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2 Jun 2008

Smash Lab vs. MythBusters – After writing that brief note about Kevin’s Walk the other day, I realized that I very much missed posting here at Liminality. True, I’ve been busy, but I’ve also been incredibly stressed, and I could feel the dopamine start to flow through my brain as I typed out those few hundred words. So I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone: I would resurrect the rotting corpse of Liminality and relieve stress at the same time.

“I wanted to like it, I really did, but it just wasn’t happening. The magic wasn’t there.”

Fortunately for me, I’ve actually been maintaining a list of things I want to write about. For example, there is the new show on Discovery Channel called “ Smash Lab.” Well, maybe it’s not new in the States, but it just started a few weeks ago here on Discovery Channel Asia. I had seen it advertised for months (or what seemed like months) before it actually aired, and my first impression was that it was trying to capitalize on the MythBusters craze. As regular readers of Liminality may know, I am a huge fan of MythBusters. To my great delight, Discovery Channel Asia has been re-running old episodes of MythBusters every weekday at one o’clock—which just so happens to be when my classes end, so I can come home, eat lunch, and unwind while watching what is probably my favorite show on television.

I tried not to compare the shows when I watched the first episode of Smash Lab—I wanted to judge it on its own merits—but no matter how hard I tried to ignore that first impression, I couldn’t help making comparisons, and none of those comparisons turned out favorably for Smash Lab. It wasn’t just me, either. Hyunjin watches MythBusters with me when she can (usually when they show reruns on the weekend), and she also immediately recognized Smash Lab as a, for lack of a better term, MythBusters rip-off.

But was it really fair to judge Smash Lab so quickly? After all, MythBusters has been on the air for years now, and so far I’ve only seen three episodes of Smash Lab. Maybe Smash Lab just needs more time. Yet even as I type that, I know it’s not true. I was hooked on MythBusters from day one—before day one, actually. I had never been so excited about a television show before. When I heard that they were going to put folklore and urban legends to the test, I just couldn’t wait for it to begin. I mean, a show about folklore! What could be more awesome than that? (For the confused, my intense excitement about the show stems in part from the fact that folklore is my field of study.)

My (and Hyunjin’s) reaction to Smash Lab, on the other hand, can be summed up in one very 21st-century word: meh. I wanted to like it, I really did, but it just wasn’t happening. The magic wasn’t there. Now, your normal television viewer would leave it at that. They would simply switch channels and never look back. But not me. I subjected myself to two more episodes in an effort to understand what exactly it was about Smash Lab that failed to inspire me, in contrast to everything that succeeded in inspiring me in MythBusters. This is not to say that I suffered—Smash Lab isn’t bad, it’s just not that good. It’s like watching a match in your least favorite sport between two teams/players in which you have no interest.

But enough with the rambling intro—let’s get down to business. Smash Lab and MythBusters are actually very different shows, and I think it took a few episodes for this fact to register. MythBusters deals with things most of us have wondered about at one point or another. Sometimes these things are silly and goofy, sometimes they’re quite serious, but they are always interesting. Smash Lab, on the other hand, deals with a group of “maverick inventors” trying to make the world a better place. Both shows involve experiments and destroying stuff, but that’s where the similarities end. Maybe it’s just me, but I would much rather watch a show about things I’ve always wondered about than a show about a group of inventors trying to solve real-world problems that seem to be chosen simply because they will allow the team to destroy stuff on a large scale (otherwise they wouldn’t call it Smash Lab, I guess).

So right there that’s a strike against Smash Lab for me, but that’s not anywhere near the end of the story. There are other differences between MythBusters and Smash Lab, and one of those is the overall tone of each show. MythBusters tends to be a bit goofy and silly, and this tone is reflected in the easy-going, tongue-in-cheek narration. Smash Lab, on the other hand, tries to pass itself off as a more serious show, and again this is reflected in the much more earnest narration. Strangely enough, though, MythBusters still feels to me like the much more “scientific” show.

