Bill Nye. For US audiences, the name will conjure up cosy memories of The Science Guy from their childhood on PBS. For UK audiences, though, that recognition is only likely to occur within science circles – to put it simply, he’s America’s answer to Professor Brian Cox, if he were crossed with David Attenborough. Netflix’s decision to give him his own original show, then, might seem surprising for Brits, but it fulfils an important function of TV: education.
In an age where fake news, social media hoaxes and populist rhetoric have led to people rejecting experts in any field, facts and information are more valuable to the public than ever. The BBC have been brilliant in their scientific programming in recent years, with both the aforementioned Cox and Attenborough leading a charge that has been continued by Adam Rutherford, Lucie Green and more. Netflix, of course, is not a public service broadcaster, but as a major presence in the modern media landscape, Bill Nye Saves the World is a welcome step towards celebrating knowledge in a way that is rarely seen on our screens.
The show got off to a slightly rocky start in 2017, as Season 1 took its title and ran with it. The mission to save the globe was on, with the series placing a focus on such topics as climate change, always attempting to refute myths and misconceptions about the world. Debunking alternative medicine and other pseudoscience is a worthwhile quest – particularly when it comes to vaccinations and the environment – but that determination didn’t always work, as Nye’s skeptic stance occasionally seemed dismissive. That was apparent most of all in the show’s panel discussions, which occasionally highlighted Nye’s lack of experience in the talk show world. The introduction of comedy sketches, meanwhile, led to some uneven balancing of tone, as you got the sense that the show was occasionally trying just a little too hard to be cool.
The problems, though, all boiled down to the series’ lack of certainty about who it was aimed at: for kids, it was sometimes too forced, while for adults, it wasn’t in-depth enough, resulting in a science programme that was likeable, but didn’t always have much science in it. (One demonstration of how an alt-medicine cure for heartburn only makes one’s stomach more acidic was a taste of how effective Nye’s demonstrations could be, when applied clearly.)
Season 2, though, tightens things up considerably. Segments such as “Bill Takes a Minute”, in which Bill has a rant about a topic, still don’t really feel much different to the rest of his hosting, but the issues covered are more diverse and less ideologically driven. Moving on from campaign issues, Season 2 becomes much more about educating in general, rather than debunking: it covers everything from marijuana and sleep to superbugs. Nye strikes a more affable position between knowing a lot and not knowing everything: he gives his panel guests and regular contributors (including model and inspirational coder Karlie Kloss, YouTuber Derek Muller and comedian Nazeem Hussain) the chance to explain things to him and the audience, which makes for a much more rounded programme.
The series is softer on hard science in some parts, but also becomes accessible to a wider, more consistent audience: one episode about cyber security, for example, is something that teenagers and grandparents alike can all benefit from. Each chapter, meanwhile, wraps up with a “Bill Nye Meets Science Twitter” moment, which is both a cheeky way to preview the next episode and a commendable chance to give credit to scientists around the world making a difference in their own fields.
Front and centre of it all, of course, remains Nye, who is a hugely charming TV presence, from his bow tie to his deliberately bad fist-bumps. He’s always been over-the-top and endearingly awkward, to some degree, and as he settles into his Netflix format, he plays more comfortably into that; the audience laughter track feels far more natural and relaxed in this second run, as Nye’s persona from decades ago remains consistent with who he is now. With a sprinkling of genuinely entertaining demonstrations, and the odd inspired musical number, the result is a show that has the potential to become essential viewing for school kids and parents alike. An upbeat TV series that encourages optimism and celebrates knowledge? Maybe Bill Nye really can save the world.
Bill Nye Saves the World Season 1 to 3 are available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.