Tag Archives: television

Undeniably Dry but Informative Exploration of FORBIDDEN HISTORY

FORBIDDEN HISTORY

on American Heroes Channel


or

(3/5)

Pros: Choice of topics; straight-forward presentation


Cons: Seems dry when compared to most similar programs

Premiering on British television in 2013 and picked up for broadcast on the (ahem) American Heroes Channel in the years since, documentary series Forbidden History follows the adventures and investigations of journalist Jamie Theakston as he tries to unravel various stories and facts that have been omitted from the history books. The typical, hour-long episode of Forbidden History features the usual assortment of reenactments, interviews, historical accounts, artistic renderings and photographs to present a comprehensive portrait of the topics being examined. Once a basic framework has been established, the program shifts to cover Theakston as he travels to various locations in search of clues and hard evidence. A second season of the program on AHC channel began in late May with an episode dealing with the Oracles of the Dead which existed in the ancient Greek and Roman empires. After Theakston travels to the Baia Archaeological Park and Grotto of the Sibyl near Naples, Italy and the more well-known Oracle of Delphi, the show attempts to discern whether or not these mythical sites offered an honest enlightening experience or were more a smoke and mirrors display designed to relieve attendees of their money.

xogelukkiallwtokqc7nTheakston outside the “treasure chamber” of Petra.

The synopsis of this program should sound very familiar to viewers of America Unearthed or even Destination Unknown, but Forbidden History seems somewhat more generalized, covering more far-reaching topics and is actually formatted more like a standard documentary rather than a stylized – and more obviously entertainment-oriented – reality show. Additionally, while America Unearthed host Scott Wolter and Destination Unknown’s Josh Gates are presented as dashing, semi-heroic figures that are clearly the focal points of their respective shows, Theakston seems somewhat more timid and doesn’t quite come across as the main character of Forbidden History. It’s true that the investigations covered in the show do revolve around him, but Theakston actually falls by the wayside when it comes time for the program to draw conclusions on its topics. This approach ultimately ensures that Forbidden History seems level-headed and fairly credible, at least partially because it doesn’t linger on the same sorts of obvious conspiracy theories that Wolter seems to get off on.

FHs2_grail_LAS_WEB_3_0Eyeing a possible Holy Grail.


The meat and potatoes format of Forbidden History does have a bit of a downside however: this show seems quite dry compared to other vaguely similar programs, a of sorts compared to other programs’ would-be . Theakston doesn’t remotely have the charisma of, say, a Josh Gates, and his “just the facts, ma’am” attitude means that it’s really no wonder that the show doesn’t entirely focus just on his rather humorless exploits. I’ve also got to say that the assemblage of interview subjects featured in this program is somewhat sketchy: regardless of the subject of any individual episode, the same crew of folks (including conspiracy nut and History Channel regular Alan Butler) throw in their two cents, giving the program a some alarming similarities to the increasingly suspect docu-fiction that is Ancient Aliens. I should point out that to its credit, Forbidden History makes every attempt to distinguish between actual, provable fact and outright speculation, thus it seems substantially more honest in its conclusions than proposed by the Ancient Aliens crew.

3a3a9ce91feed1384ac338901716d066You mean to tell me that Theakston doesn’t just buy everything he’s told by the people he’s interviewed?

Generally speaking, Forbidden History is put together nicely, with camerawork that places a viewer in the midst of the action and editing that keeps things moving. Subtle music cues are applied to create mood when appropriate, and the third-party narration has a tendency to offer a viewer questions and cues that promote more serious thought about the topics. Easily the best thing about this program is the range of genuinely fascinating subjects that have been covered. Episodes of this program have dealt with Nikola Tesla, the Nazi UFO project, lost treasures of Petra, Templar conspiracies, the bloodline of Christ and the mystery of the Holy Grail, the existence of giants, and even the Vatican’s cover-up of the Fatima prophecies – Forbidden History certainly covers the bases and offers up a bit of everything. Considering that many similar programs stick to a fairly predictable batch of possible topics, the undeniably eclectic scope of this show is refreshing.

hollowearthgiant1

Amazing how this show manages to tie in with various others on History Channel and beyond…


To be completely honest, Forbidden History isn’t the greatest thing on television these days, but it’s not the worst that’s out there either. This program offers a viewer exactly what would be expected from a documentary series and nothing more, but it covers some intriguing subjects and keeps things focused on actual facts. That alone is noteworthy in an era when speculative programming and outright fabrications run rampant across the television dial. Those interested in esoteric information will probably find this show worthwhile, but those used to more flashy productions may find it dull. I’d give it a moderate recommendation.

Search for the Holy Blood Line:

Contamination of the Redneck Zombies: I WAS BITTEN – THE WALKER COUNTY INCIDENT

I WAS BITTEN: THE WALKER COUNTY INCIDENT on Animal Planet

(2/5)


Pros: Not bad as a sketchy found-footage film

Cons: …it’s getting to be that you can’t trust nothing on the “educational” channels…

After several days of redundant River Monsters specials and some decent legitimate documentaries relating to , , , and , Animal Planet’s Monster Week 2015 finally got around to unleashing yet another test of audience gullibility. First airing on May 22, I Was Bitten: The Walker County Incident follows the story of a young man named Daniel who claims to have been bitten by an unknown creature in the Alabama woods. In typical pseudo-documentary fashion, a film crew quickly arrives to document the man’s inevitable hunt for the creature that attacked him, one which eventually uncovers a particularly ambiguous (and thoroughly unexplained) conspiracy relating to the local nuclear plants. Just when a viewer thinks this program will end without shedding light on anything, The Walker County Incident unleashes one of the worst endings ever seen in this already suspect genre of television. One is left wondering how such a thing wound up airing on a supposedly “educational” channel in the first place: this is virtually tailor-made for the Syfy Channel.

wuh?
No…it can’t be…not another phony documentary passing itself off as the real thing…


Circa 2015, the basic formula for the made-for-cable mockumentary has been well-established – we’ve had multiple seasons of Mountain Monsters after all, along with a host of even more reprehensible imitations. While its main story arc is woefully familiar, what separates The Walker County Incident from its kin is that this program mainly revolves around a single main character as opposed to a team of buffoons. Daniel comes across as the prototypical redneck, albeit one who’s become increasingly paranoid and maybe even delusional since he was attacked near his home by an unknown creature that he speculates may in fact be a zombie. The guy’s main goal is to identify and eliminate his attacker, but he also has to take the safety of his family – namely, a concerned wife along with his gun-toting mother and her Elvis impersonator husband – into account. To that end, Daniel installs a series of CCTV cameras on the property, which he insists on monitoring at all hours of the day. Ultimately, Daniel’s obsession with the beast that attacked him results in an inevitable showdown between the increasingly lethargic and glassy-eyed hunter and his fed-up wife.

if only
If only there was some sort of attack at any point…

Par for the course in a show like this, The Walker County Incident tries its damnedest to pass itself off as a legit documentary. The majority of the show is filmed from the perspective of a camera crew who are (inexplicably) right alongside Daniel as he tracks down his attacker and goes about his daily business. In my opinion, the show looks a little too flashy in terms of its image quality and editing, seeming to capture all-too-convenient angles on various, supposedly live events to be authentic (do you think the camera crew…like…knew what was going to happen before it happened???), but the show does seem to maintain a decent amount of semi-credibility up to its thoroughly ridiculous ending. I could see someone almost …almost… buying into this account prior to the ending, which is jaw-droppingly goofy, making a mockery of everything that came before it. I’ve seen most every one of these faux-documentaries that’s out there and have suffered through some mightily lousy conclusions in my day, but the climax of this program (replete with a “hand over the camera lens” final shot) takes the cake. It really seals the deal on the fact that a viewer has just wasted two hours of life.

show might
Program might have been better had it combined balt salt cannibals with backwoods hunters.