Let me give an example. In the last episode of Smash Lab that I watched, they tested the possibility of wrapping a mobile home in carbon fiber to see if it could withstand a level 5 hurricane (completely ignoring the fact that if people could afford to wrap their mobile homes in carbon fiber, they probably wouldn’t be living in mobile homes in the first place). As part of one of the initial tests of the strength of carbon fiber, they suspended a 2x4 (or something) a foot or so off the ground and then climbed on top of it one by one. When the fourth team member got on, the board broke. Then they wrapped a similar board in carbon fiber, waited for it to dry, and repeated the test. Needless to say, all four team members were able to climb on without the board breaking.

As far as I am concerned, this was a mind-numbingly pointless test. Of course a carbon fiber-wrapped board is going to be stronger—the real question should have been how much stronger was the carbon fiber-wrapped board? The unwrapped board didn’t break until the fourth (and lightest) team member climbed on, so we really have no way of gauging how much stronger the wrapped board was. If that experiment had been done on MythBusters, they would have suspended the unwrapped board high in the air and hung a force meter from it. Then Adam would have yanked on the force meter and goofed around for a while, of course, but then they would have gotten down to business and started piling on weight until the board broke. Then they would have repeated the test with the wrapped board—again piling on weights until it broke or failed—and compared the numbers. Despite the goofiness and easy-going nature of MythBusters, they actually do a lot of number crunching. I have yet to see any real numbers crunched on Smash Lab.

This discussion of the unwrapped board versus wrapped board test leads me into my next point. As I mentioned above, I thought the test was ultimately pointless and didn’t really show me anything I didn’t already know. But that was not the only pointless test in this episode. Apparently there are two types of carbon fiber. In one type the strands go one way, and in the other type they are woven together. Now, I did not know this, and I thought it was an interesting an important piece of information, but I was surprised when they decided to test both types. They produced one panel from the one-way fibers and one panel from the woven fibers, and then they shot projectiles at them. The one-way fiber failed, splitting open along a seam, at which point the narrator intoned: “and Deanne thinks she knows why.” No kidding? Deanne thinks she knows why? I know why, too, and I’m not even a scientist (each of the team members has a billing, and Deanne is billed as “the scientist”)! I must be a genius for figuring out that the weave would be stronger than the one-way fibers before the tests were even conducted!

Yes, I am pouring the sarcasm on pretty thick here, but the complete inanity of some of these experiments has to be seen to be believed. In the second episode they aired here, the team tried to see if they could bomb proof a building by coating it inside and out with Rhino Liner. As part of their initial tests, they built a small-scale cinder block wall and set an explosive charge off next to it. Needless to say, the wall crumbled (this experiment was useful, of course, because it was important to see how the wall crumbled). Next they blasted a wall that had been coated on the front with the liner. The front of the wall remained intact, but the uncoated inside crumbled. Now, any normal group of intelligent individuals would immediately coat both sides of a wall to see what would happen. If memory serves me, though, they did an extra test, coating only the back of the wall and leaving the front uncoated. I guess it allowed us to see another explosion, but in the end it was pointless.

So what’s up with all the pointless tests? Well, simply put, it’s all about running time. MythBusters usually tackles a number of different myths in a single episode, and although I have heard complaints and criticisms that they drag their feet on some of the larger-scale myths, I think that’s more of a complaint about how the experiments are cut (edited)—that is, you show a bit here, then do a small myth, then show another bit, then another small myth, etc. I don’t mind that so much. But each episode of Smash Lab deals with a single project. True, these projects tend to be extensive, but there still ends up being way too much filler.

I suppose the complete lack of suspense makes the totally pointless filler that much worse. I’ve watched three episodes so far, and the only one I haven’t mentioned yet is the first, in which they tried to use aerated concrete (concrete made with a lot of air bubbles in it so it will collapse under pressure) to stop cars from jumping the median and heading into oncoming traffic. Aerated concrete is used at the end of runways to make what they call “arrester beds.” The concrete is strong enough to walk on, but when something really heavy (like an airplane) is on top of it, it collapses. The four team members split up into two pairs, and each pair worked on a different idea. One idea was to line regular concrete barriers with sections of aerated concrete, while the other idea was to build an arrester bed in the median itself.

