Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Penn & Teller: Bullshit!

Getting pissed off can be fairly entertaining, which explains the existence of sports talk radio, John Stossel, and the Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Taking a break from audience cons and stage blood, magician Penn Jillette and his silent partner Teller devote each half-hour Bullshit! episode to their other longstanding passion: debunking the phony claims of spiritualists and New Agers. The 13 installments included in the new Penn & Teller: Bullshit! DVD collection expand the duo's pinpricking to creationists, environmental activists, and those who insist that secondhand smoke is harmful enough to necessitate universal smoking bans. In short, they've come up with material almost guaranteed to get blood boiling, whether or not viewers are sympathetic to the hosts.


Bullshit! isn't journalism, exactly. The show is one-sided by design: P&T's field interviewers rarely confront their subjects with the evidence against them, preferring to let the crackpots ramble on so that Jillette's voiceover rejoinders can score points without inciting a real argument. Bullshit!'s perspective also seems to flip-flop a little from one episode to the next, as the hosts go from arguing for the nobility of the democratic process to asserting the primacy of individual rights over the tyranny of the majority. But although it's odd (and a little hard to take) when the hucksterish Jillette makes impassioned pleas for sanity, his overall tone of snide indignation is almost always funny, like when he calls a shady chiropractor who works on toddlers a "baby-twisting motherfucker."

For all the unabashed bias, Bullshit! has its ducks pretty well in a row. Penn & Teller's persistent point of view is pro-science, which prompts them to skewer the supposedly exacting science of feng shui by hiring three different chi consultants and watching as they come up with three different furniture arrangements for the same room. Throughout the series, the duo emphasize that they don't blame people who look for real magic in a hard world; their ire is saved for self-made specialists who claim to offer more than momentary uplift or relief. They've also got a particular ax to grind with those who try to force a way of life that works for them onto others, through legislation if possible. Penn & Teller's outrage is consistently exciting and thought-provoking, though Bullshit! should come with a warning: The relentless skepticism toward all fervent believers might convince viewers to stop caring about any cause.