Considering the number of painfully similar programs out there, I hope that most viewers would watch this not because of its supposed verisimilitude, but rather because it’s a somewhat entertaining time waster. If nothing else, this show does make fine use of location shooting: along with the story elements, the director includes numerous montages which help nail down the setting in which the events depicted occur. These sequences are somewhat reminiscent of certain moments captured in the first season of HBO’s True Detective, and they go a long way in establishing Walker County, Alabama as a sort of decaying hell on Earth, ripe with pollution and plenty of tall tales. As is the case with many of today’s found footage-type productions, The Walker County Incident also utilizes different types of cameras, including cellphone videos and nightvision footage in the finished film along with the more professional-looking narrative camerawork. Interviews conducted with locals unaffiliated with the production itself are thrown in to add flavor to the proceedings, and the overall editing of the show is quite slick, with appropriate music cues and over-emphasized sound added at key moments.

edubucation
One has to wonder what sort of edubucation folks get in the Walker County School System…

Even if the production would be somewhat compelling for those who thrive on monster-related programming however, there’s really no denying that The Walker County Incident is sluggish in terms of how it plays out. There are very few genuinely exciting sequences in this ninety-odd minute show (two hours with commercials), and a vast majority of its running time is dedicated to documenting Daniel’s increasingly eccentric everyday life. We see the belligerent young man going to several doctors who attempt to analyze the strange injuries Daniel sustained during the attack and he even tries hypnosis to recall details about the incident that he had forgotten over time. These sequences do add dramatic tension to the piece, most of which relates to Daniel’s deteriorating relationship with his wife Krystal. Unfortunately, not only would most viewers have seen this sort of material before (it’s exactly what one would expect, with minimal imagination applied in an effort to spice things up), but the story also gets plain dumb at times, hitting a lowpoint when Krystal blows her top after Daniel skips out in the middle of one of his stepfather’s Elvis-inspired performances. Combine the predictability and absurdity of the story elements with the fact that there are so few moments of genuine tension or suspense and one is left with a program that’s not only genuinely ludicrous but also plain dull for most of its duration. The writers make absolutely no effort to explain a damn thing with regard to the creature/entity/force being investigated, and a viewer is left to stare perplexed and googly-eyed at the screen by the time this thing is over.

hell...
Hell, this story sounds as reasonable as anything put forth in this “documentary.”

Relying almost entirely on smoke and mirrors to sustain viewer interest, The Walker County Incident never quite compensates for the fact that it’s heavy on dialogue and speculation but contains nary a smidgen of actual “evidence.” Of all the recent phony documentaries dealing with unexplained phenomena (The Devil’s Graveyard), mysterious events (Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives), or unknown creatures (Wrath of Submarine), The Walker County Incident is probably among the more disappointing of the bunch – primarily because it doesn’t solve a damn thing, unveiling a cop-out ending right when the audience should be getting the veritable money shot. Capably shot and well-assembled but essentially a semi-ripoff of History Channel’s Cryptid: The Swamp Beast, I Was Bitten: The Walker County Incident offers nothing new to the savvy viewer. It might be acceptable as a C-grade found-footage thriller, but I’d call it rainy day entertainment at best.


RAWR

Here We Go Again…TRUE SUPERNATURAL

TRUE SUPERNATURAL on Destination America Channel

(2/5)

Pros: Interesting subject matter

Cons: …oh, it’s another one of shows…

Midway through a third season of Mountain Monsters that’s proven to be the most absurd yet, the Destination America channel has unleashed a mostly straight-faced program dealing with mysteries and monsters that provides an alternate to watching supposed investigator “Wild Bill” Neff grill corn on the engine block in his Ford or explain his tendency to name his push mowers after American presidents. Though its name might indicate that it falls more in line with the many “Ghost Hunter” shows out there, True Supernatural has more in common with Science Channel’s The Unexplained Files since it seems to be more wide-reaching in its approach, tackling most any subject that exists outside the realms of normal explanation.

gee...
Gee…d’ya suppose they’re going to drag out that dead “Chupacabra” again at some point?

Featuring the usual assortment of reenactments, talking head interviews and a spattering of actual “evidence,” the series premiered on April 8, 2015 with an episode that covered a pair of stories, at least one of which should be very familiar to paranormal enthusiasts – the alien abduction case of Betty and Barney Hill. Occurring in 1961, this incident is regarded as the first of its kind, and the program does its part to provide a (relatively toned-down) crash course in the particulars of the case. The other point of focus for the debut episode is the so-called “Rocky Mountain Demon Wolf.” After years of anecdotal reports, many of which came from AmerIndians, a bizarre, hyena-like creature actually was shot and killed in the late 1800s. After being lost for decades, the preserved carcass of the creature was recently rediscovered, leading to renewed interest in trying to identify the beast.

you'd look like that too
You’d have that morose too if you’d been kidnapped by aliens….

Like many other modern Unsolved Mystery-type programs, a main idea of True Supernatural is to apply science to these enigmatic stories. In the case of the Hill abduction, this mainly involves DNA analysis of the dress that Betty was wearing when the alleged abduction occurred. Past examinations of the article have revealed strange, pink-colored stains in certain areas which were reportedly handled by the extraterrestrial beings, yet new scientific techniques may be able to provide new information and maybe even an explanation as to what actually occurred more than five decades ago. The carcass of the “demon wolf” is also subjected to expert analysis during the course of this episode, although a squabble over ownership of the specimen has hampered efforts to test the remains.

beast of gevaudan
The Beast of Gevaudan which terrorized France in the 1700s – could the “demon wolf” killed in the late 1800s be a similar, unknown creature?

While all this actual science sounds great – and believe you me, the narration throughout the program does its best to “sell” the potential bombshells that analysis could reveal, I don’t think I’m really giving anything away by revealing that nothing much comes out of any of the hoopla put forth in the show. As is standard with regard to this type of speculative documentary, a viewer is left with more questions than definitive answers once everything is said and done – which isn’t necessarily a bad call considering how willing some people are to declare that a conspiracy is going on if science doesn’t provide the answers that they are looking for. If True Supernatural finishes things off by not explaining everything, all possibilities still exist…which means that the believers out there can keep on believing.

caution

Another area in which True Supernatural is quite similar to other programs of this sort is in its choice of subject matter. Browsing a brief list of future episodes, it seems like the producers have chosen to cover a nice variety of topics, alternating between stories about genuine mysteries and ones dealing with unknown creatures such as Bigfoot. Considering how popular monster/cryptozoology shows have been in recent years, this seems like a good call, but I’m forced to again go back to a point I’ve made before: how many times can these programs cover the same sorts of material? Is there honestly anything new to be added to these arguments…or perhaps I should ask whether additional scientific testing will reveal anything earth-shattering. In covering the same topics that have been explored elsewhere, True Supernatural, like many shows before it, seems mostly to be recycling material, which doesn’t much make for ground-breaking television as far as I’m concerned.

this

What is somewhat new is this program’s format: instead of using the usual investigative report format in which the show is broken down into separate segments, True Supernatural presents both stories covered in its episodes concurrently. This does mix up the (very tiresome) formula one might expect in a show of this nature, but I don’t think it’s an especially effective way to relate information. The debut episode seemed a bit awkward as it randomly switched back and forth between its topics, and I also found that the omnipresent narration was extremely repetitive, apparently designed specifically for viewers made brain-dead through exposure to too much awful reality television. To be completely honest, this program drags significantly and seems almost entirely to be composed of material that’s little more than glorified filler. Once the background information into the Hill case and demon wolf was presented, the episode proceeded to repeat information ad nauseum in an attempt to build anticipation for a “big reveal” moment that simply didn’t materialize nor actually provide any new information. The question then becomes why anyone would waste an hour watching a show that could easily cram its information and arguments into about a fifteen minute block.


Cue the Bigfoot episode now for maximum tie-in value!

If anything has been proven over the years since In Search Of…, it’s that so-called “paranormal television” provides a reliable – and increasingly easy – way to get butts in the seat. Hell, even if most of these shows are complete bunk and aren’t at all what I would label as being good television, I can’t help but be fascinated by the subjects they cover. In the end then, I suppose that True Supernatural provides a viewer with exactly what he would want from a show of this nature. It’s not a great series by a long shot and almost certainly won’t solve any longstanding mysteries as it goes along, but there’s no doubt it would appeal to curious viewers.

waiting....