I knew from the moment they floated these ideas that both were doomed to failure—and I was right. The aerated concrete lining the regular concrete barriers did nothing to stop cars from hopping the barriers, mainly because the pair who did that experiment apparently have no knowledge of physics. Arrester beds work because gravity pulls the object into the bed and then friction takes over. In other words, they work because the object has to plow through the length of the bed, not through the (relatively shallow) depth—if a plane were to fly nose-first into the aerated concrete, it would do very little to dissipate the force. So why would it act any different upon being rammed by a car? The answer, of course, is that there is no reason that it would, and, as the program showed, it didn’t.

The arrester bed was also “busted” (if I may steal some MythBusters parlance here) from the start. Such beds work for planes because planes are huge and heavy, and also because they have a sufficient distance to stop. The second doomed pair built a bed of aerated concrete that was far longer than any median would ever be, even considering the fact that the car would be traveling at a relatively shallow angle, and their test car ended up driving right over the bed. It just wasn’t heavy enough. To salvage something from the experiment, they next tried it with a bus, and the bed did eventually stop the bus, but only at the very end. In the real world, there wouldn’t have been enough distance for friction to stop the bus before it plowed into oncoming traffic.

The other two episodes suffered from the same lack of suspense. After the initial test with the Rhino Liner, it was obvious that if they covered the entire building in liner, they could bomb proof (by “bomb proof” they mean that it would keep the building intact and standing long enough to allow those inside to get out) it—except for the windows, which were always going to be the weak points. Rather than going with bullet-proof glass, which they said was too expensive (and coating your entire building with Rhino Liner inside and out isn’t?), they made “shutters” of wood covered with the liner that they hung in front of the windows. In their tests, they fired a cannon at the shutter and the force of the blast pushed it shut. It was pretty obvious, though, that the shutter would only work if the blast came directly from in front of it (one of the team members even pointed this out before the final test). And besides being ineffective, they almost completely covered the windows even when open (and because the lining is black, they don’t even reflect light into the room), so you might as well just make a windowless building. Anyway, the point is that there was never any doubt about the outcome—just like in the mobile home episode, where it was obvious from the start that wrapping a mobile home in carbon fiber would indeed hurricane proof it (practicality aside).

Basically, not only are the experiments of questionable practicality, they are also rather obvious and thus rather tedious. But I don’t think it’s just the experiments. There are plenty of myths on MythBusters that turn out exactly the way I expect them to, and yet I still enjoy watching them (and then watching them again on reruns). Part of that, of course, is what I mentioned before: it’s just more interesting to watch urban legends and popular myths being put to the test than it is to watch a bunch of inventors test out impractical ideas. But that’s not the whole story. In fact, I don’t even think it’s the most important part of the story. Practicality and science aside, the difference between Smash Lab and MythBusters boils down to one thing: character.

The hosts of MythBusters are very clearly defined characters. They are real people, of course, but make no mistake: they play very specific characters. Adam is the goofy, hyperactive kid stuck in a man’s body, while Jamie is the wise, taciturn, and somewhat mysterious straight man. They are a modern-day Abbot and Costello. Jamie is characterized by his black beret, walrus-like moustache (Adam imitates the moustache when he mimics Jamie by putting his hands in front of his mouth and wiggling his fingers), and his white, long-sleeve shirts—which stay clean no matter what. Adam does not have a characteristic outfit, but his characteristically cartoonish actions are enough to make his character memorable. In fact, in a recent rerun I watched, when they were testing to see if a finger stuck in a gun barrel would actually make the gun explode, they showed cartoon clips of an Elmer Fudd-like Jamie, complete with beret, moustache, and white shirt, hunting a buck-toothed, bespectacled incarnation of Adam. Jamie and Adam are so iconic now that they were immediately recognizable.

