The TV Series
The multi-disc set Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters counts as yet another of the History channel's entertaining, somewhat random packagings of various shows from their bursting library (Frozen World, which I reviewed earlier this year, is another one). The contents of these six discs include the full run of a recent, short-lived series that perhaps should have been given a better shot, a grab-bag of documentaries on the Hindenburg and Titanic disasters dating back to the mid-'90s (back when the channel's name actually described what it was), and eight installments of the long-running Modern Marvels dedicated to Engineering Disasters.
While we're kickin' it back really Old School, let's take a look at what constitutes each disc of Disasters Deconstructed:
DISC 1: Inspector America (2011; 3 episodes)
America's Wake Up Call (Minneapolis/St. Paul); A Bridge Too Old (Los Angeles); Shaky Foundations (Seattle).
DISC 2: Inspector America (2011; 3 episodes)
Gold Rush Sewer (San Francisco); Dam This City (Las Vegas); Abandoned (Detroit).
Hosted by construction safety specialist Timothy Galarnyk, Inspector America takes a long, hard look at the crumbling infrastructure in several major American cities. With a pick in hand and a chip on his shoulder, the blustery Galarnyk journeys to a different city in each episode, explaining his main thesis that America can simply no longer avoid adequately maintaining the roads, bridges, water, sewer and other utilities that its populace depends upon. Once one gets past the fact that its bombastic host might be more at home on a typical news channel chatfest than a more straightforward show like this, Inspector America delves into some hard-hitting topics which aren't normally seen on the basic cable front. Clearly Galarnyk has a passion for this stuff, and it's hard not to be moved when he visits places like low-income neighborhood in the Las Vegas suburbs where the city's rampant water usage has rendered the soil into a sandy, unstable mess. The show deals with a few real-life disasters (such as the deadly Mississippi River I-35W bridge collapse in 2007), keeping with this set's theme, but it's the potential for disaster lurking in every corner that keeps it watchable.
These two discs contain every episode of Inspector America - although History has never officially announced the show's cancellation, no new episodes have been forthcoming since the initial six installments were aired in the Spring of 2011. Sadly, the show's underwhelming performance proved that there isn't a lot of room in the lineup for material that doesn't fit within the channel's current "he-man adventure club" thing. Inspector America deserved the chance to visit more cities.
DISC 3: Titanic's Achilles Heel (2007; 90 minutes)
The well-mounted if familiar Titanic's Achilles Heel delves into an intriguing theory surrounding the iconic maritime disaster - what if it was not the iceberg but an ill-conceived design flaw in the ship itself that caused it to sink? Initially thinking this might be a little on the dull side, the show actually uncovers a few lesser-known tidbits about that disaster and presents it in an elegant way. In the film, newer footage of researchers exploring this theory gets interwoven with a nicely researched accounting of the sensational trial of several Titanic survivors in the months following the accident. The too-long contemporary segments consists of discussions, planning, and ultimately a diving team expedition off the coast of Greece to explore the wreckage of Titanic's sister ship, the Brittanic. The diving serves as an effort to gain insight as to whether a faulty expansion joint caused the Titanic to split apart and ultimately sink, but it ultimately winds up being not as interesting as the 1912 trial segments. The producers went the distance and dug up a lot of previously unseen archival images and newspaper graphics for this one. Additionally, having narration by actor Edward Herrmann, a.k.a. King Of The History Channel, helps its luster appreciably.
DISC 4: Three Hindenburg Documentaries
The Hindenburg (1996; 95 minutes); What Went Down: Hindenburg (2008; 44 minutes); Tech Effect: The Hindenburg (2004; 22 minutes).
A substantial slab of old-style History Channel goodness, The Hindenburg presents a comprehensive overview of the history of dirigibles and their one-time prominence as a vehicle for warfare and civilian travel. Archival footage and interviews from people who worked on them (Americans and Germans) punctuate this tale of airships used for commerce and war. The story builds, inevitably, to the destruction of the Hindenburg in 1937. Interviews and analysis provide insight into the cause of the crash; however, much more research has been done on the cause since this documentary, so many of their conclusions are no longer accepted as accurate. Faults aside, it presents the disaster in an even-handed, sensation-free manner. The unforgettable documentary footage of the accident gets a thorough going-through here, along with Herbert Morrison's emotional audio reportage (which was recorded onto a transcription disc - not live - and not united with the filmed footage until decades after the accident occurred).