D.o.A.: KILLING BIGFOOT

KILLING BIGFOOT on Destination America

(0.5/5)

Pros: Fairly serious and more credible than the lot of similar programs

Cons: Everything is very familiar and I simply can’t for the life of me condone this show’s message

With the current, rather pathetic wave of cryptozoological (read: monster) related reality television shows coming to an end and a few weeks before the new season of Finding Bigfoot starts, it was only a matter of time – a week to be exact – before the Destination America channel’s next monster show would turn up. Unfortunately, as this genre as a whole has become ever more phony, goofy and unbelievable, Killing Bigfoot, which premiered on Friday, October 24, 2014, appears to be deadly serious – and, in my opinion, completely reprehensible. Following the exploits of another acronym-defined paranormal research group (the GCBRO – Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization; they have their own hats so that means that must be legit), the show attempts not just to find one of the hairy, bipedal apes rumored to exist in the woodlands of Texas, Lousiana, and Arkansas, but kill one of the creatures to prove their existence once and for all.

Yes, as one eyewitness points out with regard to the unknown hominids, “most people just let ‘em be.” Not our gang of trigger-happy bayou folk. That’s just not how they roll…

oh snap

Working off the same pattern that led to shows like Mountain Monsters, Swamp Monsters, Monsters Underground, and Alaska Monsters (UGH! – that has to be one of the worst quartets of shows imaginable), Killing Bigfoot begins with a brief, stylized introduction to the eight-man team the program revolves around, a group of “vets, ex-cops, and hardcore woodsmen” who are shown in the opening montage cocking huge shotguns and blowing away paper targets shaped like the (in)famous . Multiple people featured in the show are identified as “snipers,” while a few – including one fella who’s name is given as “Grumpy” – are given the task of “investigator”; hell, I was cracking up imagining that the show existed as a deranged version of Snow White and the Seven Dorks. Mainly, this crew goes about the normal monster investigation routine – interviewing witnesses, looking for proof in the swamps and forests of western Louisiana, and conducting night investigations that tread suspiciously close to looking like what one would find on the typical hunting program since they involve multiple people traipsing through the woods with shotguns at the ready. What’s shocking about the show is that, unlike the increasingly preposterous monster-related shows on Destination America channel, the characters…er people featured in Killing Bigfoot don’t seem to believe they’re part of an ongoing hoax or comedic program. These guys really are trying to kill a Sasquatch.

leave it to texas
Leave it to Texas to declare that it’s legal to kill Bigfoot…

Right there, I’m already on the verge of writing this program off on principle alone. To me, that this group of supposed investigators’ first response when encountering an unknown creature – even one that reportedly is mighty similar in both appearance and behavior to human beings – is to “bag it and tag it,” is disgusting. It’s this kind of pompous, gung-ho attitude that has caused many problems in recent years (read into that what you like), and it’s about the most unscientific, irresponsible thing I’ve ever heard when mentioned in regard to the existence of unknown creatures. Sure, a Sasquatch corpse likely would silence all the critics – but I can’t in any way, shape, or form condone the wanton killing of an unknown creature just to prove its out there. In all likelihood, if these creatures do in fact exist (in which case, their habitat is rapidly decreasing due to human population expansion), they’re incredibly rare and by eliminating a breeding member of their population, the survival of the species as a whole is potentially put in jeopardy. All one has to do is examine the history of the , or to see what effect the kind of mentality put forth in this show can have on the animal kingdom.

I know harry, I know
I know Harry…I know.

By autumn 2014, television producers are old pros at making programs of this nature and the ultimate flaw of Killing Bigfoot (aside from its careless main theme of shoot first, brag about it later) is that everything here is painfully familiar. Despite that, I have to admit that this program seems substantially more credible than the likes of Mountain Monsters/Swamp Monsters/Alaska Monsters. First of all, the GCBRO members here don’t just conveniently stumble into the path of the creature they’re seeking: though the show’s narrator informs us that there are “signs of the creatures all around,” we never get any proof of Bigfoot’s existence – or a massive, fabricated pursuit of an unknown beast during the episode. This, in my mind, is indicative of the fact that the producers are at least to some extent attempting to make a more factual, level-headed program whose primary goal is not necessarily just to shock a viewer with how asinine the whole production is (as seems to be the case with most other monster shows).

um
Um…just what is that?

Refreshingly, though the show may feature some of the worst sighting reenactments I’ve ever seen, not one character featured in Killing Bigfoot falls in line with being labeled as the goofball, “wild card” or loose cannon (i.e. the , , or character) – this gang seems dead serious, although this has repercussions in the long run. Namely, the show is nowhere near as entertaining as some of its other, unbelievably ludicrous monster-hunting kin. There isn’t a whole lot of camaraderie on display between team member and there aren’t obvious jokes and wisecracks being traded around continuously – hell, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the GCBRO was made up of people who hate each other even if they are rather civil about it. As might also be expected, the climactic “night hunt” sequence is pretty low-key – not much of anything happens and the show’s conclusion is more or less ambiguous (even with the obligatory cliffhanger).

told ya
Told you – the GCBRO has its own line of stylish caps. It’s gotta be a legit organization, right?        RIGHT???!?

Ever since Mountain Monsters changed the very nature of the crypto-reality show through the use of obvious fabrication, I’ve been wondering if any producers of this type of program would have the balls to make a show in which a monster wasn’t instantly, inexplicably found and chased down. Dumb as it is, watching a group of actors … I mean “monster hunters” … stumble around in the dark chasing phantoms has its appeal on a purely stupid level. As some have pointed out in the commentary on my no star review of Alaska Monsters, watching the show is like looking at a car crash – and the statement is true. I’ve just never quite come to terms with the fact that in order to watch these shows, I had to give up an hour of my life that would be MUCH better served doing something more rewarding and/or worthwhile. Problematic though it is in many, many ways, Killing Bigfoot to its benefit doesn’t automatically assume its viewers are morons looking for supposed entertainment of the lowest, most idiotic variety (and let’s be honest – most of these monster shows are designed for people who would watch just about anything if it was on TV). In a way, I appreciate its serious tone and apparent focus on faux-authenticity – no documentary can ever be entirely objective, but this show seems vastly more reasonable than many similar shows and for that it deserves some measure of credit.

just what we need...
Just what we need: another monster show, and another bunch of gun-happy “investigators” trying to shoot phantoms…and each other.

Try as I might however, I don’t think anything could ever make up for this show’s main premise as it goes out of its way to pursue its own, unreasonable agenda: when you’ve got multiple persons attempting to convince a viewer that Bigfoot should be killed to protect the residents of Louisiana…and GASP! their grandchildren…I could do nothing except shake my head at the screen. This type of blatant and unfounded paranoia-inspiring fear-mongering is dangerous in terms of what affect it has on viewers and one of the main problems if not the main problem with American media. Is it really us humans who should be afraid of Sasquatch, a creature which, if we’re to judge upon reliable evidence, has never posed any serious threat to people? Or is it Sasquatch who should be afraid of us, a species who not only randomly kills virtually every other animal on earth, sometimes purely for sport, but even kills members of its own species for the most fickle reasons imaginable? You be the judge. I’m giving Killing Bigfoot a half a star and I’d urge most viewers to avoid it.

from on .