The current “build team” is also comprised of three distinct characters: Tory is the rowdy class clown, Grant is the Asian science nerd, and Kari is the geek girl who gives hope to socially awkward males everywhere (despite the fact that, in real life, she is married). In fact, I have a theory that part of the reason that Scottie (a previous build team member) was replaced by Grant was that she wasn’t a distinct enough character. That’s probably not the sole reason, of course, but I’m pretty sure it factored into the calculations. Now we have three very distinct personalities that play off each other very well.

Smash Lab, on the other hand, has only four regular hosts—yet somehow it feels like too many. There are three guys—Kevin, Nick, and Chuck—plus the token girl—Deanne. Deanne is distinguished from the others by the fact that she is a girl, but the three guys just blend together. I’m sure they have very distinct personalities in real life, but they don’t have distinct characters on the show. The producers recognized this, though, and tried to artificially create characters for them. At the beginning of each show, we are told which character each host is supposed to be playing: Kevin is “The Ideas Guy,” Nick is “The Designer,” Chuck is “The Engineer,” and Deanne is “The Scientist.” The Smash Lab bios page on the Discovery Channel website does the same thing.

Unfortunately for the producers of Smash Lab, great characters can’t be created out of thin air and wishful thinking—simply labeling a host as a certain character isn’t going to make it come true. Adam, Jamie, Tory, Grant, and Kari don’t have labels because they don’t need them. I wonder if anyone on the Smash Lab production team stopped to think, “You know, maybe the fact that we need labels for our hosts is a sign that things aren’t quite working the way we hoped.”

And it’s not just the people that are bland—the Smash Lab “lab” itself is a non-descript warehouse somewhere in... California. I guess. They did go out into “the desert” for one of their experiments (the hurricane-proof mobile home), so I’m assuming it’s California (I could look it up, but what fun would that be?). MythBusters, on the other hand, is filmed primarily in Jamie’s special effects workshop, M5 Industries, and that place is full of character. It’s basically an extension of Jamie and a showcase for all the nifty stuff he has done, both on the show and off.

While I’m on the subject of characters, I guess we can’t really avoid the obvious issue: Kari vs. Deanne. So how do the two science chicks stack up? To be honest, neither Kari nor Deanne are my type, at least when it comes to outward appearance. Hyunjin says that Kari is far prettier than Deanne—when we watched the first episode of Smash Lab, she said something along the lines of, “How can that girl ever hope to compete with Kari?”—and I would probably have to agree. But looks only get you so far, and looks aside, Kari is the better television host, hands down. Kari has a voice that is easy to listen to, she has a nice smile, and she’s enthusiastic without being annoying.

Deanne, on the other hand, sounds and acts like a chipmunk on crack. Maybe it’s just me, but her voice is like fingernails on a chalkboard. I can’t really pinpoint it—is she too bubbly, is her voice too high?—but there is just something about it that drives me insane, and not in a good way. I scoured YouTube for a video of her talking and found a clip from the bomb-proof building episode. The funny thing is that her voice is not all that annoying here. Maybe she’s OK in small doses, but she wears thin over an entire episode? I don’t know. I’ve given up trying to figure out a rational explanation for this one. Suffice it to say that Deanne is yet another minus among many for me.

Now that I’ve gone and torn Smash Lab a new rectum—and ripped on Deanne in particular—I suppose I should say that I have nothing against these people personally. I’m sure they are very smart and talented individuals in their own right. Heck, Deanne was an aerospace engineer before she became a television host. And the goal of making science and learning accessible to people is an admirable one. For me, though, Smash Lab does not hold a candle to MythBusters. I wanted to like it, and so I watched the second episode. Then I watched the third episode to give it one last chance and to give me more fodder for this entry. But that’s where it ends. There are a lot of other things I could do with that hour... like write stuff here!

