My favorite childhood show both dates me and gives you some insight into a slightly geeky past. It was, and still is, Bill Nye the Science Guy. I grew up in a household with some severely anti-TV tendencies. My father referred to the television exclusively as “the boob tube”, and regarded it with deep suspicion. My mother was slightly more forgiving, but between the two of them, there wasn’t an awful lot of screen-gazing allowed.
Bill Nye slipped through those harsh standards on the basis of educational value. This wasn’t quite the exception you might think it was. An awful lot of kiddie TV is billed as “educational”, and most of it technically is, but “educational” is an awfully vague term. I was forcefully graduated from Barney and Sesame Street before I left preschool, and the Magic School Bus had a grand total of maybe three showings before going the way of the purple dinosaur.
I was left in an awkward spot. I loved TV, but wasn’t having much luck in finding sanctioned programs to watch. Long days of whining did nothing to move either parent. Loving as they were, they had decided to make a stand on the issue, and weren’t budging an inch. If this had gone on, I imagine very little would have changed apart from maybe my parents’ stance on corporal punishment. Luckily for all of us, Bill Nye chose that time to make his appearance.
My mother, bless her, was the one who first found out about him. I don’t know where she caught wind of his program, but one night after school, she ushered me into the living room, turned the tube on, and sat down with me to watch. The episode covered simple machines – levers, pulleys, and the other basic mechanical components of more complex machines. I was spellbound. Nye is one of those rare individuals capable of making anything interesting. My father, who had no doubt cringed as I bounced around to the “Bill! Bill! Bill!” of the opening theme song, stumped in just as a Nye put a trebuchet through its paces. He sat down, and just like that, the family was sold. For the next two years, the show was the only thing I consistently watched.
Looking back now, it’s easy to see why I liked it so much. The show was produced by people who knew how kids thought. All too often, that insight is exploited, and parlayed into commercials and bubblegum preteen celebrities, but on Nye’s show, it was different. The goofy song parodies, the young assistants, the interactive experiments – they made everything seem fun, and something more. They put a world within reach. Find the right ingredients, and Nye’s laboratory was suddenly at your fingertips, alive and endless. I went through phases every few weeks, as new episodes struck my fancy. I excavated the yard after learning about dinosaurs, and emerged triumphant with a dirty stick. My father and I constructed an elaborate Rube Goldberg device for an elementary school science fair. I stayed out late stargazing, pointing out constellations – real and imaginary – to my exhausted but obliging mother.
Would I have done these things without Nye? Maybe. Kids are naturally inclined to dig, construct, and observe. But Nye plied with me knowledge, and left me hunting for more. He made exploration fascinating, and while he may have made me an unbearable seven year-old smartass, he at least made me a curious one. He never spoke down to his audience, either, and children know when they’re being spoken down to. He was a friend with the grandest store of knowledge imaginable.
Small wonder I remember him fondly. But there’s another reason I like Nye. He disappeared for a time after elementary school, consigned to the dusty shelves of “things I watched when I was little” after puberty kicked in and made everything uncool. Imagine my surprise when he resurfaced while I was in college. Suddenly, he was back, and drawing down with creationists and psuedoscientists. He swore, spoke with passion, and came into debates ferocious, convinced, and aggressive. The Science Guy had become a firebrand, and I was spellbound once more.
Childhood idols very rarely age well. I was fifteen when I suddenly realized how endlessly boring Garfield had become, and that’s far from the worst – the orange cat at least had a chance to fade quietly away. Poor Snoopy has been hucking MetLife for years; Kermit sells pizza and SUVs; Bert and Ernie, through no fault of their own, were at the center of one of the dumbest controversies the entertainment world has ever seen. But Nye? Nye is back, and Nye is bad. The man who shared my wonder as a child now speaks to my convictions. I’ll never forget what he taught me when I was young. I’m looking forward to whatever lessons he has planned next.