An Epic Portrait of American Royalty: THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY

THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY on PBS

logo

(4/5)

Pros: Well-researched; strong presentation; very educational

Cons: Undeniably “dry” when compared to most modern documentaries

The latest in a string of epic documentaries produced for public television (i.e. PBS) by filmmaker Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is a seven-part, roughly fourteen-hour series premiering in September 2014 that chronicles the history of one of America’s most important political dynasties from a period in the mid-1800s until Eleanor Roosevelt’s death in 1962. Starting off by examining the roots of the family in New York State, The Roosevelts’ premiere episode, entitled “Get Action,”goes on to detail how Theodore Roosevelt rose to power in the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. A viewer starts to realize through the program that Theodore’s rise to political prominence was rather unlikely: after suffering from physical limitations early on in life, Theodore eventually had to work through several tragedies that occurred early on in his political career. All the while the documentary tells the story of how Theodore began a life of adventure in the American west to get his wits back about him after the deaths of his first wife and mother on the same day in 1884, Burns also devotes time to explaining the early life of Theodore’s cousin Franklin Delano, who was born into a different branch of the family. “Get Action” finishes with Theodore taking over the presidency of the United States after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, a situation that would not only have a profound effect on the country but also on Theodore’s younger cousin who now saw proof that perseverance and hard work could pay off…

1914
Teddy (left) and FDR (right) in 1914.

Much like earlier Ken Burns documentaries, The Roosevelts relies on various sources and archival materials to tell its story. While the series does feature omniscient narration (provided by the always reliable Peter Coyote) and has the expected group of “talking head” historians who offer their two cents in analyzing the events taking place in the ongoing narrative, Burns and writer Geoffrey C. Ward often rely on actual first-hand accounts written by the subjects of the documentary themselves which are recited by a group of actors (including Paul Giamatti who portrays Theodore, Edward Herrmann who voices Franklin, and Meryl Streep as Eleanor). This technique goes a long way in making the production seem like it is, as advertised, an “intimate history:” the viewer often is told the story right from the horse’s mouth as it were, and the insight into various well-known and not-so well-known historical events is undeniably fascinating. This series certainly seems like a “peek behind the curtain” of a much-revered and admired family.

rough riders
In its explanation of Teddy’s action during the Spanish-American War, the series includes several detailed battle descriptions – fascinating stuff.

Along with these anecdotes, Burns also provides a wealth of archival images that speak to the amount of research and work that went into this production. Including both iconic, instantly recognizable images and ones taken from more private collections, these photographs are perhaps best in their ability to help establish the setting that this documentary is attempting to chronicle. This seems an important aspect of the production to me, since the period discussed in this series is one that few (if any) people would have first-hand knowledge about. Obviously, technology changed immensely from the time that Theodore Roosevelt was leading the so-called “Rough Riders” in Cuba to the period in which Pearl Harbor was bombed thus entering the United States into the Second World War, and I would anticipate that the format of the series may change slightly as it progresses to include more vintage film elements over static images. Either way, Burns does include contemporary scenes from time to time to make this production a bit more digestible to modern audiences used to a more flashy production.

FDR
FDR – a voice of reason during a period of national crisis

That last statement is indicative of one criticism I might have about this documentary. By 2014, after having worked on numerous productions of this nature, Burns’ documentary formula is pretty well-established and seems bland compared to the more vibrant, modern documentary style. In many ways, The Roosevelts could be seen as a rather “dry,” old-fashioned documentary: it’s precisely the type of no-nonsense production that I recall having to watch in school on many occasions (this same basic format was used for Burns’ Civil War for instance). Additionally, even if Burns’ selection of music is perfectly acceptable given the subject matter he’s covering, the format of having an actor reading journal entries over distant, dramatic music almost becomes cheesy in context of modern film making and/or documentary technique. To put it simply, this type of thing would be likely to put some younger viewers and maybe even older audiences to sleep: the production as a whole seems almost lackadaisical in terms of its mood and forward momentum.

Eleanor
Eleanor, who redefined the role of the “First Lady.”

It’s a good thing then that the amount and quality of information presented in this film is truly outstanding. While I’m no presidential scholar, I certainly have at least a passing familiarity with various aspects of American history, and I found that this documentary provided a ton of information that I hadn’t been aware of or had forgotten over time. There’s also some interesting food-for-thought provided in the form of inevitable comparisons that could be made between the times when Theodore and FDR were president (and the era between their two presidencies) and the modern age. I found several quotes and analysis by the historians to be especially fascinating in a modern context: Theodore’s declaration to “never let party zeal obscure [his] sense of right and decency” is a statement that I would scoff at coming from the mouths of one of today’s politicians. In an era where congressional approval ratings are in the single digits and politicians (at best) seem too caught up in personal gain and cronyism, it seems outrageous that genuine altruists of the Roosevelt variety would be elected to office – or not be corrupted beyond recognition if they did.

teddy
Teddy Roosevelt: Big game hunter, warmonger, and Imperialist?

As much as the historians interviewed in the program to an extent do seem to be offering up near-endless praise to the subjects of the documentary, they aren’t afraid to point out flaws in the Roosevelts either. A significant amount of time is paid in the first episode to the notion that Theodore may not only have been somewhat mentally unstable, but also a bit of a warmonger who “reveled in gore.” Additionally, the observation that Teddy was an outright Imperialist isn’t necessarily a flattering one, yet may explain a few things about American foreign policy that are still relevant today. The film also doesn’t ignore the fact that Eleanor and Franklin were (gulp!) related – or shy away from discussing FDR’s extramarital activities. In the end, though the series sometimes seems pretty warm and fuzzy, it appears to present an accurate and fairly objective portrait.

three subjects

Even if it’s not the most flashy thing I’ve ever seen, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is quite riveting and compelling for what it is, and would be about a must for those seriously interested in the American presidency or the country’s history in general. The series as a whole is exceedingly well put-together – the editing of Paul Barnes is extraordinary in its ability to juggle the stories of three different family members (Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor) at any given time, and the program presents a veritable smorgasbord of facts and archival material. As good as the early episodes have been, I can only imagine the series would get better as it goes along and covers seemingly more significant (and more well-known) segments in the lives of its subjects. One of Ken Burns’ most admirable talents as a documentarian is that he makes comprehensive and indeed almost exhaustive analyses of historical subjects tolerable for mainstream audiences, and I’d have to say that he’s come up with another winner here. It might not impress younger viewers, but this sober and all-encompassing series is undoubtedly excellent.

Why…Just Why? ALASKA MONSTERS

ALASKA MONSTERS

image-placeholder

(0/5)

Pros: May amuse some people, though that may be an indication that there’s no longer any hope left for humanity

Cons: Completely…utterly…hopelessly unnecessary, phonier than a three dollar bill, and dumber than five boxes of rocks

Another week; another positively ludicrous phony monster hunt program. Alaska Monsters is the Destination America channel’s latest entry in the crypto-reality genre, following the exploits of a monster hunting crew located in the “last frontier” of the forty-ninth state. As has come to be the norm, we have the usual gang of characters: team leader “Little Bear,” a trap engineer named Todd, tech specialist Levi, a fellow named Rhett who’s billed as the “rookie,” a trapper named “Face” who’s the obvious “wild card” of the group and finally, a “researcher” who goes by the name of – get ready for it – “Crusty.” This gang, known as the “Midnight Sons” has been tracking creatures in Alaska since 2008 (at least if you believe anything this show is trying to tell you), and in the first episode of the reality show revolving around them, go in search of Alaska’s Bigfoot-like creature that’s known locally as the “Wild Man.”

first episode
On the first episode of Alaska Monsters, the team searches for “security expert” Huckleberry. Wait…that ain’t right…

The program follows the now very well-established monster hunt formula to a ‘T’: it starts with the initial night “recon” mission, involves a few eyewitness accounts (one of whom declares he was “out here gettin’ wood with my dog…” sounds like a personal problem), and sputters towards a final “midnight hunt” that puts the team directly in the path of an imaginary beast created solely through dubbed-in sound effects and blank expressions of fear from the actors…er…team members. Alaska Monsters seems a bit more modern in terms of the gear used during the investigations featured on it: in this first episode, the team not only utilizes night vision and FLIR infrared technology, but also a small drone with a camera mounted on it to survey the nearby landscape. This allows the seemingly misplaced Levi character (who seems not at all at home alongside a group of people one would expect to see waiting in line at the local soup kitchen) a sense of purpose in the show. Rhett, on the other hand, has nary a thing to do throughout the program and I’m not even sure that he takes part in the final night investigation that mainly involves the team tramping around a saw mill with firearms at the ready. After some obviously scripted “suspense” (“Oh no! A production assistant is shaking this blind I’m sitting in!”) and plenty of dubious acting on the part of the cast, the team walks away without a single solitary piece of evidence relating to the creature they’ve been pursuing. The show (like every episode of Mountain Monsters) ends with the crew making vague insinuations and wisecracks about the existence of the creature in an attempt to convince a viewer that he hasn’t just witnessed a load of complete bullshit.

supposedly scary scene
This poorly concocted, “scary” scene stands as the premiere episode’s climax.