As a sort of postscript, I thought I’d mention something about MythBusters and Smash Lab that my American readers are probably not aware of: how the shows’ titles are translated into Korean. The translation of “MythBusters” is an exercise in translation genius, because it goes beyond mere words and delves into Korean culture to come up with the perfect title: “Hogisim Haegyeolsa.” Literally, this means “Curiosity Solvers,” which probably makes no sense to anyone not familiar with Korean culture, in particular a television show that ran a few years ago (it began well before MythBusters), called “Hogisim Cheonguk” (Curiosity Heaven). The idea was that viewers would send in their burning questions and the team would conduct experiments to find out if these sayings and legends were actually true. Sound familiar? It was actually very different from what MythBusters is now, but the basic idea was the same, and it was probably my favorite Korean show on television (that and “Dream Team”—I’m not that big on Korean dramas).

The word “hogisim” is taken directly from Chinese characters, and translated literally it means “a spirit/heart that likes strange things.” In that sense it is a direct analogue of the English “curiosity,” but, like it’s English counterpart, it has a number of different meanings. The most common meaning is the same as in English: inquisitiveness or the desire to learn new things. It has also come to refer to the object or idea about which one is curious, and the word in actual use often slips back and forth between these two meanings, sometimes imperceptibly so. When viewers would send in questions to the show, they would record video clips and always end with, “Hogisim haegyeolhaejuseyo!” The best translation for this would be, “Please satisfy my curiosity,” but the base verb used is the same one I translated as “solve” above. At the end of each segment, when they had answered the viewer’s question, the hosts would say in unison, “Hogisim haegyeol!” (Curiosity satisfied!)

When MythBusters came along, I guess it was hard not to make the connection. By drawing on the cultural connection with the Korean show, the translators tapped into something very powerful, something that a more literal translation could never have accomplished. And an interesting thing happened in the process: “hogisim” became the show’s translation for “myth.” On MythBusters, when a myth is busted, the subtitles read, “Hogisim haegyeol!” It’s absolute genius, because the influence goes both ways: “hogisim” creates a cultural connection to the MythBusters and the MythBusters impart new meaning to “hogisim.”

The translation of “Smash Lab” is much less fortunate: “Kungkwangkungkwang Silheomsil.” It is hard to translate this literally, because “kungkwangkungkwang” is an onomatopoeic word (Korean has a lot of these, actually). It is used to refer to a din or racket. “Silheomsil” is fairly straightforward, though: it simply means “laboratory.” The problematic word is the first one, of course, and the problem lies in the fact that “smash” in English refers primarily to a visual and tactile phenomenon, not an aural phenomenon. That is, unlike “boom” or “bang,” which imitate sounds, “smash”—like “crush” or “smush”—calls up the visual image of something being destroyed. Add to that the fact that “Kungkwangkungkwang Silheomsil” sounds positively retarded and juvenile in Korean, and you have a failed translation.

It might be easy to say that the influence of translation goes only one way—that is, that the way the title is translated influences the perceptions of Korean viewers, not the other way around. But I’m not sure if that is entirely true. MythBusters tells you right in the title exactly what it is that they do. Busting myths is the heart and soul of the show. But what about Smash Labs? So, it’s a lab... that smashes stuff? But why? Is smashing stuff really the heart and soul of the show? The English titles are a study in contrasts, one effective and one not so effective, and I think this is reflected in the stroke-of-genius translation for the one and the flailing, awkward translation for the other.

In retrospect, I could have probably gotten two entries out of today’s entry, one on the comparison and one on the Korean translations. But I figured it’s been a while since I’ve had a really meaty post up here (this one is over 4,000 words at the moment). And, as Joel said this afternoon when I met him for lunch at SNU, reading a long post at Liminality is not so bad because you know I won’t post for another two or three weeks after that (ouch!). Ah, but now that the pump is primed, who knows how often I will post in the future. I may even start posting—gasp—once a week!

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. My keyboard is crying for mercy, and it’s almost time for dinner. Until next time: stay curious.

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