The fastest way to describe Bill Nye to a UK audience is: Johnny Ball with an added bow tie and more science.
Nye, along with Alton Brown and Neil Degrasse Tyson, is one of the patron saints of factual TV and popular science in America. His kids’ show did exactly what Johnny Ball’s various series did over here: educated people about how exciting science is and what’s possible when we put our minds to it.
Bill Nye Saves The World is a very different kind of show, not just from his past work but from pretty much anything else on Netflix right now. Not all of it works. What does work makes it pretty much essential.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first; this is a show which will have a celebrity cameo once every 22 minutes and they rarely add terribly much. Zach Braff showing up to yell at the audience – and Bill – at the end of the first episode is odd. Fashion guru Tim Gunn helping Bill commentate a sweet “Designed Baby” pageant actually works pretty well. Rachel (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) Bloom’s comedic songs are a catastrophic decision that almost kill both the episodes they appear in stone dead. It’s not even her fault. Bloom’s great. Nye’s great. But their styles never come close to meshing.
Likewise, there are points where the 22-minute-and-done format clearly works against the show. “The Sexual Spectrum”, which is a strong contender for not just the best but most needed episode, has a panel discussion that feels horribly truncated. A two-minute section with the Rooster Teeth team earlier in the season also feels like a set up for a gag we never get the rest of. There’s a sense of them trying to fit a 45-minute show into a 22-minute space and when it doesn’t work it really, really doesn’t.
But what does work here is not just the science but the energy behind talking about it. Nye has been criticised for yelling at the audience, especially in episode one, “Earth Is A Hot Mess” but honestly, you can’t blame him. Repeating the relentless parade of science backing up the reality of man-made climate change isn’t the job of this review. Nye, to his credit, takes it on his shoulders and in doing so reveals a tangible, almost visceral rage that so much has still not been done. This is where the show is at its bravest; taking the cuddly dad joke persona he’s cultivated in the past and turning it into a passionate advocate for change.
Were that the only thing we saw from him all season some of the criticisms of him for being shrill and belligerent would be well-founded. But the truth is there’s so much more. Each episode features correspondent reports and a panel discussion. Nye’s decision to take a step back and let the correspondent team cover stories is mostly very successful. A few pieces present as a little light but there’s surprising depth to most of them. Comedian Joanna Hausmann is especially great, her endlessly laconic, deadpan screen persona a perfect fit for the stories she’s given. Likewise, comedian Nazeem Hussain, STEAM advocate Emily Calandrelli and model Karlie Kloss are all great, articulate, enthusiastic presenters who bring something to every story they front. They have wildly different styles but their humour and intelligences meshes with Nye’s perfectly.
The panel discussions, featuring rotating trios of industry professionals ,also impress. Nye is a surprisingly great host, too. He absolutely pushes a viewpoint at times but he does so to bring guests out of themselves and it often works supremely well. The discussion in “The Sexual Spectrum” is great if truncated as is the one on “This Diet Is Bananas”. Touching on the psychology of weight shifting, the biological realities of it and line between discipline and reality it’s even-handed, positive and funny without being mean.
But the real star here is what it needs to be: the science. Nye and his team are exceptional at putting together accessible, clever ways of demonstrating complex concepts. His demonstration of why vaccination is essential is a perfect example.
The spot opens with Nye wearing a lab coat covered in velcro. He explains he’s playing the part of someone who can’t be vaccinated. Everyone else on stage, milling around wearing raincoats, is playing someone who can be vaccinated.
As Nye talks, crew members on either side of the stage throw velcro covered balls at him. Because of the people who are “vaccinated” they don’t get through. This demonstrates how vaccines indirectly protect people who can’t use them as well as those who can.
As doubt over vaccinations spreads, people leave the stage. By the end of the piece, Nye is covered in the balls, each one representing a virus.
It’s a simple, brilliant visual way of describing a complex process and the series is at its best when it’s doing these explainers. “Earth’s People Problem”, the series finale, does something similar involving a huge amount of foam people, a tub of water and audience participation. It’s fun and silly, simple, accessible, informative TV.
And ultimately that’s what shines through. The few missteps here are big ones but the show’s energy, enthusiasm and wit is almost always meshed with its desire to inform you. It’s also fundamentally hopeful, even in that first episode. We, as a people, are amazing. Science is amazing. We can turn things around. Even now, Bill Nye believes that. After watching this show, you will too.
Review by Alasdair Stuart