Compared with the main attraction, the other two Hindenburg documentaries on this disc are somewhat redundant. The padded-out What Went Down follows several filmmakers as they research and produce a (lame) recreation of the explosion as experienced by crew members in the dirigible's tail section. The brisk, glossy Tech Effect goes into surprisingly thorough detail on the mechanical components of the explosion, including the Hindenburg engine and even the cameras and recording equipment used on the ground to capture that moment for posterity. Both of these programs are individual episodes of two of History's shorter-lived series.
DISC 5: Engineering Disasters (Modern Marvels installments, 2003-2004; 4 episodes)
Engineering Disasters 4 - MGM Grand Fire, Design Failures, Bridges Collapse, The Corvair and Pinto, The Comet
Engineering Disasters 5 - KVLY Antenna tower Collapse, Oils Spills and Containment, Freeways and Earthquakes, Buffalo Creek Flood, Jefferson Island Salt Mine
Engineering Disasters 6 - Deadly Harrier Aircraft, The Piper Alpha Disaster, Collapse at Pleasants Power Stations, False Nuclear Alarms, High Speed Train Crash
Engineering Disasters 7 - Flutter, Baldwin Hills Dam, Vessel Collision, Northridge, Mine Fire
DISC 6: Engineering Disasters (Modern Marvels installments, 2004; 4 episodes)
Engineering Disasters 8 - PEPCON Explosion, Mianus River Bridge Collapse, Ocean Ranger Tragedy, Great Flood of 1889, Crash of Learjet 35
Engineering Disasters 9 - Dust Explosion, Scour, "Bright Field" Crash, "R-101," Roof Failure
Engineering Disasters 10 - Yaggy Storage Field, Tanker Explosion, Tropicana Garage, White Sea Canal, Bhopal Disaster
Engineering Disasters 11 - LNG, Hyatt Walkway Collapse, Sink Holes, Yangtze Flood, Asbestos
The History Channel series Modern Marvels premiered in 1993. Each season had episodes on the building of something big or monumental -- like the Golden Gate Bridge, pyramids, or Las Vegas. In 1999, they included an episode called Engineering Disasters. It was probably not planned to happen, but this episode turned into a backdoor pilot that led to a successful sub-series that continues to this day.
Discs five and six in Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters each contain four episodes of the Engineering Disasters installments, which were originally broadcast in 2003-04. The disasters covered range widely in size and scope, but each one is an addictive curiosity. They are all fascinating, whether looking at why the world's first jet, the Comet, had a series of fatal in-flight failures (square windows leading to cracks in the fuselage); how a German high-speed train jumped its tracks (part of a metal wheel peeled off); or how a hotel walkway could collapse (more people standing on it than it was engineered for). Filled with archival footage (sometimes of the actual disaster), interviews with people involved and historians, these episodes are often the last word on what happened and why. Many episodes include historic information about how a disaster could have been averted -- for example, the law behind the Alaska Pipeline said all oil tankers were to be double-hulled. They weren't, of course, which is how the Exxon Valdez spilled a massive amount of oil after running aground on a reef.
History's Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters comes packaged in three dual-DVD clear plastic slim-width cases housed in a paperboard slipcase.
Inconsistent. The History channel has always been somewhat spotty on the visuals for their DVDs, and this one is no exception. Some programs are presented in softened Full Frame 4x3 (Engineering Disasters, The Hindenburg and Tech Effect: The Hindenburg), others have their 16x9 image letterboxed in Full Frame (What Went Down: Hindenburg and Titanic's Achilles Heel). Although Inspector America's photography is often too bright and overly sharpened, it counts as the only thing on this set presented in good 16x9 anamorphic widescreen. Image-wise, Titanic's Achilles Heel boasts the nicest quality picture (pity that it isn't widescreen-format).
These are all presented in modest, nicely balanced stereo mixes that are pleasant and non-showy. Dialogue and music are fine. Subtitles and alternate audio options are not available on any of the discs.
History's six-disc Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters set is something of a random hodgepodge of programs, although fans of the channel's more informative, not so "he-man adventure" side will likely get a lot out of it. The $49.95 MSRP on this tidy collection might be a tad high (yes, you can safely wait for this to go on sale), but the contents include a few good docs, several nicely done Modern Marvels episodes, and the entire run of the bombastic but fascinating Inspector America. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.