In each episode, we'll see how they apply redneck ingenuity with advanced engineering and physics to creatively solve real-world problems... and have a little fun, of course!I watched most of a couple of episodes. As I expected, it's like Mythbusters meets the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. In principle that's not a bad recipe, but like any recipe the key is to get the proportions right. In the episodes I've seen, they're not.
The joke, obviously, is that nobody expects guys who sound like hillbillies -- guys who are actually hillbillies -- to have earned advanced degrees in physics and engineering. That's a sophisticated premise ... not. Call me politically correct, but I already believed an Alabama accent didn't automatically mean you were stupid. (A Valley Girl accent, on the other hand, does. Go ahead, prove me wrong.)
So the unspoken joke at the heart of the show doesn't work for me. That leaves the actual science content. What there is of it is okay. There's just damned little of it.
Mythbusters isn't a science show, but it does try to explain the principles underlying whatever's happening. It benefits from having a narrator who can deliver exposition over footage of the hosts working, so they can get things done while not leaving the audience mystified. Rocket City Rednecks doesn't have a narrator, and it's easy to see why: the producers want the hosts to do all the explaining so we hear their accents, reinforcing the lame joke, "The rednecks can think!"
Unlike Mythbusters, RCR is only a half-hour, so if the latter want to take on big topics they have significantly less time to explore all the ramifications. The two RCR episodes I saw took on huge challenges: protecting soldiers from improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, and coming up with a replacement for fossil fuel-based propellants in rockets. The challenges are both met by the end of the half-hour, but only on the terms the hosts themselves set for those challenges. Left unanswered in both cases is the question, "But would this approach work for real?"
Take the IED-armor problem, for instance. The issue is that although fighting vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan are sufficiently well-armored to protect the troops within against direct injury from IEDs, the armor is so heavy that it makes the vehicles prone to flipping over and crushing the occupants. The RCR crew came up with an ingenious alternative armor based on the principle of absorbing the energy of the blast rather than deflecting it. They used beer cans to create a crumple zone for a pickup truck's undercarriage. To test, they detonated plastic explosive under the truck, leaving a dummy in the driver's seat to gauge the injury potential to vehicle occupants.
It all sounded good, and the dummy came out with only a few scratches, but I couldn't help wondering whether the test was a reasonable simulation of the actual situations the soldiers face. There was no mention of whether the explosion they triggered was similar in magnitude to what real troops face. There was no mention of how damage to the dummy might correspond to injury to a person, or how to measure the damage. There were probably a lot of other important considerations I'm overlooking.
I wouldn't care so much about these failings except that the hosts set themselves a problem that is not only tough, but is extremely important to their audience. These guys weren't screwing around trying to determine what candies worked best with what fizzy waters to generate those spectacular geysers of soda on YouTube. They were trying to develop a better armor for this country's soldiers. That's no disposable project good for only a few laughs and some shots of collapsing racks of beer cans. It's an endeavor that deserves real care and thought. If the RCR guys put that thought into their work, it didn't show up on camera.
RCR is a victim of high expectations: it needs to live up to the level of scientific content established by Mythbusters (a not very high level, I should add), and it needs to live up to the expectations aroused by each episode's mission statement.
Another problem: the seriousness of the challenges in the two episodes was grotesquely at odds with the foolery on camera. I like seeing funny mistakes, like the ones Adam Savage makes on Mythbusters. But humor works well on that show because it doesn't pretend to be serious. I'm sure somebody, maybe everybody, on RCR thinks the same: hey, this is just a bunch of guys trying to have a little fun. But if that's the case, why take on deadly serious problems like better armor against IEDs? Why raise hopes that they might develop a renewable fuel source for NASA (not to mention the rest of us on Earth)?
The tone is decidedly off on Rocket City Rednecks, and that's a shame because we need more shows that make science accessible and fun. I hope the hosts can turn things around because it would be nice for them not merely to subvert other people's expectations ("Huh ... self-identified rednecks can do math and science"), but mine, too -- by making a TV show that doesn't pander to our desire to mock others and actually makes its viewers a little smarter.