It really is astonishing to me that somewhere, some network executive is giving each and every one of these absolutely ridiculous and devastatingly pointless monster programs the green light – and actually spending some money on their production. The ultimate sad fact about shows like this one, Monsters Underground, Swamp Monsters and Mountain Monsters (which lost all credibility or, more importantly, sense of fun it once had during a painful to behold second season) is that they make shows like Destination Truth and even Finding Bigfoot look not only like top-notch entertainment but actually, undeniably credible. Let’s not forget that Destination Truth’s host Josh Gates wasn’t at all afraid to admit that he found no evidence of the at best rare and more probably completely imaginary creatures he was seeking and Finding Bigfoot still has not one solid bit of evidence after five full seasons. The notion of a monster hunt program that doesn’t instantaneously come up with a creature seems almost preposterous in context of this new breed of monster hunt programs exemplified by any of the Mountain Monsters clones that not only invents fictitious and frequently outlandish beasts, but then tries extremely hard through glaringly phony video evidence, sketchy eyewitness reports, and falsified, scripted scenarios to convince the audience of their actual flesh and blood existence. I’m kind of scared to see what happens on the next season of Finding Bigfoot: will that show even continue when it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that there’s still nothing on the hill?

After an overload of absurdly similar and increasingly worthless programs, I would hope that most people would recognize the fact that very few of these monster-related shows are even making any attempt to be authentic in their presentation of content. Hence, it’s impossible for any savvy viewer to take these shows as anything except entertainment – they clearly are not documentaries. That said, it’s surprising how lousy most of them are in the entertainment department, and I think most of that is directly related to the fact that there is absolutely no originality to these shows. Alaska Monsters is a carbon copy of Mountain Monsters, a fact which is best exhibited by examining the characters. Trap builder Todd (much in the way his counterpart Willy does in Mountain Monsters) sets about building the most outrageously elaborate and positively impractical traps one could possibly imagine. In order to catch a Bigfoot-like creature, Todd constructs a “cylinder snare trap” – basically a huge tube with a system in place to close metal wire around a creature trapped inside of it. Why any beast would actually go inside this contraption in the first place is never explained (do these “expert trackers” not realize that their human stench would be hanging over this device like a fog?), and it’s no surprise when something goes wrong with the mechanics of the device and it’s not actually unusable.

acting
ACTING!

Additionally, we have smarmy narration provided by the appropriately named “Crusty,” a guy who seems vaguely unlikable and sleazy (or maybe it’s just that I can’t see the fashion value of the animal claw he wears in his thick, bushy beard) and “Face,” the obligatory “wild card” character who talks in a raspy, cartoonish voice and achieves moments of enlightenment when discussing wild man “doo doo” and imitating Fred Flintstone. I couldn’t possibly make this stuff up. The characters here seem way too “hammy” and almost make Vincent Price performances from the 1970s look restrained in comparison. All in all, there’s simply no way one could take anything in Alaska Monsters seriously – not when “Little Bear,” sporting an outfit that makes him look like a complete d-bag, starts mystically playing a pitch pipe around a campfire and discusses his tendency to “burn sage.” Seriously, where’s Bobo and Ranae when you need them?


So…”Little Bear” (in center) is wearing ass-less chaps, some sort of fur stole, a cowboy hat with the face of a small weasel on it, a fistful of gold rings, and a big, blinging medallion shaped like either a grizzly bear or a domestic hog. And we’re supposed to take this show at all seriously.

I’ve gotten to the point where there’s no way to even describe how atrocious shows like Alaska Monsters really are: this fails horribly as a monster-related program due to not having one iota of credibility, but even as the trashy, clinically dumb piece of populist entertainment that it is, it’s a complete waste, way too similar to other monster hunt shows that any viewer who watches this program probably would be familiar with. The producers don’t seem to be aware of the fact that they’re running this genre of television into the ground through pure, unadulterated, unchecked overkill, and I sincerely hope that someone behind the scenes is making hay while the sun shines, because the genre of the crypto-reality show is very quickly outlasting its relevance and has already overstayed its welcome. Programs like Alaska Monsters not only seem entirely capable of ruining anyone viewer’s interest in the subject of cryptozoology, but make me long for a program where a mysterious creature isn’t instantly located by a group of morons whose idea of “tracking” a creature is whooping, hollering, screaming, and careening through the forest while explaining each and every obvious move they’re making to an audience who is well aware of the absurdity of what they’re watching. I also don’t need any scenes of hobo-looking fellas giving each other a brofist each time they make a smart-ass, scripted remark about a fantasy creature. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m actually looking forward to the new season of Finding Bigfoot just to provide some sort of balance to a genre that’s well out of control at this point – better prepare the lifeboats just in case though…

“One Way or Another, We All Want to Escape…” HOUDINI: The Miniseries

HOUDINI on The History Channel

(2/5)

Pros: Nice photography; sharp-looking production

Cons: Very crudely made, with a frankly horrible script and sloppy direction

After what’s seemed like a media blitzkrieg in recent weeks, History Channel unveiled the first installment of its two-part biographical miniseries Houdini on Monday, September 1, 2014. Considering all the hype, the finished product seems both rushed and dubious in terms of its presentation of the world’s most famous magician and illusionist. Born Erich Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary in 1874 and immigrating to the United States so that his father could become the rabbi of a congregation in Wisconsin, Weisz took up the name of “Harry Houdini” (a sort of homage to French magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin) and became a traveling magician on the carny circuit, debuting as a magician in 1891. By the end of the decade, Houdini (married to a fellow performer named Bess who had taken over as his assistant) had gained fame for his ability to escape from handcuffs and jail cells, often staging these demonstrations publicly.

houdini, the man
Houdini, the man…

The Houdini miniseries chronicles the major events of the magician’s life, starting with a haphazard retelling of his childhood. From here, the narrative skips around a bit and focuses largely on the development and execution of Houdini’s trademark escapes, including ones where he escaped from the inside of a steel milk container, from inside a safe, and even from a “Chinese Water Torture Chamber” while being suspended upside-down. This first episode also devotes time to detailing the relationship between Houdini and his wife Bess, but this is one of the areas where the program seems to go a little astray.


…and a progression of screen representations. Adrien Brody on far right.

In my mind, the writer here (Nicholas Meyer, perhaps best known as the writer and/or director of several of the Star Trek films) has taken some pretty extensive liberties in telling this story – and seems to have had an ulterior motive to reveal the secrets behind as many magic tricks as possible, thus violating the cardinal rule of magicians. Houdini seems heavily dramatized to the point where one could make a strong case for this being a presentation of revisionist history. Officially based on Bernard C. Meyer’s 1976 book Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait, Nicholas Meyer’s script very much plays out in that sort of manner, more focused on what’s going on in Houdini’s head than on accurately portraying the events of his life. This tactic becomes especially noticeable during a few scenes (which will undoubtedly interest students of Freud) in which Houdini’s father intrudes on the narrative as a threatening figure. Personally, I found these attempts to delve into Houdini’s mindset to be thoroughly distracting: a sequence in which Houdini attempts to “catch” a bullet fired from a musket in his teeth becomes hilariously overblown when the German soldier shooting the firearm suddenly transforms into a hallucination of Houdini’s father. Subtlety is not one of this film’s strong points.

on stage
Wife Bess (Kristen Connolly) and Houdini (Adrien Brody) on stage.

