ITV in Britain (edit: And now, CW in the US!!!) is currently airing a show which, for my money, is one of the finest pieces of television going anywhere in the world right now. In fact, I’ll go one step further and say that it’s a show built entirely around the very best aspects of human nature, and is more entertaining than almost anything I’ve seen recently (and I’ve just finished watching The Tudors , which was a fine piece of drama).
But this show isn’t drama–it’s essentially a game show. Another foray into the genre–reality TV–which the Brits perfected and which is by far my least favorite form of entertainment, as it’s neither reality nor does it frequently feature anything interesting enough to be worthy of display on a television screen. But I digress.
So, what is this amazing, magical show?
Well, you’re not going to believe me, but it’s actually a magic show. It’s called Penn & Teller: Fool Us.
The concept is pretty simple:
Contestants do a single stage magic routine in front of a studio audience that includes magicians Penn & Teller. If Penn & Teller can’t figure out how the trick was done, and describe it to the contestant, that contestant wins. The prize?
They get to open for Penn & Teller in Las Vegas.
Okay, So What’s The Big Deal?
But this isn’t just a pedestrian game show. Or a pedestrian reality TV show. Or even a run-of-the-mill magic show. This is something else again. To explain, let me recast in tribal terms:
The two most renowned old warriors in a village announce that it’s time for a new generation to rise up and come into their own. They put the call out far and wide to all the neighboring villages, and stage a competition. “We have grown weary of hunting, having long since mastered all we learned in our youth. We are weary of teaching, for we have taught all we know.” they say. “Anyone who can teach us a new technique, a new art for hunting, they shall lead the next hunt.”
Young hunters, at the peak of their creativity and ambition, bring their best skills from all across the countryside. They display their best work, and when sometimes one of them is so groundbreaking that the old masters have never seen it before, the masters bring them into their party. Sometimes, there are no new techniques, but the demonstration has such finesse that the masters are astounded and envious, and sincere about their awe in the face of mastery as great as–or greater than–their own.
And so we have in this dynamic all the things that are best about human nature: community, mentorship, maturity, non-destructive competition, the transfer of knowledge between the generations (which is the substance of culture), hard work, virtuosity, the appetite for learning, the appetite for–and display of–wonder, and the application of close examination and critical thinking.
Intelligence, mentorship, love of a shared culture, community, and all of it wrapped up in a candy coating of witty banter and smart comedy.
Folks, truly, it doesn’t get any better than this. It can’t. Because this is the best of what we are, in microcosm.