Penn & Teller Tell A Lie

Penn & Teller Tell A Lie

Penn & Teller Tell A Lie debuts tonight on the Discovery Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.

If you’ve ever been in any type of group-orientation situation, chances are you’ve played “Two Truths And A Lie.” It’s a simple game that works as an icebreaker by allowing people to share two statements about themselves, stirring in some fun by allowing them to make one statement up. High-school drama classes and business retreats alike use this kind of team-building exercise, and it’s a very familiar format. (NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me also utilizes it for its “Bluff The Listener” segment.) Magical comedy duo Penn & Teller’s new show Penn & Teller Tell A Lie takes the concept of “Two Truths And A Lie” even further, mixing it with a Mythbusters-type reality show, imparting knowledge through entertainment and a dash of humor. It’s not anything new, but it’s certainly the most entertaining iteration of the game—and there’s no corporate team building involved.

Unlike the personal-information icebreaker, Penn & Teller showcase seven different “unbelievable” stories: a trick to surviving a tiger attack, a musical note that inspires alligator mating, a study that posits obscenity can increase pain tolerance, and others. The footage is very intriguing, and the voiceover work provides the requisite information, but it’s Penn Jillette and Teller’s specific talents as magicians skilled in sleight of hand and narrative that makes Tell A Lie a lot of fun.

In one story, they explain all about superlight aerogels, and how their low density as a solid may protect a scientist from the heat of a flamethrower. It’s a great demonstration, but the real twist is when Penn Jillette’s voiceover comments that it’s possible the shot is done with a split-screen. Planting the seed of doubt is incredibly important, and in the course of every story, the narration does exactly that, which will make the show easy to feel involved in while watching.

Some of the segments are unexpected, like the aerogel, but others with very logical paths succeed through a nice dose of humor. Subjects in a pain-tolerance experiment put their hands in a bucket of ice water, and use profanity to test if it increased the amount of time they can leave their hands submerged. It’s simple, but true: Watching people hold their hands in frigid water while swearing up a storm is just funny.

The stories don’t always unfold in the same way, which creates some inconsistency. With the format juggled to mimic sleight of hand, the alligator segment ends halfway through, only to double back at the end of the show right before the reveal. It heightens doubt, but also throws off the format. Some stories use security footage, others demonstrations or feature staged re-enactments. Jillette’s narration is often funny and well-placed to increase viewer suspicion and conversation, but on occasion is so ever-present that it gets in the way.

Penn & Teller have tried a variety of different reality shows in order to bring its blend of yarn-spinning and mime to bigger audiences. Bullshit! was more ideologically based, with a weakness for didactic and a tendency to rely heavily on the duo’s own political views; the U.K. series Penn & Teller: Fool Us is a reality-competition show that featured some spectacular highlights. While Bullshit! was also infotainment, it had the benefit of airing on Showtime, which freed up the show to breathe a little easier. Tell A Lie throws a lot at the wall, using interviews, location shooting, studio work, and outside demonstrations. Not all of it works, but Jillette and Teller are nothing if not great entertainers. They make this show sincerely watchable, even though it’s not must-see right from the start.

I won’t say which event turned out to be a lie, but I will say I didn’t pick it. To be honest, the show instilled so much doubt in every single story that it’s kind of hard to even make a choice. When Penn & Teller walk around panes of glass painted with the title of each story with sledgehammers, waiting to shatter the lone lie, every single one seems plausible, and at the same time just out of the realm of possibility. Jillette is constantly undercutting expectations by introducing methods to trick viewers, which keeps it interesting right up until the very end. Riding that edge is the show’s greatest strength, but it’s obvious there are still kinks to be worked out in making the format as entertaining as the hosts.

Stray observations:

  • Okay, one hint about the lie: The tiger in Gladiator makes an appearance for a reason.
  • The alligator demonstration takes place at Gatorland. It's first introduced as the largest, then second-largest, then sixth-largest theme park in Florida. Never take a Penn Jillette voiceover at face value.
  • Penn & Teller interview the man that donated his hair for the car-lift experiment. That’s easily the most boring and useless segment of the show. It looks like he demanded it in exchange for his hideous ponytail.

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