Following in the wake of The Da Vinci Code (and maybe also National Treasure), The History Channel offers "Brad Meltzer's Decoded" as a real-life version of a similar idea. Meltzer and his team of investigators (Christine McKinley, Buddy Levy, and Scott Rolle) pick one of history's long-standing mysteries (say, whether the world will end in 2012 and wheter the Mayans or Hopi Indians might've predicted it thousands of years ago), and try to unlock where the mysteries sprung from and whether or not they might even hold weight. It's an interesting show, with a couple of caveats.
First of all, I picked this show on the strength of its premise, not any association with author Brad Meltzer, which is probably a good thing, because Meltzer is less of a participant in the show and more of a host, setting up the mysteries, offering a bit of commentary, and tying the program together with green-screen segments where he's surrounded by vague "historical"/"code" imagery. He also throws in quite a few jokes, which aren't quite awkward, but still come off as fairly silly given the tone of the rest of the program. If you're a fan of his books and expect Meltzer to be a central component of the show -- not an unreasonable assumption, given his name is above the title -- you might be in for a bit of disappointment.
Instead, the meat and potatoes of each episode are the investigations performed by McKinley, Levy, and Rolle. McKinley is a mechanical engineer, and she tends to approach things in terms of numbers and structure. Levy is a former reporter and an English professor, and he tends to take the most notes and do the most fact-based research in libraries and archives. Finally, Rolle is a former trial attorney, and comes from the angle of "innocent until proven guilty," looking for reasonable doubt to poke holes in theories and demands solid evidence to support any conclusions floated for a given topic or investigation.
The biggest problem with "Decoded" is that most of these mysteries, such as the world ending in 2012, or where the cornerstone of the White House is located, are not going to be solved within the course of the show. Worse, in one episode, "Lincoln Assassination," the group investigates whether or not John Wilkes Booth secretly survived for almost 40 years after the assassination. The group discovers that Booth's autopsy was performed under extremely unusual, suspicious conditions, and finds two people (unaware of each other) who pitch a story that fits together. The proof lies in a DNA test of pieces of Booth's spine housed in a museum against DNA that would be taken from his brother, but "Decoded" has no access or clearance to do the DNA test, leaving the team to conclude that they all just wish they could, and the episode ends. What kind of payoff is that? In others, the group comes to relatively placating conclusions, such as whether or not the Statue of Liberty has any sort of secret meaning; it's not that I believe Lady Liberty has sinister undertones, but there's a question of whether the investigators are really investigating, or finding someone who says what they want to hear.
The show is saddled with the expected raft of reality documentary cliches, including overly-dramatic music, hokey panic footage that can't be shown ("Secret Societies"), and lots of hand-holding on Metzger's part, where he tells you he's skeptical and slowly comes around to whatever conclusion is being reached as the episode comes to a conclusion. There's also no way to know how factually accurate "Decoded" is really being without doing your own independent research. Still, the course of several investigations is entertaining, such as "Secret Presidential Codes," where McKinley gets to shoot a gelatin dummy with an old fashioned gun as part of ballistics study, or "Apocalypse in Georgia," where Levy and McKinley check out interesting psychic research. The best episode in the ten-episode season is "D.B. Cooper," which has the trio looking into a famous plane-based robbery and who the real culprit was. "Decoded" isn't going to revolutionize anyone's channel-surfing hours, but it's entertaining and accessible enough for anyone with a casual interest in historical mysteries.
Episodes on the 3-disc set break down as follows:
Disc 1: "The White House," "Secret Presidential Codes," "Statue of Liberty," "The Lincoln Assasination."
Disc 2: "Confederate Gold," "D.B. Cooper," "2012," "The President's Inner Circle."
Disc 3: "Secret Societies," "Apocalypse in Georgia."
NewVideo gives "Decoded" the basic treatment, slapping the three-disc set into a case with a double-sided flap tray, and uses what looks like a standardized "History Channel" template with basic key art and logos. (Worth noting that the final art also makes the excellent decision to put Meltzer's team on the cover behind him.) Not a stand-out effort, but it looks respectable. No insert is included inside the case.
The Video and Audio
"Decoded" is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and it looks...not all that great. From a distance, the show exhibits the usual quality fluxuations of a show shot on digital video: ghosting, weird light halos, some burn-out on bright whites. Looking lcosely, the show exhibits a fair amount of artifacting, and quite a few jagged edges on lettering in windows and signs, and on some of the documents spotlighted. On one hand, these take away from the image score, but on the other hand, this is probably aproximately what it looked like on television, unless History broadcasts the show in HD.
Dolby Digital 2.0 audio gets the job done. A fair amount of directionality from the show's melodramatic music cues and big bold title sequence, and most of the rest of what's going on here is people talking. No player-generated English subtitles are provided, but closed captioning is available through your television set.
None. No autoplay trailers. Nothing.
"Decoded" is a pretty fun show when it has a good story to go into, like "D.B. Cooper" or the potential assassination of Meriwether Lewis. That said, since the PQ and AQ are no better than you'd get watching it on TV and there are no extras to speak of, you can safely rent the discs instead of shelling out for a purchase.
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