This week, the extremely low ratings for Rob Riggle cause the Discovery Channel to push the show out of primetime into the overnight hours where it can do less harm. It almost certainly will not return next season.
It’s not entirely fair to compare a scripted drama to an equally scripted but much cheaper “reality” production, but I’ll do it anyway. After all, most of these shows are trying to be discount Indiana Jones anyway. Just look at the titles for Rob Riggle.
Even though The Outer Banks deals with some very serious issues, not always satisfactorily, it also understands the idea of entertainment and keeps the story fun. Even when it leaps to preposterous conclusions, there is a certain warmth and charm grounded in likeable actors and a sense that you want the underdogs to win something—in this case, to find a lost load of gold from a sunken ship. It is never unwatchable, even when it is not “good” in the peak-TV manner. The Outer Banks has only two characters it develops in three dimensions, John B. (Chase Stokes), the hero of the story, and his best friend J.J. (Rudy Pankow), a fast-talking, impulsive smartass. The other half-dozen or so men are assigned one personality trait apiece. Pope (Jonathan Daviss) is smart, Topper (Austin North) is a rich kid with a jealous streak, Rafe (Drew Starkey) is an even richer kid with a violent streak, etc. There are two girls and one woman with small speaking parts on the show, but like the rare women on cable TV treasure hunts, they are mostly decorative background players and don’t have much to say or do, except to pine or fight over a boy. Nevertheless, everyone has a base level of charisma that helps the viewer forgive the flaws in an otherwise fun story.
Cable TV treasure hunts don’t really put in the effort to make their characters likeable enough that I want to spend any time with them. Riggle intentionally plays his “Rob Riggle” character as an asshole, which is off-putting enough, but the people skulking about Skinwalker Ranch, probing for Civil War gold, hunting Hitler, or what-have-you always come across as wooden, abrasive, and/or obsessive. They lack, so to speak, the element of fun. Worse, because the cable TV universe is smaller than that of a Y.A. Netflix soap opera, the constant recycling of the same few people across these shows makes them feel still more generic. Their characters aren’t of a particular time and place but are just bad actors slotted into underdeveloped roles. On Rob Riggle, that’s literally the case: Twice he has used actors to portray “experts” without disclosing the fact to the audience. And they still weren’t any good!
This is a failure of TV production, not people. It should be easy to make people likeable and create emotional connections to the story. Sports does it all the time. I hate those sappy sob stories that get slotted in before a competition to help you feel for the athlete, but they are effective. Cable, though, realized that they don’t need to put in the time or the money to create something good when cheap, repetitive, and dull returns almost the same ratings with minimal investment.
If I went on longer than usual about topics other than this episode of Rob Riggle: Global Investigator, it’s because this episode’s topic is of such niche interest that I had plenty of time to think about how it could have been done better.
The story of Rome’s Legio IX Hispana is just not very interesting to me. In short, mentions of the Ninth Legion disappears from Roman inscriptions and records sometime after c. 120 CE, and it was certainly no longer in existence under Septimius Severus, when it was conspicuously not included in his list of legions. A 1954 novel popularized the idea that it disappeared in Scotland in 108, a view popular in Victorian times among British antiquarians, but inscriptions from the legion dating from after this time were found more recently in the Netherlands, so it may have been destroyed in the wars of the middle second century, either in Britain, Cappadocia, or Judaea. No evidence or records exist to document the loss, and the Romans didn’t consider it important enough to make hay out of. Its disappearance is more of an artifact of historical blindness than a nefarious mystery. Clearly, the Romans knew what happened and didn’t think enough of it to bother inserting into their histories. So, big deal. Mostly, the importance of the lost legion lies in its connection to British historians and novelists, who treat it as a romantic subject of Ye Olde Days. It’s been featured in novels, radio dramas, TV shows, movies, and even Doctor Who. Hundreds of nonfiction books and papers speculate about the legion, but since the legion is associated with no treasure, no great battle, and no enduring legacy, hunting for it is apparently primarily one of those quietly dull British antiquarian activities.
Quiet and dull are not Rob Riggle’s trademarks.
It surprises no one, I imagine, that Rob Riggle adopts the Scottish hypothesis, falsely describes the Ninth Legion as the “most formidable” fighting force in the Empire, or wobbles on his pronunciation of “Celtic,” switching between a hard-C and a soft-C like the basketball team. (The Tenth Legion is usually identified as the most fearsome, but it’s a very subjective ranking.) Riggle travels to York to visit historians who reenact the Ninth Legion. The historians falsely tell Riggle that the last reference to the Ninth legion is a tablet in York from 108 CE, which records the legion’s preparation for battle, and Riggle accepts the story wholesale, ignoring the later evidence from the Netherlands. Riggle describes the tablet as “recently deciphered,” but it was found and translated in 1864. I guess for everyone involved with this show, historiography stopped with Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), who first proposed the 108 CE destruction date, with everything discovered after 1990 invisible.
