Some TV was never meant for DVD. Yes, the format saved many properties from the broadcast graveyard, but the History Channel's The Seven Deadly Sins proves that some shows don't slide into home video so effortlessly.
Any of the documentary series' seven episodes would no doubt be a welcome diversion for a channel surfer lazing on his couch and gorging himself with Twinkies while getting angrier and more envious that his neighbor has HBO, which he's too proud and greedy to order. (He's also lusting after his neighbor's wife, but that's another story.) But the home video format demands closer attention from its viewers, who made an investment when they bought or rented the discs. Under this light, the show's redundancies, aesthetic miscues and length-stretching maneuvers become all the more apparent.
For example, the narrator frequently sets up transitions that once led into commercial breaks. Without the breaks, they go something like this: The narrator introduces a new topic, but just when we expect more detail, an animated book appears with the show's name on it. Then we we see an overview of the deadly sins (already seen at the beginning of every episode), followed by a description of the sin du jour. Finally the narration veers back on the path it should have followed all along.
I understand the motivation here. People might have just flipped to the History Channel or returned from the bathroom. Maybe they were high and simply forgot what they were watching. But a commercial-free DVD serves a different audience, and History should have considered alternate edits to better serve that audience. (They don't seem to have considered much, but more about that in the DVD-content portion of this review.)
Each episode runs around 44 minutes sans commercials and tackles one of the seven sins of lust, envy, gluttony, sloth, greed, anger and pride. The Catholic Church laid out these iconic sins in the 6th Century. Prior to the list's publication, a scholarly monk drew up a list of eight terrible sins (which didn't include envy, instead favoring the pride-like "vainglory" and the rather silly "sadness," which combined with apathy to create sloth--see how much I've learned?) Then one day, in all his wisdom, Pope Gregory the Great proved his greatness and revised the list to the one we know today.
The episodes follow a reliable structure as they touch on how different cultures and mythologies view their respective sins. Scientists, historians, authors and conventional and fringe religious leaders all weigh in on the psychological and social implications of a given sin. Along the way, we see some very poor visual representations of how Dante envisioned each sin's punishment in hell and learn about the demons that were later associated with the sin.
One interviewee, a totally legit, modern-day exorcist, shares his experience with the demons he's supposedly exercised. These extremely convincing and enlightening recollection include his conversation with the demon of gluttony. The demon said that he called himself "Food." I guess the little hell spawn got tired of telling people how to pronounce Beelzebub.
Each episode closes with cutting-edge science on the subject, perhaps relating to a cure or a study that suggests the sin is hard-wired into human genealogy because it was an advantageous evolutionary trait.
Along the way, the show offers some compelling historical anecdotes loosely related to the sin. Their inclusion may feel a bit random, but if they're wild enough, that's not a problem. "Sloth" details Dr. John R. Brinkley's goat gland scam of the late 1910s and 1920s, in which he tossed goat testicles into people's bodies to help increase their energy levels and cure impotence. "Pride" spends a while examining Amish culture, because the Amish shun pride more than most, I guess. And "Envy" features an aside about how ancient Greeks were allowed to anonymously write down people's name to vote that they be ostracized to an island, and they'd often let envy inspire their vote. And don't worry, the History-required reference to Hitler makes it into "Pride," although the narrator and interviewees completely fail to mention how Hitler manipulated the pride of the country and instead talk about how Hitler was very proud. The narration forcefully attempts to justify the content's inclusion and cast the current sin as the most important.
The B-roll is a combination of stock footage and "animated" recreations, often reused. Certain concepts, such as pop-up-book-style animation, are executed quite well, but others look dreadful. It's as if the directors and producers had recreation footage that looked really bad, so they decided to run it through fake illustration filters and pass it off as animation. It doesn't work and, alas, sinks some of the most fascinating explorations of these deadliest of sins.
History's two-DVD set of The Seven Deadly Sins is guilty of the sin of apathy, which, in case you're wondering, is part of sloth (which a certain narrator calls "the most insidious" of the sins). All the company did was throw the episodes on the discs and toss in a disastrous animated introduction to the menu, which would actually have looked cool if it weren't for the resolution and interlacing screw-ups that will make you recoil in horror.
The 4x3 letterboxed video on History's two-DVD set left me completely baffled. If this program aired in widescreen format, it must've been in HD, right? So you'd expect an anamorphic transfer. Instead, we get a lot of wasted pixels. I'd have no problem if Sins had been produced in 4x3 and presented as such, but why oh why would they embrace compromised video quality so gleefully? Just thinking about it gives me a headache.
My only guess is that the DVD authors were trying to cover the already poor quality of the show's animation, which repeatedly reveals its limitations through unnatural vibrations, jaggies (especially during pushes and zooms) and occasional resolution problems. And those complaints don't even address the tone-deaf attempts to make footage look animated and/or stylized with bad filters.
As for the colors, they're generally accurate, except poorly balanced stock footage.
The disc contains one English stereo track and no subtitles or captions. I suppose it's better than if History hadn't included any audio track at all.
While not particularly dynamic or thrilling, the mix is full of music and the interviewees are always well separated. The editing includes one obvious technical mistake (a line in an interview restarts partway through "sins...--ins..."), but for the most part is competent.
If you think you're getting any extras, please start reading this review from the beginning.
If you see The Seven Deadly Sins on TV, it may be an entertaining diversion. But don't waste your time on this DVD.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.