Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t
For years stag magicians Penn and Teller have made a great living with their over the top show. While often gross and bloody there was always an underlying humor to their performance. Now, Showtime has given them a platform to debunk many claims made in modern America. Everything form speaking to the dead, magnetic therapy and Feng Shui are taken on. The format of the show is simple, chose a topic, typically one that is popular with many people, and sends out undercover agents, interview so-called experts and counter their claims with people of real science. Yes P.T. Barnum once stated a sucker is born every minute, it is apparent from this series that the birth rate has undergone a drastic increase of late.
Penn Jillette is the speaking member of this duo, the front man if you will. His style is straight forward; he is disgusted by these charlatans. As he explains, he has made a career fooling people but he does so in the context of pure entertainment. He doesn’t pray on the sick, lonely and grieving to make a living. Like Harry Houdini almost a century ago he sets out to pull the curtain back from these hucksters to reveal their tricks. Penn comes across as a man on a mission. In on segment concerning Reflexology, magnetic therapy and Chiropractors there is a scene where a Chiropractor ‘adjusts’ the spine and neck of a young child. Children of this age do not even have fully formed skeletons, yet the practitioner adjusted the child. Penn was notably outraged, the risk of very real and serious damage was there yet no warning where given to the parents. Penn has a genuine sympathy for the victims of these scams. While he does want to present an entertaining show there is the undeniable under current of truth that he wants the public to see. Penn identifies strongly with the aforementioned Houdini. Both set out on their careers as debunkers after the death of their mothers. They were both appalled by the use of circus tricks to obtain money from grieving people, human beings in their most vulnerable state.
Teller (Raymond Joseph Teller) is the short, silent member of this pair of magicians turned truth seekers. He is the one that gets to push needles through his arm, demonstrate tricks that depend on copious quantities of stage blood and generally lightens the mood. Considering the serious nature of the topics, many do take on matters of health, a little humor is needed and supplied in full measured. Teller often works his magic in the background behind Penn, while one partner explains the fraud the other makes light of the topic. These men a perfect team and their chemistry together make this show work.
The series is done is a documentary format. There is an attempt, on some level at least, to present both sides. While many of the believers are the object of Penn’s acerbic wit they are given a platform to speak about their side. The debunking duo send out various undercover crews to show some of the behind the scenes activity of the weekly targets. In the first episode concerning those talented people that can communicate with the dead uncut tape is shown, revealing just how many misses were obtained before a sort of hit is obtained. If a so called psychic asks dozens of general questions statistically there is certainty that something will click with the mark. ‘I am getting the impression of someone whose name begins with the letter J’. In a fairly large group there is bound to be someone with a deceased friend or relative named Jane, John or Joe. The crack team of the show even went to a mall with oven mitts with magnets glued to it. They quickly found people that actually believed that these mango-mitts helped them fell better. The show demonstrates just how powerful suggestion is in human beings. People want to believe and there are many out there willing and able to cash in on this fact.
The disc is very well done, better than I expected for a cable television series. The Dolby 5.1 audio was amazingly crisp and clear, providing a full sound stage. The backdrop for the Penn and Teller segments is a simple white room. The focus here is on the subject not any frills. You have the option to play all the episodes one after another or select the one desired. The last disc of the three disc set contains a good selection of extras. There is the so called ‘Naked Promo’, I can’t describe it here, you just have to see it. There are deleted scenes, the full unaired Ghost episode and some humorous out takes of mistakes made during production. This pair has successfully combined the genres of documentary with comedy in an informative yet humorous set of episodes that are well worth having. This is a must see before you shell out a grand for someone to find the ‘power corner’ of your room.