Like a lot of people, I'm fascinated by unusual spaces. I appreciate homes with irregular floor plans and oddly-shaped nooks and closets. I have climbed through lava tubes in Washington and explored the catacombs of Paris. There is nothing more fascinating to me than learning about cities that have been rebuilt on top of themselves, like Rome, Istanbul, or Seattle. When I first heard about Cities of the Underworld, I was amazed that someone, somewhere, shared this odd interest and had the gumption to devote an entire series to it. Each episode of this documentary series visits a new city or locale and highlights places and spaces that are literally underground, from secret military bunkers and medieval torture chambers, to Mayan tombs and forgotten urban passageways.
However, as happens so often with History Channel programming, Cities of the Underworld takes all the richness of history and distills it into vague, specious, or downright erroneous bite-sized pieces, which are arranged half-heartedly and spiced with cheesy digital imagery. The extent to which the show utterly destroys the treasure trove of historical material that it is dealing with is rather stunning.
The host of this mess is someone named Don Wildman, who manages to read the scripted voiceovers with tenacious verve, but whose ad-libbed remarks are among the dimmest I've ever heard. During a visit to a Japanese flood control site, his observes, "This is big civil engineering." While clambering through an abandoned Nazi munitions factory situated inside a crumbling Czech cave, he says, "This is the first time I've been inside a cave while it's currently collapsing!" And finally, at one point while visiting a fort on Long Island, he says to his guide, "It's kind of crazy that we're underground like this!" Get used to it, friend.
Wildman is also constantly repeating information into the camera that we have just heard his guide tell him. (Wildman is always with a guide of some sort, most of whom have a vested interest [read: tourism] in perpetuating the most lurid tales associated with their locality.)
But Wildman is not solely responsible for COTU being a bad show. The real blame lies with the shows producers and writers, who seem to take only glancing interest in some of the incredible material they have in their hands, and fail to deal with it in an intellectually honest way. Instead, they grab hold of a few spicy details, which are dealt with only in the most hyperbolic terms, and dress them up with flashy Tony Scott-inspired editing and a few "historical" images (paintings or photographs that have been retouched to achieve an ersatz 3D effect). The trouble is, if you look back on an episode after it's finished, you're not sure what you've learned. Worse, some of what you "learned" is undoubtedly not true.
Take episode two, which finds Wildman in Prague. At one point, Wildman visits a large quarry outside the city where, among other claims, it is "suspected" that Hitler may have built and/or hidden his Doomsday weapon. There is much talk of this Doomsday weapon, including a digital animation of how it could have bored into the earth and triggered a lethal explosion at its center. Really? The weapon is discussed in credulous terms by Wildman, following the lead offered by his Czech guide at the quarry, but I had my doubts. I had never heard of Hitler building, designing, or even dreaming about a Doomsday weapon. A brief Internet search gave me several sources that referred to the "myth" of a Nazi-built Doomsday device, but there is not a shred of reliable historical evidence to suggest that one ever existed, or was even planned. But that doesn't stop COTU from suggesting that one did exist, and is still hidden somewhere in the vicinity of the Amerika quarry in the Czech republic.
Moments like this are deal-breakers for me, and COTU offers plenty of them. When something like this is presented as fact, the rest of the show becomes utterly meaningless. I'm not going to even bother trying to enjoy a show that bills itself as non-fiction when it clearly hasn't gone through even a basic round of fact-checking. Wildman's childlike willingness to accept whatever his guides tell him is utterly transparent; so why would he or anyone else involved in the show feel it necessary to implement any kind of filter? Beyond the obvious falsehoods, every episode is filled with maybes, what-ifs, and could haves. These kinds of statements are whipped up by Wildman with the kind of energy that only a true convert can muster.
During Season Two, COTU visits Japan, the Czech Republic, Belize, New York City, Jerusalem, Moscow, Washington, D.C., Dublin, and Vietnam. Each of these places is fascinating in its own right, and COTU does present us with some pretty pictures and tantalizing stories at every stop. Maybe the best thing about COTU is that it makes the viewer want to visit a library or bookstore immediately, and learn the true tales history has to tell us.
This four-disc box set of Cities of the Underworld - Season 2 is presented in a lackluster non-anamporphic 1.78:1 transfer. These episodes all aired in 2007 and 2008; it is inexcusable that a) the transfer is not enhanced, and b) that the transfer we are given is so bad. The picture is blurry, with poor, inconsistent contrast. This is practically brand-new material; you'd almost have to try for a transfer to be this bad.
The single mix is in acceptable 2.0 stereo. It's a messy one though, with dialogue sometimes lost beneath the silly, melodramatic music, which veers oddly between an action-adventure film score and heavy, guitar-driven rock. The only instruments heard more than the electric guitar are the cymbals.
Cities of the Underworld does a disservice to both casual viewers with an interest in history, and hardcore history buffs alike. If you are a casual viewer, you may not have the basic knowledge that would lead you to question many of the show's absurd assertions. If you are a history buff, that absurdity will turn you off instantly. Either way, the show insults everyone's intelligence by pretending to be a non-fiction show, when in actuality it is as artificial and empty-headed as the worst "reality" program on MTV or VH1. Skip it.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.