This season, Ancient Aliens has given one ancient astronaut theorist per week an episode spotlight. The talking head gets to go on an all-expenses-paid vacation to a tourist destination, and gets to be the featured on-location contributor discussing his favorite pet subject. While this might seem like a cute way to revitalize an aging franchise by shaking up the talking head formula a little bit, it is also an efficient way of squeezing more money out of the fringe history circus.
Our case in point today is Friday’s episode, which spotlighted the “work” of Andrew Collins, an all-purpose mystery-monger who will happily flit between aliens, Atlantis, and the Nephilim as the market dictates. On Friday, he was in ancient astronaut mode, but not before the show gave him a platform to promote his 2014 book on the Turkish site of Göbekli Tepe, which the show mentioned by name, displaying the book’s cover for the show’s 1.5-million-strong audience.
Collins took to Twitter shortly after the episode aired to announce that as a result of the publicity, his book became Amazon’s #1 bestseller in the Ancient Mysteries category. While Amazon categories are narrow enough, and updated frequently enough, that this might not necessarily translate into huge numbers in absolute sales, presumably the Ancient Mysteries category is a big enough one that Collins pocket more than a little coin from his spotlight episode of Ancient Aliens. It is evidence, though, that Ancient Aliens, American television’s longest running series devoted to ancient history, continues to drive the conversation surrounding ancient history and can distort the marketplace for books on the subject when it puts its weight behind a given product.
Speaking of distortions, I thought that for a change of pace it might be interesting to review ITV2’s newest reality competition series, Bromans, which began airing in Britain last week. Since I will admit nothing, suffice it to say that I saw it via magic. The show, as the name implies, takes eight dim-bulb “bros” and their equally intellectual girlfriends and whisks them off to an elaborate outdoor set recreating an ancient Roman town where the “bros” live and train as gladiators. The set, according to media reports, was originally built for the ancient-Rome-set sitcom Plebs and is located in Bulgaria. The borrowed opulence makes the show seem much more impressive than its limited budget and ambitions actually are. For American audiences, it might be best to imagine the cast of Jersey Shore or Party Down South joining a troupe of Civil War reenactors. I will admit that I ended up enjoying the show in spite of its odd juxtaposition of down-market reality trash with Classical trappings.
Let’s not mince words: The twentysomething British idiots—the “lads,” as the show calls them—are among the dumbest dumbbells I’ve ever seen on reality TV. One thinks that the world is flat and wrongly praises the Romans for knowing the “truth” about the flat earth. Another, upon arriving in the recreated Roman street, proudly proclaims that he had never gone back in time so far before: “I’ve gone 2,000 years back? I’ve never lived that far back. I’ve only seen lamp posts and pavements.” All of the contestants are well-versed in American reality show clichés and talk almost exclusively in them. They are, after all, in it to win it, will totally dominate everything and everyone, and of course are not here to make friends. The saving grace is that they also laugh at themselves for spouting such semi-scripted lines. At least I hope they are laughing at themselves. They might just be too dim to know why they are laughing.
And yet, British reality shows often employ a humorous narrator (here it is American-born British radio personality Roman Kemp) whose mocking commentary provides a critical distance from the events on screen that provides just enough of a separation between the viewer and the viewed to allow the viewer to enjoy the program with the understanding that everyone involved is in on the joke. It was pretty much the narration that made Come Dine with Me something more entertaining than literally watching regular people make dinner. Even The Sun, in trashing the show, made the same point this morning: “say what you like about this show, it’s brutally aware of its own limitations and sends itself up mercilessly.”
Archaeologist Kristina Killgrove hated the show for not being historically accurate, while Classicist Andrew Sillett saw things more my way and considered it an entertaining diversion that captured the spirit of Rome’s orgiastic excess. For all Killgrove’s carping, the show’s emphasis on nudity, bizarre spectacle, and humiliating the plebs is pretty much Rome in a nutshell. I think that part of my reaction is probably due to the fact that as an American, I don’t see that much British reality TV, so the differences in style between the U.K. and America are somewhat amusing, but also due to the fact that so much American reality TV is so exploitative and casually cruel that it is almost quaint to see a relatively good- natured, if somewhat vulgar, approach.
Ultimately, the patina of Classical culture and ancient history was just amusing enough that I found Bromans to be a silly and enjoyable trifle.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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