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What boob tube? TV that teaches

Shows like the Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters" do more than just entertain. They offer lessons that can be applied in real-life situations.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

“Lie to Me” (Fox)

LIE TO ME: Lightman (Tim Roth) infiltrates a state prison to befriend a convicted criminal in the LIE TO ME episode \"Blinded\" airing Wednesday, May 6 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ?2009 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Isabella Vosmikova/FOX

More than any other procedural crime-solving drama on TV today, Fox’s “Lie to Me” invites its audience to play along with its characters, and to take what we’ve learned and use it in our lives. After a character identifies someone as a liar, he or she discusses the revealing micro-expressions that led to their conclusion. That’s often followed by “Lie to Me’s” best part: photographs or video clips of famous people doing the exact same thing that teach us how to spot the same tell. In a March episode, Tim Roth’s character noted that when someone “looks down and away,” that indicates guilt. An image of a character doing that froze on the screen, and as the show went to commercial, it was replaced with rapid-fire images of Michael Vick and Rod Blagojevich both showing the exact same expression. Lesson learned.

“Survivorman” (Discovery Channel)

Unlike the survival show “Man vs. Wild,” whose host Bear Grylls ultimately copped to setting up and faking some situations and being assisted by a crew, “Survivorman” host Les Stroud was alone as he tried to survive in various wilderness environments around the world. After a crew dropped him off (and remained in radio contact), he did everything from finding water to setting up cameras to film himself. That made his demonstration of survival skills and his actual survival all the more informative and real, proving that there’s a lot to be learned from someone else’s actual survival experience.

“Numb3rs” (CBS)

“Numb3rs” is, on the surface, a lot like every other CBS procedural drama like “CSI.” But instead of using forensics to solve crimes, some of its characters use math. Inevitably, a law enforcement character will feign ignorance just to allow one of the FBI consultant professors to launch into a lecture, which allows the show to launch into an alternate universe for a few seconds and make math look sexy. There, standing in a field of black with swirling equations, the character offers an over-simplified version explanation of complex math complete with an easy-to-understand metaphor and illustrations. Viewers may not retain the high-level mathematics, but the explanations look cool and make us feel smart.

“Jockeys” (Animal Planet)

Animal Planet’s docudrama “Jockeys” followed several jockeys in a style that resembled “The Hills.” While there wasn’t a lot of MTV-like drama, the series was a fascinating window into a largely unknown profession that kills an average of two people a year. “Jockeys” revealed information about jockeys’ lives and work, from the kind of behavior that’s not permitted as they race around the track to the fact that everyone in a race except the top three finishers gets well under $100 for their efforts. Other dangerous jobs have similar shows, like Discovery’s awesome “Deadliest Catch,” but Jockeys always kept education at the front of the pack.

“Mythbusters” (Discovery Channel)

Over its six years on the Discovery Channel, “Mythbusters” has been playfully educating the world about the misconceptions we frequently hold. Its cast members use science and experimentation to test the validity of myths, although they often turn to fictional TV shows or film to find subjects, or just stretch the definition of “myth.” Still, the series is still fun to watch, especially when they blow things up or use themselves as test subjects, like when they tested an idiom’s insistence that it’s possible to run faster if you hit the ground running (it’s not), whether it’s possible to swing 360 degrees on a playground swing (nope), or whether a tongue will freeze to a metal pole (it does).