segments are certainly timely and fascinating, the format makes the entire thing feel like a facsimile of Last Week Tonight with a far less charismatic host. Nye is no dud, but he’s better situated around foaming beakers, not a live studio audience.
And the show goes hard to appeal to millennial culture. Guest panels often include a mix of informed scientists and some nonsensical celebrity (some head-scratchers include Zach Braff and Steve Aoki). These odd pairings make the important discussion they engage in about, say, healthy eating or the future of artificial intelligence, fall a bit flat. In one episode, Nye has a nuanced, intelligent conversation about the gender spectrum. It’s an important conversation but then it awkwardly transitions into a cringe-worthy comedic song and dance number by Crazy Ex Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom that undercuts the previous segment.
There are moments that could be fun. Take Nye’s discussion of how the tardigrade, a funky-looking microorganism that’s survived on earth for millennia, may have existed on other planets. It’s a fascinating topic that’s perfect to excite kids. But instead, Nye presents a sophomoric skit that reimagines the tardigrade as an uninspired action hero.
The show’s lack of focus is a shame because Nye’s message is a noble one. At a time when facts are constantly being ignored, he wants to start a discourse around important issues. And, seeing how Nye has been such a compelling voice of reason over the past years, he seems to be the perfect person to do so. But it is said that the medium is the message and, in this case, the medium is all wrong. At the end of the day, the whole thing ends up feeling like a grand Bill Nye the Science Guy experiment gone horribly wrong.