A+E Networks, the parent company of H2 and the History Channel, hasn’t always gotten along with me, particularly when they threatened to sue me last year over Scott Wolter’s “Hooked X®” trademark. But they were kind enough to accredit me as a journalist, which gives me access to screeners for their upcoming shows. I had hoped this would allow me to watch Search for the Lost Giants ahead of time, but no such luck. I received access to the first episode of the 10-part Brad Meltzer’s Lost History instead. It is one of the few new shows for which History/H2 has made a screener available.
So, lucky you: You’re getting an early review of Lost History. Keep in mind that screeners are unfinished and subject to change, so some of what I am previewing below may be different in the final version that makes it to air. Although H2 has not placed any restrictions on my reporting on the screener, I will be speaking primarily in general terms about the show, so you will need to watch the episode for specific names of individuals involved, the background and history of the objects discussed, and other key details.
Brad Meltzer’s Lost History is entirely in keeping with the History pair of networks’ attempt to appeal to angry viewers, particularly white men, who feel that their country is being taken from them. How do we know this? The show starts out with Meltzer telling viewers explicitly that “It’s time to take back what is ours.” In context, he means it literally as recovering lost artifacts, but as a mission statement, it also plays symbolically with viewers’ perceptions that traditional American culture and heritage have been replaced with an unfamiliar multicultural, postmodern world in which they have a smaller and less powerful role. And the artifacts he wants “us” to fight for during this series? According to Meltzer, they involve such traditional staples as aerospace, gold, Hitler, and flags. A little later in the show, he’ll tell viewers, “You’re pissed now. You should be.” He also talks about the need to “fight” for “our” history amidst beating drums and martial music.
“H2 feels obligated not just to provide historic programming for people who crave intelligent and educational entertainment, but also to preserve history for generations to come,” said Mike Stiller, a vice president of H2 and History, in a press release for Lost History.
Brad Meltzer’s Lost History debuts next Friday at 10 PM ET on H2, right after the return of Ancient Aliens, a show whose existence directly contracts Stiller. And sorry, Jim Viera of Search for the Lost Giants, Meltzer doesn’t have the “lost” giant bones on his list of lost history.
The trouble I have with Lost History is that it is lazy. In the first episode Meltzer devotes a large chunk of the show to making intense proclamations that his goal for the series and for the lost artifacts is to “track ’em down,” and yet the show involves no actual investigation or tracking. Instead, a few talking heads in front of what seems to be a green screen speak over archival footage, and then Meltzer orders the audience to do the investigative work for him and send him the results. Let’s cut out the middleman and just put up a “WANTED” poster on the screen for the hour. It would save even more money.
Meltzer starts the episode with 9/11 and the friend he lost in the attacks. He then explains that the flag firefighters raised over Ground Zero that day and immortalized in newspaper pages, on Newsweek’s post-9/11 cover, and on a postage stamp, disappeared within hours or days when it was apparently swapped with a larger flag. The show makes no indication, however, that anyone from the show tried to contact relevant officials about the incident, preferring to offer mystery mongering and intimations of conspiracy (“We must consider less innocent explanations…”—except that that requires work, so they don’t really). The show relies on emotional appeals to trump up the importance of the flag, and to my mind it borders just on this side of exploitative when we remember (and the show won’t let us forget!) that Meltzer is offering a “cash reward” for information about the flag. The soaring music, the crying older men, the paeans to American resolve—it’s very much hagiography, and it’s very much the kind of thing my grandfather would have loved to watch. And nothing says the American spirit like throwing around cold hard cash while appealing to patriotism and doing no actual work.
The second half of the episode begins with the jewel-encrusted Middle Eastern swords given to Harry Truman (technically, the United States) and stolen in 1978 from the Harry S Truman Presidential Library. Again, talking heads—all male—tell the story of Truman’s sword collection, and once again no one actually does any new investigation, but Meltzer tells us that the swords were “cool.” The show concludes with a look at John Dillinger’s missing tommy gun, but this is more potted biography of Dillinger than exploration of his gun, at least until the end when the show pulls a bait and switch—one that you’ll have to watch the episode to see, since I would never dream of giving away the shocking ending of the episode that happened to also be in every newspaper a few months ago.
This half of the show reminds me of the kinds of true crime shows seen on Investigation Discovery (and, in earlier days, A&E), but Meltzer’s insistent and repeated reminders that he “needs to know” and demands “action” are grating; they make him sound like a tweedy version of a Fox News pundit, and it makes me uncomfortable. And like Fox News pundits, he calls for us out in the audience to take action while he sits back and collects the accolades (and pay!) for hosting the show.
Assuming that the screener accurately reflects the product that will go to air, with the sole exception of a woman who was once the owner of one artifact, everyone in the episode is a white male over the age of 40 (Meltzer himself is 44), and most are probably over the age of 60. The show’s talking heads are likely an accurate reflection of its target audience, and if you’re part of that audience you may well enjoy the hour—especially if you’d like to spend your Halloween with the lights out watching H2 and wishing the blasted kids would stay off your lawn.
Lost History wasn’t to my taste, though, and I already deal with enough angry people demanding action not to want any more of them on my TV. Maybe if H2 swapped out the intense Meltzer for the more amiable Brian Unger from How the States Got Their Shapes, this would have been a pleasant rather than an off-putting hour. I leave you with Meltzer’s own thesis statement: “You’re pissed now. You should be.” I’d rather not be, frankly. But I guess if you watch H2, you want to be.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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