I never noticed, before watching episodes of the new Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World, how much Bill Nye has in common with Bob Odenkirk. There’s a physical resemblance, but there’s more to it than that. Nye is funny in that shruggy, disarming way that Odenkirk is. And when I started reading about his background, there it was.
He’s brilliant, which we knew. He’s also a comic.
Before Nye became an outspoken advocate for space exploration and climate-change education in the 2000s, and before he was Bill Nye the Science Guy on PBS in the ’90s, he was a Boeing aerospace engineer who moonlighted on a Seattle sketch comedy show—the same one that birthed Joel McHale—called Almost Live! Nye started his Science Guy shtick there (and also played a dorkily funny speed-walking superhero).
Bill Nye Saves the World is part episodic science demonstrations (Bunsen burner + orange mystery liquid = ?????), part daytime talk show (panel discussions and studio audience) and part news magazine (correspondent reporting). The reporters are young and smart. One of them is Victoria’s Secret model Karlie Kloss, who is a legit computer programmer.
There’s also a sketch-comedy element. “Dude, I used to be weaponized,” Smallpox (Diedrich Bader from ABC’s American Housewife) tells another infectious disease. “I have a body count of over 300 million…. Look at me now! Last month I couldn’t afford toilet paper, so I had to use a coffee filter!” Smallpox scans the room. “What, HPV? You think you’re better than me?”
In another segment, Nye grabs a large thermometer and wraps his hand around it. “As I hold the bulb of this thermometer,” he says, “the liquid is expanding. That’s what things do when they get warm. And so as it expands, it works its way up the thermometer tube.” Meanwhile, the orange liquid (spoiler alert: it’s just water) in a glass vial has also been expanding as it gets warm, rising a half-inch or so above the fill line line. “The ocean on the earth,” he says, “is like a planet-sized thermometer.”
And climate change—at least the part about the rising sea levels—suddenly makes more sense than it did when I thought it was all about the melting ice caps. A segment about increased flooding in Venice made it tangible. Nye is to science what Alton Brown is to cooking and what John Oliver is to news—a serious, learned guy with an educator’s ease of explaining complexities who just happens to be charming and funny. In topical episodes about alternative medicine, agricultural science, machine learning and more, Nye uses plain English and relatable analogies to illuminate without dumbing down.
The United States has a science crisis. The science itself is never better, but an uncomfortably high percentage of the country is skeptical of it. In a country where the Chicago Cubs can win the World Series and Donald Trump can win the White House, can we really be so certain that childhood immunization is worth the risk of autism? Yes, dummy. Immunizations don’t cause autism. The fact that Jenny McCarthy thinks otherwise doesn’t make it less so.
There’s a difference between healthy skepticism and alternative facts. The former is about degrees of uncertainty, and the latter is about making shit up and saying it’s true. There’s also a difference between trust in institutions and trust in cults of personality. Bill Nye is an institution with a big, engaging personality, but he’s not asking you to believe the moon is made of cheese. He’s asking you to believe in the scientific method, and he’s been asking in one form or another for decades.
Near the end of the first episode, Nye says climate change is the defining issue of our time. “You never shut up about it!” actor Zach Braff shouts from the audience. “How can we get you to shut up about it?” Change stuff. Fix problems. Then he’ll shut up about it. It’s a funny bit. I wish reality didn’t have to be dressed up as comedy and stuffed with celebrity cameos to get people to pay attention to it, but I’ll take that over demagogues deregulating pollution standards, saying it’s for jobs and people believing it. The coal industry is in the shitter because of automation, cheaper natural gas and increasingly cheaper renewables—not because of environmental regulation intended to keep mercury out of the water table.
Bill Nye Saves the World is not going to save it from your weird uncle in the #MAGA hat, but he’s not the intended audience. The show is on Netflix, whose 100 million global subscribers are disproportionately hipper, younger and smarter than the low-information skeptics who hold up progress. The best way to save the world is to put people in charge who actually believe it needs saving. In 20 years, that generation will be running social institutions, science policy and—fingers crossed—the federal government.
Nye is passionate about this stuff. He uses humor to make his case, but he doesn’t use sanctimony or sarcasm. Mostly, he uses reason. He’s a science guy, after all, and that’s what they do.
Bill Nye Saves the World is streaming now on Netflix.