Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky blows up stuff...for educational purposes. Yeah, that's the ticket!
"I want to see fear! You hear me—fear!"—Charlie (Charles Powell)
When I was a kid, the magazine Popular Mechanics was never really about science. It was about gadgets. Every cover sported an airplane or a car. Monorails of the future. Helicopters that could turn into submarines. If you needed an idea for the next James Bond chase sequence, you could always browse the magazine rack for Popular Mechanics and you'd find your turbo-charged snowmobile right there. And so I never got the sense that Popular Mechanics was actually about science—at least lab-coated experimental science. It was about engineering and product marketing. If you were good at building things, it was cool. But I was not.
These days, magazines seem to be useful, at least in the eyes of television executives, mostly to provide marketable names to attach to shows. Need another science show? Hmm, let's see what names are still available. Here's Popular Mechanics. Quick, call up the Hearst people and see if we can license the name. We'll call our show Popular Mechanics for Kids. The tweens will love it.
To be fair, Popular Mechanics for Kids tries to keep its science lively and exciting for the middle school kids in its target audience. Each episode features a particular theme—although not all segments fit neatly. There is a lot of location shooting. Technobabble is kept to a minimum, with the focus on adventure. Editing is, unfortunately, in the usual frenetic, ADHD style common these days. There are several DVD releases in this series, so you can find the theme that most appeals to your kids. Of the compilation discs currently available, I have two here in front of me, Lightning and Other Forces of Nature and Firefighters and Other Life-Saving Heroes.
Each disc includes four episodes of the Canada-based series. Lightning is concerned with violent natural phenomena. In "Ice," we visit ice sculptors and learn how Hollywood makes summer snowstorms, we build an igloo, go inside a wind tunnel used for aeronautical research, and ride a Zamboni. In "Water," we go white-water rafting, learn how to fight oil slicks, and travel through the canal locks with a freighter. We also marvel to the brutal power of the water saw, a high-pressure device that could slice your hand off! "Earth Power" checks out avalanche territory up in British Columbia but also goes pretty far from Canada: to a volcano in Hawaii and to Universal Studios' "Twister" ride (this is science?). You can also build your own tornado at home. In "Electricity," Tyler grabs live power lines, Elisha gets hit with a million-volt lightning bolt (and listens to a crazed scientist who likes lightning a little too much), and we visit a hospital to use everybody's favorite gadget: the cardiac defibrillator.
Rescuers and other heroes get the spotlight on the Firefighters disc. The "Emergency" episode takes us along with a team battling a forest fire, we see how firefighters train using a staged burning building and a flaming airplane mock-up, and Charlie makes a fire extinguisher (after stuffing his face with a dozen peanut butter sandwiches—don't ask). Plus, we get a foam party without the Ecstasy and trance music. In "Emergency Rescues," we meet the real lifeguards who inspired Baywatch (all middle aged guys and no breast implants in sight), charge in with a hostage rescue team, and learn about avalanche rescue dogs. Watching the teen host suit up in a bullet-proof vest and throw the flash grenade for the mock hostage rescue mission may be the most disturbing image of the whole series. (Worse, it takes him so long to break down the door with the sledgehammer that the team leader implies the hostage would have been killed!) "Life Savers" is all about safety…sort of. Watch crash-test dummies slam into walls, armor plate a car, rappel off a skyscraper, and build a burglar alarm. I say this is "sort of" about safety, because the real fun here is in watching the hosts do all the dangerous things people aren't supposed to do. Finally, we join the "Police Force" to learn how to drive high pursuit chases, track fugitives, and shoot at the firing range. And yes, they do give Tyler a gun.
The teen hosts, particularly Tyler and Elisha, participate whole-heartedly, setting off avalanches, paddling through river rapids, putting out forest fires, and so on. Boring old people explain their jobs, then we crank up the music, speed up the editing, and race through an adventure. I have to give the kids points though for not losing their cool on screen (or at least points to the editors for not showing it to us). The hardcore science lessons are saved for short segments between the location shoots and longer lesson from the one conspicuous adult in the show. Charles Powell turns up for one live segment in each show, clowning around and talking about physics. For instance, he might talk about water's surface tension—by pouring an entire container of pepper into a bowl of water in fast motion. Then he whips out a coat hanger to make "monster bubbles."
No segment lasts more than a couple of minutes, so the show moves very quickly. Now what parents are likely to notice is one of the show's co-hosts, a teenaged Elisha Cuthbert, in those innocent days when she still had a pronounced Canadian accent and before 24 put her in weekly peril. Popular Mechanics for Kids does not seem to have ever done an episode on escaping a cougar though.
For the kids though, the hosts are not the center of attention. The loud music, twitchy editing, shouting narration, and rumbling construction machines are too distracting. This is "X-treme" science. Everyone is just…way too excited. Every line seems to end in an exclamation point. Even the most mundane location visit—a big ship moving through canal locks, a research wind tunnel—is treated like a wild adventure. If you plan to watch more than one episode at a time with your kids, be warned that your family will be exhausted by the middle of the second episode. The target audience, the tween crowd, might enjoy this, but there is not a whole lot of actual science or engineering. The factual information that is here rushes by so fast that your kids will have to watch these shows several times to actually learn anything—which do at least make these shows more useful on DVD than they probably were on television. But grown-ups may want to leave the room to avoid the noise.
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