There’s a line that host Howie Mandel likes to revisit throughout the all-too-brief duration of the first season of Bullsh*t the Game Show, Netflix’s new entrant to its (largely unsuccessful) game-show canon. The contestant has won a significant amount of money answering trivia questions, despite getting a sizable percentage (in some cases, most) of those questions wrong, simply by being able to convince a panel of judges that their answer was right. After the contestant wins, say, $25,000, Mandel will comment on the absurdity of the situation: “You just won $25,000 by knowing absolutely nothing.”
This isn’t particularly trenchant analysis on Mandel’s part: It’s purely a statement of fact. Bullsh*t is a combination strategy-and-trivia game show ostensibly modeled after early-aughts hits like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Deal or No Deal that does not reward knowledge of trivia or clever implementation of strategy at all. Instead, it rewards contestants’ ability to convince a panel of three judges (all of whom are themselves being judged based on their ability to discern whether the contestant is telling the truth) that they know the answer to the question in the first place. They attempt to do so usually by invoking long-winded explanations and biographical details that aim to justify their answer. (One contestant, for instance, claims she knows that Walt Disney World uses balsamic vinegar to ward off mosquitoes because she actually worked there; though the contestant was actually a former Disney employee, the answer turned out to be bullshit.)
Bullsh*t proudly crows about prioritizing dishonesty and manipulation over truth-telling and innate intellect. It does not care whether you actually know something; all it cares about is whether you can successfully con a group of people into believing that you do. It has absolutely no compunction about the fact that it promotes these values; it is, on the contrary, a major selling point of the show. For that reason, it is both a perfect and terrifying encapsulation of the actual values of our post-Trump, con man-obsessed, social media-immersed era; and one of the most entertaining TV-watching experiences I’ve had in a long time.
The actual framework of the show is somewhat more confusing than it needs to be, so I won’t belabor it. But basically, the premise of Bullsh*t is as follows: Three panelists are all competing for a spot in the hot seat to answer trivia questions for a $1 million prize. As on Millionaire, there are tiers to the questions, and like Deal, you can “lock in” at certain tiers to ensure you don’t go home empty-handed. Contestants progress through the tiers by successfully bullshitting the panelists, one of whom gets to proceed to the hot seat based on their accuracy in being able to suss out said bullshit.
There are many things that work about Bullsh*t: The contestants are for the most part likable and non-annoying (with the exception of an outrageously irritating former cult member turned drag-brunch host in the final episode); Mandel is basically the most adept and charismatic game show host of all time; and the questions are genuinely difficult and likely to prompt extensive at-home debate (did you know Dali’s Persistence of Memory is only 9 1/2 x 13 inches? I was an art history minor, and I sure didn’t!). Despite competing for money, the panelists and contestants are supportive of each other and they have an easy camaraderie, which is immensely fun to watch; nor does the show rely on contestant sob stories to try to build up viewer sympathy, a refreshing departure from game-show convention.
But by far the most compelling aspect of the show is watching the contestants’ long-winded, backstory-ridden explanations of how they knew the answers. At no point does anyone provide a quasi-reasonable and succinct explanation for how they know the answer to a question; you almost never hear someone say, “I read an article about Idina Menzel jokingly calling John Travolta ‘Glenn Gazinga’ at the Oscars,” or “I know that a tadpole was the first cloned organism in history, because I learned about it at school once.” In order to bullshit that they know an answer to a basically unanswerable question, contestants inevitably drone on and on about how they learned this particular piece of information reading bedtime stories to their kids or traveling through Cincinnati or whilst having an affair with a dashing Argentine football fan. Each narrative is laden with far more detail than it needs to be, and the most shocking aspect of the show is that, more often than not, the panelists, despite purporting to be highly trained skeptics, believe them.
If you are interested in watching Bullsh*t because you’re an aspiring fraud investigator or body language expert who is trying to learn the elusive art of differentiating between truth and a lie, you will likely be sorely disappointed. Most of the panelists’ track records are erratic at best, and pretty much none of the contestants are particularly skilled storytellers or liars. What is fascinating, however, is to watch who gets farthest in Bullsh*t despite that lack of rhetorical skills. The sole contestant who wins a million dollars [spoiler alert] is a white mom of two with a geology background and an aloof, almost willfully uncharismatic demeanor; another contestant who gets fairly far is a middle-aged Vegas cannabis salesman with blindingly white teeth and suspiciously good hair, which frankly would have led me to disqualify him based on his profession alone. Even contestants with staggeringly strong academic credentials — a Stanford Ph.D. candidate, for instance — who would on paper be the most likely to possess hyperspecific knowledge and not be bullshitting, do not get particularly far in the show. It’s hard not to notice that good-looking white people advance most easily on Bullsh*t, and it’s hard not to wonder what implications that may have for how our culture at large views the trustworthiness of those in this demographic, despite many of them having even less actual knowledge than their POC counterparts (it’s also worth noting that this notion is supported by data, with multiple bias studies pointing to the fact that white people view Black people as inherently less trustworthy).
Thankfully for the viewer, however, Bullsh*t is not at all interested in engaging with the sociocultural implications of its messaging; nor does it particularly care what you may think about the inherent morality of a show that actively rewards a contestant’s ability to deceive others. And why should it? If the election of Donald Trump and countless other grifters in Congress, or the success of fraudster-focused shows like Inventing Anna, WeCrashed, and The Dropout are any indication, intellect, achievement, and integrity are no longer considered metrics of success at all; indeed, a few years from now, we very well may view them as strategic disadvantages. It is not the fault of Howie Mandel or his omnipresent blue-rimmed spectacles that Bullsh*t is a refraction of the reality in which we live, and an incredibly entertaining one at that. Ten more seasons of watching extremely likable people lie, please! It’s what the American people both want and deserve.