Houdini plays out as if Meyer and director Uli Edel (whose filmmaking career has been all over the place since the genuinely excellent German-made 1983 coming of age film Christiane F.) are making this into one big, painfully predictable soap opera. I’m not by any stretch an expert on Houdini’s personal life, but for him to have stereotypically strained relationships with both his wife and his father seems like it may be a stretch – a gimmick invented just for the purpose of making this miniseries more melodramatic. Similarly questionable is the script’s decision to devote a substantial amount of time to the idea that Houdini may have been a spy working for the U.S. government during his tours of Europe in the early twentieth century. This idea has become more popular in recent years following works like William Kalush and Larry Sloman’s The Secret Life of Houdini published in 2007. In my estimation, such claims are rather far fetched: focusing a significant (or really, any) amount of time on them in this History Channel biopic suggests that there’s not a whole lot in Houdini that a viewer can really take at face value.

major excapes
Houdini chronicles all the major events of the magician’s life, but there’s no vitality to the piece.

Another major issue I had was the fact that there is extensive use of voiceover in this film – the Houdini character is constantly explaining himself in monologue to the camera. This makes the whole program seem sloppy in terms of its construction – especially when one factors in the relatively high number of montages that exist. Meyer and in turn, director Edel appear to be telling the story in about as lazy and convenient a manner as possible, with little creativity or inspiration. As is the case with many modern films, Edel relies on a string of CGI visuals to distract a viewer into believing he’s watching something that’s better than it actually is. Though the computer graphics allow the viewer to see the inner workings of various locks as Houdini manipulates their gears and pins and also allow for breathtaking views of the skylines of New York City, London, and Berlin circa 1900, during a few moments in this first episode, Houdini borders on being downright laughable due to its soap opera theatrics. The bathroom confrontation between Houdini and his wife (in which he screams about her kissing another man while she urges him to “stop being dramatic” – advice that screenwriter Meyer should have followed himself) and a scene in which Houdini showers his mother with gold coins are ludicrous and very nearly unintentionally hilarious in the manner they’re set-up onscreen. It’s not difficult to see why Edel hasn’t gotten much work in the United States since he fumbled his way through 1993’s Body of Evidence – a film whose sole reason for existence was to feature Madonna naked as much as humanly possible.

prepping
Houdini, Jim Collins (played by Evan Jones) and Bess prepare the straight-jacket escape.

One might have hoped that Academy Award winner Adrien Brody would have known better than to star in this thing, but here he is, playing Houdini as a sort of pompous, self-affected and disturbed genius with a bit of an Oedipus complex. The very pretty Kristen Connolly playing Bess comes across as the typical, long suffering wife, a portrayal that doesn’t seem particularly accurate. There’s a constant hostility between these two characters that makes neither of them the least bit likable, in turn making the whole of the first part of Houdini a definitive downer to watch. A variety of mostly unknown actors fill out the remainder of the roles here, with Evan Jones perhaps having the most to do as Jim Collins, who worked behind the scenes to design Houdini’s illusions. Generally speaking, the actors in this film were fine, it was the script that they were given – and the presentation of that script – that wound up being problematic.

the real houdini
The real Houdini preparing for a near-fatal dive off the Queen Street Bridge in Melbourne, Australia. This scene both begins and ends part one of the mini-series.

Though the attention to period detail was generally well-done and the production had some nicely-constructed individual sequences (one of the aspects I liked the most were slickly edited moments in which Houdini’s “life flashes before his eyes”), the first half of Houdini, taken as a whole, was disappointing and clearly focused on style over substance. I’ve often pointed out that it’s most unfortunate that pieces like this have to be rather dubious in terms of their historical accuracy: the information presented in this miniseries would represent the only information many viewers are likely to get about Houdini, hence, this crowd would now view the greatest magician the world has ever known as a womanizer with father issues and a horrible home life. I suppose I really shouldn’t be all that shocked that Houdini would turn out to be a somewhat (or is it mostly?) sensationalized biopic that, with its occasionally frenzied editing scheme, use of “pulse-pounding music,” and fractured, clumsy narrative, seems tailor-made for the ADHD generation (a crowd that would probably enjoy it).  Clearly, this miniseries (like most of the “educational” programs on television nowadays) is designed to hook viewers with flash and pizazz while not necessarily being all that historically accurate or educationally sound. Still, even as the edutainment piece is quite obviously is, Houdini seems sketchy at best; sure, it’s a handsome production, but I might be inclined to skip it entirely.

Shoot First, Invent Monster Later: SWAMP MONSTERS on Discovery Channel

SWAMP MONSTERS on Discovery Channel

(0.5/5)

Pros: Lots of gunfire – it must be good then, right?

Cons: A complete waste of time – it’s not even remotely entertaining or good for a few laughs

Late in the going of the premiere episode of the newest “let’s hunt down a monster” program called Swamp Monsters, one of the characters in the show declares that the whole operation of tracking down a mysterious, dog-like creature “seemed choreographed.” Truer words have never been spoken in the genre of “speculative documentary” programming dealing with the process of hunting down purported monsters…

I'll just leave this here...
I’ll just leave this here…

Blatantly ripping off the basic formula of Mountain Monsters (a show that was none too great in its own right), Swamp Monsters follows a quartet of outdoorsmen from the – get ready for it – Bayou Enforcement Agency for Supernatural Threats (or BEAST) as they “risk life and limb” to investigate reports of various monster-like creatures in the Louisiana bayou. Impossibly, within moments of starting their investigation, the crew is revealed to be “hot on the trail” of the creatures they’re looking for – despite the fact that the animals they’re after probably don’t exist in the first place. The show’s premiere episode (airing August 28, 2014 on the Discovery Channel) dealt with the pursuit of a “devil dog” sort of creature known locally as the “Grunch.” Following a handful of interviews with some of the most sketchy eyewitnesses in monster-related reality TV history and the employment of a half-assed, almost ridiculously elaborate trapping system designed to capture the creature in question, the BEAST group eventually goes on the offensive during a nighttime hunt in which they arm themselves to the teeth with what appears to be semi-automatic rifles. Here’s the kicker though: despite their trap being “infallible” and the gang’s tendency to shoot at anything and everything around them to the point that I probably could have been convinced that I was actually watching a low-budget film chronicling the war in Vietnam…they never find a damn thing. Go figure.

I’m forced at this point to repeat the assessment of the team’s tracker:  “this seems choreographed.”

for as real...
For as “real” as this show is, the gang may as well have been tracking this creature down…

Much like Mountain Monsters, the gang of “good ol’ boys” featured in this show seem suspiciously like low-rent actors going through the motions of attempting to hunt down imaginary monsters. All the stereotypical characters are here: the aforementioned tracker named Boudic, team leader Elliott, “weapons and tactics expert” Yak, and the obligatory “wild man” character who goes by the name of Nacho. As might be expected, the program emphasizes the cohesiveness of this unit, as if none of these “investigators” would be able to handle any sort of operation if forced to tackle it by their lonesome. For all I know, that could be a factual statement – these guys seem not to be the sharpest tools in the shed, cracking lame jokes whenever possible to up the camaraderie level on display. Hell, they invariably refer to each other as “brah,” so they must be best friends since forever, right?

brahs
“Bros in the Bayou”

Just in case the characters don’t seal the deal on this show being a complete crock, a viewer can always rely on the old fashioned monster action to keep himself entertained – or so one would think. Unfortunately, the more of these monster hunt shows that are made, the less credible any of them are – it’s pretty bad when the average crypto-reality (i.e. monster) show on TV these days makes Finding Bigfoot look positively scientific by comparison. Swamp Monsters unleashes some of the most crude and awful-looking CGI renderings of monsters I’ve ever seen and doesn’t even bother to concoct phony home video monster footage to “convince” the viewer that the Grunch is real. Frankly, I’m flabbergasted for the need for this program at all in light of Discovery’s pretty pathetic Beasts of the Bayou program that debuted earlier this year: how much demand could there honestly be for cajun-fried monster shows – especially ones that are this bad?

