The Autopsy Files
HBO // Unrated // $19.97 // July 12, 2005
Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted July 6, 2005
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In 10 Words or Less
HBO does the impossible and makes death boring

The Show
"C.S.I." has made forensic science more exciting and popular than it's been since the days of "Quincy, ME." But between them, HBO's America Undercover series picked up the forensics torch and produced "Autopsy," a series about medical examiners, the people who investigate death, separating suicide from murder and truth from lies.

"The Autopsy Files" features the first two episodes of the series. The first episode, "Confessions of a Medical Examiner," focuses on medical examiner Michael Baden, a man who has been involved in some major forensics investigations, as well as smaller ones that are just as interesting. Among the cases he worked on was the story of Mary Beth Tinning, a woman whose nine children all died over the course of 14 years. This case is one of the most disturbing, as it involves children, but it's also one of the most amazing, considering the many unusual factors involved.

Among the other cases in this episode are the death of Billy Martin, the Attica prison riots and several more oddities, including video of a father nearly killing his own baby in a case of Munchausen by Proxy. Though the images never get very graphic or gruesome, they can be highly disturbing.

The second episode, "Voices From the Dead," broadens the show's focus, introducing cases from additional MEs, including the infamous "Angel of Death" case, in which hospital patients suddenly died. The stories in this episode aren't as grandiose as those of Baden's, though the good doctor does have one appearance here that reveals how bugs can help solve cases. Alternative ways of discovering the truth is a theme of several of the segments in this show.

Unfortunately, the shows are bland in their presentation of the cases from the medical examiners' files, moving from story to story in a straight line, as the narrator serves to introduce them matter-of-factly, without any kind of segue or flow, saying, "In our next case..." She doesn't have much personality wither, droning on without inflection or emotion. The whole presentation has the charm of a school filmstrip, just without the joyful beep between frames.

Admittedly, these shows from back in 1994 are very straight-forward, fact-based looks at the world of the ME, and can't hope to compete with the sexy and flashy fiction of "C.S.I." But at the same time, there's something to be said for attempting to fit pieces together in an anthology style, rather than just blurt info out, item by item. I knew it was trouble, as I love forensics and even I had trouble paying attention to this one due to the pacing and presentation.

On one DVD, the first two 50-plus minute episodes of the "Autopsy" series are collected, packaged in a standard black keepcase (what, no bodybag?) with a chapter-listing insert. The discs have stylish static full-frame menus that mirror the cover art, with options to view an episode, select chapters and adjust languages and subtitles. The chapter menus have a text list of chapter titles, while language options include English 2.0 and Spanish 1.0 audio tracks and English, French and Spanish subtitles. The episodes include closed captioning.

The Quality
The episodes are a mix of talking-head interviews with mostly file footage and old photos, and despite being more than 10 years old (and the file footage even older) the episodes look as good as some recent HBO productions. There's some edge enhancement and light noise evident in the new footage, and some of the old material is worse for wear, but overall, it's a very good presentation of an older series.

The audio is pretty standard TV sound, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The new interviews and narration are cleanly recorded, while the older source sound isn't bad either. There's nothing impressive in the mix, but nothing that stands out as bad either.

The Extras
There are no extras included on this DVD.

The Bottom Line
While the stories told in this series are endlessly fascinating, the presentation is dreadfully dull, especially in comparison to more recent forensics series, which tend to have more style thanks to advances in technology and changes in techniques. On this DVD, the episodes look and sound very nice, especially considering their age, but there's not a single supplement, which is odd since the subject matter lends itself well to bonus material. One would have to be a huge devotee to the forensic sciences to need to own this set, but if you've never seen the episodes, it's worth a rental to discover these cases.

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