Geiger's Culture Counter: Teaching with television


Educational television has existed long before I was born. However, the shows’ main audiences are primarily kids under 10. Now there’s a resurgence of TV programs that dish out entertaining content with a side serving of educational material aimed at adults.

Like they say, you should always eat your vegetables.

Earlier this month the second season of truTV’s “Adam Ruins Everything” premiered to set common misconceptions straight. The show, developed by time-wasting website CollegeHumor, informs with experts and cited publications but also includes a fair share of chuckles. This season’s first episode discussed getting pregnant after 35 and formula while the second looked at counting calories and why sugar is worse than fat.

Think of the show like “Mythbusters,” but without all of the explosions and crash test dummies.

The CW’s “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” premiered its fourth season that same week. The premise of the game show is that a magician performs a trick for the master duo Penn and Teller. If they can’t figure out how it’s done, they win the chance to open for the legends in Las Vegas. Usually one person fools them each episode but sometimes no one accomplishes the feat and other times two acts manage to fool them.

At first glance it doesn’t appear to be educational but magicians are known to deceive. The last portion of the show is Penn and Teller performing either one of their signature tricks or deconstructing a classic to remove the smoke and mirrors. They’ve explained card tricks, the ball and cup staple and shown the string on a floating ball.

When Penn and Teller converse in code to say if they’ve been fooled— because a magician never reveals their secrets—a viewer who understands the craft more will in turn be less gullible.

This generation’s father of educational science television, Bill Nye, returned to grace the screen in April with Netflix’s “Bill Nye Saves the World.” Using a team of correspondents, diverse panelists and good ol’ fashioned visual models, Nye breaks down topics into digestible pieces. The show covers the expected stuff like artificial intelligence, space exploration and overpopulation. But it also goes into more controversial territory with sex, vaccinations and climate change.

Most of the knowledge is simply a good refresher since Nye doesn’t go as deep as a science textbook, but that’s not the point. He wants the general population to truly understand the world around them and not bore them with facts.

“Last Week Tonight” is another example of transforming the obtuse into the more comprehendible. Every Sunday on HBO comedian John Oliver explains the news in a satirical fashion like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Yet since it’s only on once a week he spends the majority of the show diving into a singular topic.

Oliver has both lampooned and explained FIFA, voter ID laws, debt buying, charter schools, DaVita Dialysis and more. In an episode about televangelism he showed how tax-exempt churches profit while simultaneously raising thousands for Doctors Without Borders.

Knowing that education is important, the main segments can be viewed on YouTube for free.

Chef Anthony Bourdain understands the value of expanding horizons as well. His food travel show “Parts Unknown” is the best documentary series on television right now. And because it airs on CNN rather than “The Food Network” it is more than a montage of magnificent entrees. The universality of cooking is used as a lens to explore political issues.

As the name implies, Bourdain doesn’t regurgitate the same top 10 spots that can be found in a guidebook. One episode highlighted the post-war status of Libya and another examines the lesser-known subcultures of Tokyo instead of the best sushi bars.

A recent episode on Laos focused on how the area is still dealing with effects of the Vietnam War. The country is the most heavily bombed nation per capita in the history of the world and it is currently filled with bombs waiting to go off.

In America he showed how Detroit is rebounding, what life is like in the parts of Hawaii that tourists don’t see and how housing in the Bay Area is out of control.

Easily the most hilarious program that somehow counts as educational is Comedy Central’s  “Drunk History.” Actors, comedians and other personalities narrate true events while they’re, well, drunk. They embellish, but the gist is accurate. Other actors then reenact their story using the voiceover—burps and swears included. The best episodes retell obscure tales about the Great Molasses Flood, Lord Gordon Gordon and other figures lost to time.

Even if you’re already familiar with the story it’s worth a watch. Nothing is better than Lin-Manual Miranda slurring his speech about Alexander Hamilton while Alia Shawkat of “Arrested Development” runs around as the Founding Father.

If I were a substitute history teacher the show would be my entire curriculum.

Though I’ve been out of school for three years, I adore learning every chance I can get. I hope this brain-boosting trend doesn’t go away anytime soon.

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