see the monster?
See the monster? Yeah, neither do I…

As is typically the case in monster-related reality TV shows, it’s impossible to believe that what we’re seeing is happening spontaneously. The camera seems to be aware of things happening before they actually do: if this was a recording of a live event, the camera would follow the action, not predict it. I also have a very hard time buying the fact that the terrain seen in this episode is as inaccessible as the characters would lead us to believe with their constant bickering: there simply wouldn’t be a multiple camera set-up in a location that’s full of quicksand. The whole of Swamp Monsters is very “stagey” and overly dramatic: this is the first and so far only monster show that creates “tension” by revealing that the swamp the characters are trudging through is full of mosquitoes that – GASPmay be carrying the West Nile virus! Though there were many moments during this debut episode that left me rolling my eyes in disgust, for the program to create drama by cashing in on public fear of an epidemic is a new low for crypto-reality TV. In the end, when Nacho breaks out a FLIR thermal imaging camera after declaring he’s surrounded by Grunches only to see nothing in the viewfinder, that says all one really needs to know about the authenticity of this program.

sad thing is
Sad thing is, it doesn’t take much to make the bayou out to be a pretty darn creepy place.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m actually getting sick of all the monster programming that’s turning up on the “education” channels these days. The fact that new series are popping up every other week, with even more on the way, is plain ludicrous: these shows are beating a at this point and further programming will only initiate the final death roll that will put the crypto-reality genre out of its misery. The sad thing is, I love shows like this – or at least what shows like this could be if they actually had some inclination to present genuine information. Unfortunately, there seems to be precisely no effort on the part of the producers of many of these programs to conduct a more scientific, factually-based investigation: it’s much more convenient to follow a script, manipulate an audience to an outrageous extent, and create false drama with things occurring just off-camera.

Where's swamp thing
Where’s Swamp Thing when you need him?

The fact that Swamp Monsters is phony as all get out honestly isn’t it’s worst trait. The thing that kills it is that it’s not even all that entertaining as reality TV: what is the point of this show? It’s extremely lazily produced and easily the lowest common denominator of a genre of programs that’s notoriously bad in the first place. Thankfully, it appears that viewers would only have to suffer through two additional episodes (dealing with …yawn…the Honey Island Swamp Monster and the “Old Faithful” of bayou monster program subjects, the Rougarou/Cajun Werewolf) which apparently will air on the Destination America channel sometime in the future. I sincerely hope that this atrocious series is not renewed; thinning out the ranks of monster programs on TV might might just make the concept fresh again. As it stands now, this whole genre of program is on most definitely on life support…and fading fast.

PBS Beats Shark Week At Its Own Game: OPERATION MANEATER

OPERATION MANEATER on PBS

image-placeholder

(4/5)

Pros: very compelling information; more hard-hitting than anything on Shark Week…

Cons: but humans still don’t seem to get it that going into the ocean puts them at risk of a shark attack

Sheesh! Just when I thought it was safe to watch educational TV again, a little over a week removed from the 2014 edition of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, what does PBS do but air a program that not only was as or more interesting than most of the shows seen on Discovery Channel, but one that addresses issues that in my opinion, should have been the focus of Shark Week in the first place.

Evans spotting sharks
Host Mark Evans testing new technology for spotting sharks from the air.

Following in the footsteps of the Sex in the Wild documentary series that aired earlier this summer, Operation Maneater which premiered on August 27th seems to again indicate that PBS is striving to find a new audience with more hard-hitting nature-related programming. Hosted by veterinarian Mark Evans (who also featured on Sex in the Wild), this three-part series details the efforts of scientists to keep various endangered animal species from posing a threat to humans, which as might be expected, isn’t an easy task. The first episode dealt with none other than the great white shark. As shark attacks surrounding the city of Perth in Western Australia continue to increase (seven fatal attacks since 2010), the Australian government has enacted a policy of running drumlines in the surrounding waters. These lines are designed to catch sharks of the great white, tiger, and bull varieties greater than three meters in length, which upon being snagged on the line are killed via a gunshot to the head and dumped back in the drink. Needless to say, hasn’t been very popular with Australian citizens and seems downright barbaric and (to say the least) misguided in my estimation. Evans’ goal throughout this first episode is to examine possible alternatives to the ecologically damaging, wanton extermination of random sharks.

humane
A sensible manner of dealing with the shark problem

First off, let me say that shows like this which focus explicitly on issues relating to shark conservation are what Discovery’s Shark Week should have been presenting all along. I realize that the dozens and dozens of programs which feature shark attack victims recounting their “terrifying ordeals” get viewers to tune in, but these shows seem to have precisely the opposite effect on viewers of what I would hope Shark Week would provide. Certainly, the block of shark-related programming shows the majesty of these ultimate underwater predators and reaffirms to the reality-show devouring public that yes, sharks still exist and they’re still scary. Undoubtedly though, the constant presentation of “worst case scenario” shark stories and images of gnashing teeth only confirms many viewers’ prejudices about these animals.

yes
Don’t understand it?  IT MUST BE KILLED!

Let’s not forget that in that same period where seven Australians lost their lives by entering an ocean that is very much the domain of the shark that human beings killed millions upon millions of sharks– often in about as horrific a manner as possible by de-finning the creatures and dumping them – still alive – back into the ocean. Terrible as any loss of human life is, at some level, the human race is experiencing what I would be inclined to call some payback.

WARNING! THIS VIDEO IS EXTREMELY GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!

Allow me at this point to quote Evans himself when examining a device which emits an electric “pulse” underwater around a person wearing the unit: “…rather than rely on such a deterrent, it would be better to avoid such encounters in the first place.” The only way to completely avoid shark attacks is to stay the hell out of the water in the first place. The sooner humans come to terms with the implications of that statement, the better for everyone and everything concerned.

stay out

Let me get down off my soap box and back to the matter at hand: Operation Maneater examines the process by which Australia is fairly effective in warning the ocean-going public that large sharks may be patrolling their beaches by using helicopter surveillance in conjunction with a tagging program and social media updating. Literally, within a few minutes of getting either a visual confirmation of a shark or a sonic tag pingback, Australian beaches can be cleared. Still, as the program reveals, helicopter observation has been proven only to spot twenty percent of sharks that may be in the area, and one of Evans’ main goals in this episode is to investigate ways in which those numbers can be improved.

shark spotting
Shark spotting from the air can be a sketchy proposition.

Though various, sometimes outlandish methods of deterring sharks are discussed in the program (including use of sound waves, electronic field generators, and even a dive suit designed to resemble the deadly sea snake), a large amount of time is spent examining the possibility of utilizing multi-spectral imaging to identify sharks as they cruise underwater. This military-grade technology, consisting of a multiple-camera rig that filters out various colors and uses computer software to point out targets (i.e. sharks), is practically evaluated during the program through a series of tests and does seem to show some promise. Clearly, more research into its effectiveness is needed, and the cost of the equipment would probably be prohibitive at this point, so at best it’s an option that may be practical down the line.

rigs
Rigs such as these could be the next step in early shark detection.

Typical with PBS programming, Operation Maneater features a well-rounded discussion of its topics and a ton of straight-forward, factual information. As expected, there’s a sort of crash course in shark behavior and physiology, the most interesting part of which deals with research into shark brain functionality. The program also includes some wonderful underwater images of sharks in action during an operation to tag large great whites, and the use of slow motion footage and visual effects ensure the episode is visually stimulating. Future episodes in the series (which air over the next two weeks) deal with the polar bear and crocodile, so I would expect nothing less than for the overall quality of the program to remain at this very high level.

No sir
This doesn’t look like a good situation…

The most surprising thing to me about this opening episode of Operation Maneater was how fired up it made me. Frankly, it’s sickening to see sharks being killed for no other reason than existing in 2014 – even more so when you consider that many shark species are in real danger of extinction largely because of the creatures having been demonized in the years since Jaws hit movie theaters. The bigger picture question in my mind is why Discovery Channel in their week-long block of shark-related programming barely touched on the issue of the Western Australian Shark Cull – one would think that if the motivations for Shark Week were related to issues about shark conservation that this very real, obviously prescient issue would be discussed rather extensively. Instead, Shark Week offers up fake documentaries and sensationalism to put most reality shows to shame while avoiding any sort of real world, real life issues. It’s a good thing then that public television exists to tackle the difficult subjects that aren’t convenient in the context of publicity-oriented television. Anyway one looks at it, Operation Maneater is top-notch and those who think PBS nature programming is boring should probably check this show out.

