Expedition Unknown is a strange program, not for its content but rather for its lack thereof. It doesn’t seem to have much of an identity. One week, it’s an Indiana Jones expedition to the ends of the earth, and another it’s a dull as dishwater slog through the boring dregs of American history. Granted, it’s a new show and trying to see what sticks, but I can’t fathom who the audience for this is. Each episode contains too little travel information to make it a travelogue, too little history to be a documentary, and too little analysis to clear the low bar set by History Channel and H2 crazy-quilt conspiracy shows. And with the topics veering from ancient history to Nazis to the Wild West, the only factor giving the show any unity is the fact that all of the show’s topics are mirror images of topics covered on the History Channel and H2.
No, I take that back: The unifying factor so far is the failed quest for treasure, however that treasure is defined. To that end, I guess the audience is supposed to be the same contingent of middle aged men who enjoy treasure-hunting shows on History, H2, NatGeo, American Heroes Channel, Spike, Discovery, and all the others.
Last night’s episode, S01E04 “The Legend of Jesse James,” was exceptionally dull and stupid. Gates scoured Oklahoma for a good couple of hours looking for Jesse James’s lost treasure, and he failed to find it. Instead, we watched him try on Western outfits, ride a horse, shoot a gun into a tree stump, and wrangle mules. He also talked to a large number of old men, many of whom like to wear historical costumes, and all of whom obsess about Jesse James and the Wild West while employing magical thinking and nostalgia to try to find his gold.
Granted, I’m not the audience for treasure hunts, but this episode felt like a rerun before it even started. Part of the reason for that is the echoes of Scott Wolter’s treasure-hunting misadventures a few weeks ago on America Unearthed, and the other part is that Wolter also had an episode about Jesse James and lost treasure, which was repeating a still earlier History Channel show on the same called Jesse James’ Hidden Treasure (2009). Like Wolter in the episode about Custer’s lost treasure, host Josh Gates wore goofy costumes, wandered around in the wilderness, talked to obsessive treasure hunters, rode a horse, and found nothing. Like Wolter in earlier seasons, Gates also used a dowsing rod to try to find Jesse James’s gold, though he at least was smart enough to acknowledge that dowsing rods don’t work. Like Wolter, he also pretends that the can full of gold coins (the Saddle Ridge Hoard) found in California recently could have been part of the lost treasure he’s looking for, but unlike Wolter, Gates fails to acknowledge that the coins, which date to the 1890s, could not have been the Mexican gold hidden by James decades before. So, the score is tied at 1 to 1, but Gates gets the win because, unlike Wolter, he doesn’t wish out loud that James had succeeded in helping the Knights of the Golden Circle establish a vast North American slave empire for the Confederacy.
If you were to watch only these kinds of shows, you’d swear America was filled with nothing but middle aged and old white men who obsess over the past, dress up in historical costumes, and fantasize about how much better life was in the nineteenth century. Oh! I think I just figured out the audience for this show.
I’ll probably give the show one more chance since next week will be about the legend of the lost city of gold in Peru (another treasure hunt), but after that I will probably drop this show from my viewing. It manages the neat trick of being too honest to make for a good critical review and too superficial to endorse as quality viewing.
I thought I’d finish today on a completely different subject. Below is an interesting passage I found last night in Al-Maqrizi’s medieval Al-Khitat (1.15) regarding the mythic prehistory of Egypt. It discusses one of the achievements of Hermes Trismegistus. I pick up the story, in my translation from the French edition, when Egypt has been devastated by a horrific and uncontrollable Nile flood:
At that time, says Master Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah, there reigned Budasheer, a mighty king, who was the first to employ enchantments and magic, and could make himself invisible. His uncles, Ashmun, Atrib, and Sa each reigned in his province, but Budasheer subdued them by his bravery and his courage, and, like his father, his fame surpassed that of the kings who preceded him; thus he was more powerful than his uncles and they had to submit to him. It is said that he sent the Egyptian priest Hermes to Mt. Qumr (the Mountain of the Moon), at the foot of which is the source of the Nile. Hermes’ mission was to raise (at the source of the river) bronze statues and to restore the lake from which the river’s waters flow. It was, they say, this priest who restored the two banks of the Nile, whose waters had been lost in the ground and whose course was sometimes interrupted. The palace where the statues were erected contained eighty-five figures built by Hermes to bring Nile water through pipes and hoses through which the water flowed. On leaving Mt. Qumr, water entered a statue and came out through its mouth. Hermes then established a carefully graduated scale of known cubits. All the water was thus brought down to the various beds of the river which led to two lakes from which it emerged to enter into another lake which gathered together all of the output of water at the foot of the mountain. Through these statues, Hermes regularized the river that was to bring to Egypt fertility and well-being, and thus what had been harmful now became useful.
Now, since ancient astronaut theorists and fringe historians ask us to view Ibn Wasif Shah’s fabulous history of Egypt as true, surely this is a testable hypothesis! I recommend that Giorgio Tsoukalos and David Childress fly out to the source of the Nile immediately to dig up these 85 statues and prove that Hermes Trismegistus did what they think he did!
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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