On Mythbusters, and the Unexpected Virtue of Failure

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Mythbusters, long a bulwark of the Discovery Channel, is finally coming to an end. The series has been running since 2003, and, in the end, will have aired over 270 episodes of wonderful television. It hasn’t always been a clear, linear progression. Aside from Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, who have become pop culture icons over the years, cast members have come and gone. After the “Build Team” of Kari, Grant, and Tory all left the show, the writing was on the wall. Mythbusters was shuffled all around the Discovery Channel schedule, and seemed further and further like an outlier as a science-minded series on a network increasingly built on the tent poles of nudity and fear.

There are many tremendous aspects of the legacy Mythbusters will leave behind. These guys escaped from Alcatraz. They made an actual balloon out of lead. They made about a million things explode. Through it all, Adam and Jamie formed a wonderful pairing, falling into a perfect straight man/funny man dynamic based simply on their actual personalities. Most importantly, although they weren’t scientists, they were smart guys primarily schooled in the arts of building and creating, they always took a scientific approach to their work. This has been a show based on the magic of tinkering and experimentation, which means things didn’t always go as planned. And that’s where the truly radical thing about Mythbusters manifested itself. The show had a motto, and an ethos, that was captured in one important catchphrase: “Failure is always an option.”

This started out as a pet phrase for Savage, but went on to be a go-to phrase for the show, even appearing on Mythbusters merchandise. Failure is, generally speaking, not a good thing. When you are working out a complex experiment, or trying to build something intricate, failure feels like a roadblock. But Mythbusters is one of the only TV series to really drive the point home that failure is also not the end of the line. In the world of Mythbusters, failure is not ignoble.

We saw this in countless episodes of the series, where a complete fail was merely one step in the greater process. The act of towing trucks on elaborate rigs can go wrong. Eyebrows might be singed off. The hosts of the show would, surely, experience frustration at these points, but the audience would get to watch them brush themselves off, assess the situation and get back to work. Failure on Mythbusters is a data point, not an end point. An epic fail in a scientific or creative process can provide information that ultimately leads to success—like that glorious moment when you finally get a rocket car to work.

As a television show, Mythbusters could have easily edited around many of these mistakes and errors. Editors could have streamlined the program, if the point was to make these guys look like geniuses. But this was never merely a show about cool experiments and explosions—though these were great to experience. It was a show about the scientific process, and failing is a huge part of that process. Perfection is nice, sure, but it isn’t necessary. The real lesson to take away from the show is that diligence and awareness of past [necessary] errors is more important than anything else for builders, thinkers and creatives. That—and always be careful when you put a jawbreaker in the microwave.

Obviously, the other major plot point of a Mythbusters episode was to try to determine if a myth was confirmed, plausible, or busted. The crew did not have any bias toward any particular result. They also had no problem retesting myths when prompted. On occasion, those retests would lead to new results, essentially proving that their first test was, in fact, a failure. This initial failure was considered a welcome part of the process, because it eventually lead to a different, successful outcome.

When Mythbusters began, Savage and Hyneman were just a couple of guys who built fighting robots and worked on Matrix movies. They weren’t considered to be notable names in the scientific community. Now, they are two of the most important influencers in the world of popular science. When the news came out that the show was canceled after 14 seasons, Twitter was inundated with people crediting the show for getting their interest in science. College students majoring in engineering thanked them for inspiring their educational path. As we all move forward in a world without Mythbusters, here’s hoping we remember that failure is always an option—one, sometimes messy, sometimes thrilling, bump in the road that offers another chance to get things right.

Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.