Series Preview:

SHARK WEEK 2014 FINAL WRAP UP – MEGALODON: THE NEW EVIDENCE // GREAT WHITE MATRIX // SHARKSANITY

MEGALODON: THE NEW EVIDENCE / GREAT WHITE MATRIX / SHARKSANITY

(2/5)

Pros: One worthwhile show

Cons: …and with that, Shark Week stumbles across the finish line.

As might be expected, Shark Week 2014 started off with a bang, then started to run out of steam around midweek. Though I was even willing to buy the “speculative documentary” Shark of Darkness for what it was (i.e. a phony documentary designed to create social media buzz), Shark Week 2014’s most questionable move in my book was its inclusion of Megalodon: The New Evidence on Friday, August 15. This program acted as a sort of follow-up to 2013’s Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, another pseudo-documentary in which a team of actors …er scientists in South Africa attempts to prove that the gigantic prehistoric shark that has seemingly inspired dozens upon dozens of Syfy Channel made-for-cable movies still roams the earth’s oceans. Unfortunately, in focusing even more attention on an iffy original “documentary” that not only was instantly called out by any and all respectable scientists but also drew heavy criticism from viewers not all that enamored with the fact that Discovery Channel would pass something so blatantly phony off as being real, it appears that Shark Week as a whole is more a publicity-generating machine rather than a unique opportunity to educate viewers about the ocean’s ultimate and most fearsome predators.

boat attack
This just in: the boat attack at the center of the Megalodon documentary still didn’t actually happen.

Megalodon: The New Evidence
took the same format as the equally ridiculous that turned up on Animal Planet a few years back. Set up as a roundtable discussion between Collin Drake, the “scientist” who ran the Megalodon expedition, and interviewer Emmett Miller, The New Evidence went on to provide more sketchy video footage purporting to document the existence of sixty-foot sharks prowling the high seas. As much as anything seen in the original documentary was not at all convincing, watching “new evidence” showing a huge but obviously computer-generated shark attacking a pod of sperm whales is absolutely preposterous, as is listening to various “expert testimony” about the creature – most of which revolves around (you guessed it) a government conspiracy to hide the truth from the public. Groan! If the information (term used loosely) featured in the show wasn’t bad enough, the news program format seemed very corny and forced – with the actors doing their best but failing to add much credibility to the discussion.

holy cow
Recreated Megalodon jaws. With a little photoshop, this could be more “evidence” proclaiming the creature still exists.

I think anyone who would have watched The New Evidence (or the “extended cut” version of the original Monster Shark Lives documentary that preceded it) would know by this point that the whole thing was made up. Hell, if he was paying attention, a viewer would have seen the (purposely) very fleeting admission that “certain events and characters presented in the program have been dramatized.” Still, the whole of The New Evidence program not only seemed like it was beating a horse that died a painful death last year, embroiling the Discovery Channel in all sorts of controversy, but also served absolutely no purpose: to devote a whole night of Shark Week 2014 to the Megalodon considering this already was done the previous year is just absurd. A program like this speaks volumes about the level of incredulity that’s a prerequisite going into any program featured on the Discovery Channel these days.

yeah
think?

Thankfully, Saturday night’s Great White Matrix got back to basics, focusing on the efforts of longtime Shark Week contributor Andy Casagrande and Australian navy diver and shark attack survivor Paul de Gelder (who lost both his leg and arm to a bull shark attack) to photograph the bite of adult great white sharks using a “Matrix-style” camera rig. This curved assembly of some twenty cameras would allow researchers to study how the physics of a shark bite works from a variety of angles simultaneously, and also enable them to determine the difference between mature shark attacks and those that would be perpetrated by juvenile animals. This footage would be important since Great White Matrix devotes a decent amount of its hour-long duration to examining the possibility that juveniles are responsible for the majority (and an increasing number) of attacks on humans due to the fact that they are sort of “testing the waters” of potential prey items as they transition from feeding on fish (as they do in their adolescent period) to devouring large sea creatures like seals and sea lions once they reach full adulthood.

little too close

During this program, Casagrande and de Gelder consult various scientists studying the mechanics of the shark jaw, revealing how adult sharks are able not only to inflict heavy damage on their prey but also utilize a sort of vacuum action to capture them. I found this information to be pretty interesting as it explains the very distinctive jaw action in the typical white shark attack – namely, the jaw seeming to protrude from and almost separate from the structure of the head. Juvenile sharks are unable to fully accomplish this action, thus although they are able to inflict severe damage on humans, attacks from juvenile sharks are somewhat more “survivable” than those committed by mature adults.

yikes
Yikes! Casagrande photographing white sharks sans protective cage.

Typical with honest Shark Week documentaries, Great White Matrix had some amazing underwater footage, including truly otherworldly images taken in the Neptune Islands region showing less aggressive sand tiger sharks swimming amidst large schools of bait fish. There’s almost a dream-like quality to some of these images, but the program “gets real” during the climactic scenes in which Cassagrande attempts to photograph the bite of a large white shark nicknamed “Sidewinder.” In the “probably not the safest thing in the world” department, we also get a few jaw-dropping moments in which Cassagrande and de Gelder (who dives with the use of a special prosthetic fin attached in place of his missing leg) swim in shark-infested waters without the use of a protective cage. Though divers can get better camera images without the cage, it seems very dangerous to swim unprotected even around relatively small (i.e. twelve foot) juvenile white sharks.

insane
There’s insane, then there’s Paul de Gelder insane – the man still dives even after all losing his arm and leg to a shark.

The final original and feature program of 2014’s Shark Week was Sharksanity which aired on Saturday night: just judging by that title (which makes it sound like the next shark-related monster flick playing on Syfy Channel), one can get a pretty good gauge of what a viewer is in for here. Easily the least worthwhile program I saw during this year’s Shark Week, this program was hosted and narrated by “Bob, The Shark,” i.e. the would-be comedian dressed up in a shark costume. Acting as a sort of recap of the entire week’s worth of programming as well as a chance for viewers to vote on their favorite Shark Week moments from this year and past, this show was both completely unnecessary and obnoxious – viewers who had watched the week’s programs would have no reason to watch this “greatest hits” sort of program, and its sole purpose seemed to be to attract large amounts of social media buzz.

bob the shark
When Bob the Shark popped up onscreen, I knew I was in for a barrel of laughs…

With lousy attempts at humor put forth by the narration, Sharksanity simply replayed various segments from shows that aired earlier in the week while offering up some fan-voted clips that showed the best moments from the 27-year history of Shark Week. These clips fell into various categories – best bite, best “cage rattle,” most fearless filmmaker, best “close call” moment, etc. – and there were some unbelievable moments chronicled. In my mind though, Sharksanity played like one big pat on the back for Discovery Channel – which may be deserved considering the fact that Shark Week has been around for three decades. It also however indicated to me that the motivations for this week-long block of shark-related programming has gotten increasingly questionable over time. In an era where sharks are being hunted almost to the point of extinction in some areas, shouldn’t Shark Week maybe focus more on real issues instead of embracing the fact that some people will prattle away incessantly on twitter and facebook throughout the whole week in an attempt to see their name on TV?

seriously
Seriously people…

Maybe my biggest problem with Shark Week anymore is one that filmmaker Andy Casagrande mentioned himself during the week when he seemed to question whether making specials that focus on gnashing jaws and stories of shark attack victims narrowly escaping death is really having the desired effect on viewers. Jaws author Peter Benchley made it his life’s goal to increase shark conservation efforts despite being the one person perhaps most responsible for defining the shark as the ultimate predator and source of fear for many people. I guess my hope in the end is that Shark Week would turn out to be more than just a high-profile week of sensationalized programming designed simply to create a social media firestorm. Judging from the past few years in which the Discovery Channel has tossed education aside in favor of entertainment though, it seems as if such a proposition is unlikely, and we can probably expect more hit-or-miss programming in the future.

More Like This, Discovery Channel: