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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Cities of the Underworld - The Complete Season 1
Cities of the Underworld - The Complete Season 1
A&E Video // Unrated // October 30, 2007
List Price: $44.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted November 1, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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The Series:

Just this past year The History Channel started airing a show that takes a unique look at the past.  Cities of the Underworld investigates buildings, bunkers, and complexes that have been buried and then built upon.  In many large European cities, and even some in the US, there are extended networks of subterranean tunnels, streets, and structures that were once on the surface, and this show aims to uncover them.  While this is an interesting take on archeology, the show is only mediocre.

Host Eric Geller (and later Don Wildman) travels the world looking for buried cities.  He's not looking for them in some long forgotten area of the globe though, but beneath today's modern metropolises.  The idea that Edinburgh or Rome has vast complexes of subterranean buildings is pretty outrageous, but it's true.  Geller finds ancient apartments, warehouses, and distilleries under some of the most well known cities in the world.

Each episode explores a new city and its underground ruins, most often with a local expert.  Not only are the building and its uses examined and discussed just how they came to be buried in the first place.  This latter part is often the most interesting section of the show.

Unfortunately the show only works part way.  The biggest problem is that the hosts are more irritating than engaging.  Eric Geller, who starts off the show and mysteriously leaves after seven episodes only to return for the final show in this set (which was recorded, but not aired, before he left), is a hyper-active, overly loud host who is clearly out of his depth on a national show.  He marvels at the mundane, trying to make everything sound spectacular.  His constant exclamations, filled with awe, that people really walked through the doorway he's standing in 1500 years ago grows old quickly.  He clearly doesn't know how to interview any of the people who show him around the ruins he visits and ends up acting like an idiot.  The questions often answer themselves and he never goes beyond the superficial.  There was more than one time that the expert gave him a "where'd they dig up this guy" look.

It's easy to see why they replaced him half way through the season.  What is a mystery is why they picked the person that they did.  At best, Don Wildman is a very modest improvement.  He doesn't yell like Geller, which is great, but though he's soft spoken he seems to be at a loss as to what he should do.  He has a very limited vocabulary, stating "Oh my God!" over and over in each show.  If anything, Wildman seems to be even more uneducated than Geller, and his interviews aren't any better.

Aside from the hosts, the show is just okay.  The better episodes in the series, like the two shows on Rome and the one on Edinburgh, give a nice history lesson along with showing some interesting ruins.  Unfortunately not all of them are good.  Some are down right awful such as the program "Freemason Underground."  This installment attempts to find subterranean meeting places that the Masons may have used during the Revolutionary War.  They stray from that path quite frequently, visiting a church that has a set of angel statues which were donated by a pirate, a bell tower that has a wonderful view, and Fort Mifflin.  They made this last stop because, if you squint just right, the fort looks like a couple of Masonic emblems put together.  Of course the odd pointy shape of the fort was so that the cannons would have the widest field of fire and would be able to defend their own walls, but that isn't discussed as a possibility.

The show also makes some hard to believe statements (and implications) that are never backed up.  Their contention that the streets of Washington D. C. were laid out specifically to form a Masonic pattern is ridiculous.  In that same show they find a house that Masons used to meet at, and 100 years later it was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad which helped to move escaped slaves to Canada.  From this they opine that the Masons were big abolitionists.  This may be true, but they presented no evidence at all for this aside from the house, which is very very tenuous at best.
 

The DVD:


Audio:

The show comes with a stereo soundtrack, which does its job and that's about it.  The dialog isn't as clear in some of the tight underground passageways as it could be, but that's to be expected as these scenes aren't recorded under the best conditions.  The narration stays centered on the screen, and there aren't many stereo effects.  Even so, this is an average sounding documentary.  There are no subtitles.

Video:

Ugh.  The widescreen image is not anamorphically enhanced, something that is standard practice nowadays.  This is really disappointing, as 16X9 screens are more and more common these days and there's no reason not to enhance the show, especially since it was shot in high definition.  Aside from that the program looks about average.  As mentioned in the audio portion of the review, this wasn't recorded under the best of circumstances and it shows in places.  In some areas the blacks are a bit murky, in others the lighting is poor and causes details to disappear in shadows.  The colors aren't as bright as I was hoping for, but they aren't bad.  Overall the program looks okay but not fantastic.

Extras:

The extras are pretty good on this set, and there's all located on the fourth disc.   First off is the pilot episode which was aired on the series Ancient Marvels.  This show has Eric Geller traveling to Istanbul and looking at some of the buried sections of Constantinople.  It's a good episode, actually one of the better ones.  Geller spends a bit more time on the history of the city and that makes the show more informative.

There's also a 24 minute reel of scenes that were deleted from this season's episodes.  They are more than just an extended scene and are well worth watching.
 
Final Thoughts:

Though this is a great idea and a potentially interesting concept, the program really doesn't work well.  The hosts are grating, some shows have more filler than substance, and they make claims that aren't backed up very convincingly.  Add to that the lack of an anamorphic picture, and this is a series that people should just avoid.  Skip it.
 
 

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