Riggle dresses up as a Roman soldier. Bad comedy ensues.
The second segment visits Hadrian’s Wall where Riggle meets with Robert Lundgren Jones, a tour guide who dresses up as Jon Snow from Game of Thrones. Because of the lack of evidence for the Ninth Legion anywhere in Scotland, Riggle instead turns to Lundgren Jones’s stories about a ghost of a Roman solider haunting Hadrian’s Wall. Riggle investigates with a paranormal team, which is pointless for many reasons, but even if you imagine that there really is a ghost, why would a Ninth Legion ghost haunt a wall built after the legion allegedly disappeared? Hadrian’s Wall had actual soldiers who manned it for generations, so in theory, would not the Roman soldier more likely be one who really did work there? But since ghosts don’t exist, this stupid excuse to waste time descends into the kind of joking-but-not-really dancing around outright lying that cable TV is famous for. If you don’t believe it, then it was all a joke! If you do, then they were totally serious. I won’t even comment on the stupidity of using a little box with tiny light bulbs to try to “talk” to a ghost named Lucius.
The third segment continues the ghost hunt, to no effect. Then Riggle visits the ruins of a Roman fort, Vindolanda. An archaeologist shows Riggle human skulls found at the site. The fort had some sort of unexplained event that left evidence of a sudden abandonment around 117 CE, and Riggle falsely describes archaeological evidence as “fossils.” None of this had anything to do with the Ninth Legion, so it was a mildly interesting but irrelevant side trip.
After this, Riggle investigates a legend that Queen Boudica cursed the Ninth Legion on her death bed. That’s cute and all, but this allegedly occurred during the Battle of Camulodunum in 61 CE, when the Celts took out a large part of the Ninth Legion. It happened more than four decades too early by Riggle’s count, and six decades too early by modern historians’ reckoning to have anything to do with the disappearance of the legion.
The fourth segment has Riggle looking for evidence that the Ninth Legion performed “strange rituals” to ward off Boudica’s curse. He meets with the archaeologist who excavated Fort Inveresk in Scotland, where six male bodies dating from somewhere between 20 and 220 CE were buried with their heads cut off post mortem and placed between their knees. A horse was buried beside them. The ritual represented here is unknown, so Riggle simply assumes it’s connected to Boudica’s curse. For no particular reason given to us, Riggle asserts that he has concluded that the entire Ninth Legion had been ambushed on the way to Fort Inveresk, in a boggy forest. He therefore begins metal detecting in the bogs. Why assume this? Who knows? The “bogs” are so small that each could barely hold one soldier, and there is no evidence given they were the same boggy wetland two thousand years ago. Riggle says that it’s a great place to “ambush your enemy,” but there is no evidence to support his hypothesis. Instead, it seems to have been chosen simply to fill time.
An interstitial comedy bit during the commercial has Riggle making jokes to a ghost who doesn’t respond. I didn’t laugh either, so it’s a wash.
The fifth segment finds Riggle still in the bog, and then he freaks out because a fox walks by. Like the rest of the show’s audience, the fox turns around and leaves. He finds a tiny piece of metal. As the show ends, Christopher Muscato, an adjunct professor at the University of Norther Colorado specializing in Mexican and American nineteenth and twentieth century history tells Riggle that the metal fragment could have been a Roman javelin tip. But even Riggle admitted this time that Muscato could not confirm Riggle’s allegation that it was a piece of the Ninth Legion from the specific year he imagined it disappeared.
So… Ghosts, ignorance of actual current historical evidence, and pointless side quests. Sadly, even with all that, this was still the strongest episode of Rob Riggle: Global Investigator purely from the point of view of facts, evidence, and conclusions.
At the end of the day, both Rob Riggle: Global Investigator and The Outer Banks ask us to find entertainment and enjoyment in a Boy’s Own-style quest for historical mysteries, and I’m glad that Riggle went in search of a Roman mystery this week. That lets me make the point that the Greeks and the Romans imagined the absolute bliss of the Golden Age, paradise on Earth, as a whole world populated entirely by eternally adolescent teen boys. Hesiod tells us so in Works and Days (69-120), where the Golden Age occurs before the creation of the first woman, when all men lived in bliss, were eternally young, and spent their days in fun and adventure.*
These two shows offer two very different attempts create a television version of the Greco-Roman paradise. Riggle, like Tithonus, is the eternal frat boy, without the eternal youth, in a show that views the excitement of adventure as an egomaniacal solo pursuit for personal glory. The Outer Banks revels in the joy of eternal youth and sees adventure as a team sport, where building bonds and social ties is more important than the treasure or the glory. I can’t speak to what kind of paradise the Greco-Roman Golden Age would really have been had it existed, but if you had to pick a TV show to better represent the Classical ideal, I know which I prefer.
* Hesiod married two incompatible and probably independent stories without really considering the consequences. Take the result with a small grain of salt.
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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