It always had to be this way. Cable “historical mysteries” shows can’t stay away from aliens, except if they go down the supernatural/ghost route. Even Expedition Unknown, now Discovery’s flagship history series, did a multipart investigation into ancient astronauts and UFOs several years ago. America Unearthed went full-Ancient Aliens in its Travel Channel season, claiming to have evidence of ancient space visitors. I can’t think of a more appropriate place for this misbegotten mess of a bad comedy and worse history series to creak to a sclerotic halt than with Rob Riggle wandering the Nevada desert vainly searching the sky for UFOs, as though begging the heavens for a divine miracle that will save his show.
“By the way,” Riggle jokes, “what show is this for?”
Well, if you don’t know…
For those keeping track at home, the first episode that aired was originally given the production code S01E06, but Discovery renumbered the episodes, so this episode is also S01E06 since the Atlantis episode has been retroactively rechristened S01E01.
It’s always disconcerting when a “documentary” begins by bluntly asserting that ancient rock art is “believed” to depict space aliens, as though archaeologists made that claim. The people doing the believing are the fakes on cable TV, notably Ancient Aliens. It’s worse when Riggle relies on “declassified” U.S. government footage—the videos leaked by To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science without permission—to assert that unidentified blobs in the sky are necessarily alien spacecraft.
After the title sequence, Riggle uses the passive voice “believed” construction to assert that Area 51 holds the secrets of space aliens. He says—and there is no way to know how truthfully to take his character’s random brain farts—that he was not a believer in aliens until To the Stars started their propaganda campaign. The Navy videos, he says, changed his whole way of thinking and now he accepts flying saucers as real.
Riggle interviews former Area 51 worker Thornton D. “TD” Barnes, currently the head of a mining company in Nevada and an occasional Fox News contributor. Barnes tells Riggle that he can’t reveal any classified information. He next says that many Area 51 UFO sightings were military test craft and then immediately follows with the assertion that UFOs are real and that the Navy videos represent craft that are beyond human capability. Such analysis relies on a lot of assumptions, many of which have been litigated by UFO researchers over and again. One key assumption is that the object in the video is a “craft” and that this craft is moving beyond the laws of physics. There is no evidence other than beliefs imported from science fiction that the object is a craft in the sense that it is a ship or vessel for carrying beings or objects.
Riggle takes a flight in a military jet to get a sense of what it’s like to go fast like the UFOs in the Navy videos. This is supposed to help him imagine how aliens in UFOs would experience flight, but it’s mostly filler to waste time.
After the break, the second segment picks up with Riggle in the jet. Afterward, he transitions into ancient astronaut theory, again using the passive voice to hide who really “believes” Native American petroglyphs to be depictions of space aliens. The verbal sleight of hand allows him to try to impose that belief by implication on Dr. Karen Harry, an archaeologist at UNLV. Riggle calls shamanic images “alien spacemen.” To the show’s credit, it allows Harry to tell Riggle that while “anything is possible,” such images depict ceremonial headdresses and not space helmets. Harry tells producers that while Riggle seems engaged and curious, he needs to take an archaeology class and “learn to think through the scientific lens.” Oh, poor, naïve Karen Harry. Doing so would undercut the entire raison d’être for cable television! Riggle therefore continues to misinterpret Native rock at as UFOs, tractor beams, etc. as Harry tries to correct him. Riggle dismisses her, though his joking manner and obviously disingenuous narration indicates that, more than previous episodes, he is simply putting on a show and faking a belief he doesn’t hold.
The trouble is that the audience won’t readily distinguish between the real Rob Riggle and the character “Rob Riggle.” Fortunately, nobody is watching.
Riggle next meets with paranormal researcher Joshua P. Warren, originally a ghost-hunter but here presented as a UFO expert. He’s a regular fixture on the cable pseudo-documentary circuit. Together, they review photos and videos of alleged alien spacecraft.
The third segment was, frankly, a little sad. Riggle, Warren, and another ufologist, Steve Barone, sit in Barone’s living room watching home movies of lights in the sky. Barone says that he spends his life staring at the sky hoping to see things he doesn’t understand and then obsessively watching videos of the dots of light he films. After decades of filming, Barone says he doesn’t know what he’s taking video of, nor does the show depict him as doing very much to find out other than marveling at the lights and declaring that they can’t be aircraft, drones, or balloons. He might say that, but many of his videos, hyped in UFO media like Coast to Coast A.M. and Jimmy Church’s show, have been explained as, yes, conventional things like helicopters. He doesn’t seem to be particularly thorough as a researcher.
Warren then takes Riggle on an all-night UFO stakeout in the Mojave Desert.
The fourth segment documents Riggle’s stakeout. Riggle’s EMF equipment experiences some interference, and Riggle declares this evidence that a UFO—an unseen UFO—entered the atmosphere. Warren uses other random equipment to hunt for—well, what, exactly? Suddenly the UFOs are no longer alien craft. Warren says he is hunting for the “paranormal” via electromagnetic frequencies. The ufologists seem to believe that UFOs are supernatural, since they speak of them as “paranormal” and allege that they operate beyond the laws of materialist physics. Riggle ignores this and does a comedy bit about anal probes that the ufologists don’t realize is supposed to be funny, mostly because it isn’t.
After an interstitial “comedy” bit in which Riggle pretends to think the crew are shape-shifting aliens, the fifth segment concludes the stakeout. Riggle assumes without evidence that a fuzzy blip on infrared footage, appearing like a bug passing in front of the camera lens, is evidence of a spaceship passing in and out of our reality far in the distance. Riggle is thrilled, but even Warren declines to declare it a spaceship. He tells Riggle that more research is needed, but Riggle is done with this episode, and the series, so he walks away.
As the show skids into a conclusion, Riggle has mechanical engineer Matthew Marko of Naval Air Systems Command tell him that his video has “a lot in common” with the Navy’s UFO videos. This is just sad since Marko simply assumes the video’s green dot is a vehicle flying beyond the laws of physics through the distant sky. No wonder these “mysteries,” as Riggle admits, never get solved. The will to believe triumphs over even basic efforts to weed out bad data before drawing extreme conclusions. Of course, that’s also the definition of cable TV, so take it for what it’s worth.
This final episode of Rob Riggle was more challenging to review than the others because it was the first where the character of “Rob Riggle” was operating against what the actual person Rob Riggle seemed to believe. The real Riggle believes in pseudohistory, but he doesn’t appear to be an ancient astronaut theorist. I’m not sure the show did enough to differentiate between the blowhard character’s defense of ancient astronauts and space aliens and the real Riggle’s apparent skepticism of the thin evidence for such claims.
This only served to underscore the problem at the heart of Rob Riggle: Global Investigator: The show never successfully decided whether it was a funny attempt to find real solutions to genuine mysteries or a satirical sendup of cable TV efforts to manufacture mysteries out of fakery and lies. Weaving in and out of these two very different approaches, the result was muddled. The show was never funny enough to be a comedy, and it seemingly wanted its audience to believe the evidence presented. But it was also too flippant to be taken seriously and never leveled with its audience about what parts were supposed to be true and what was simply fodder for Riggle’s so-called “comedy.” In the end, this ambiguity created one of the “ancient mysteries” genre’s most interesting failures, a disaster on par with Unexplored + Unexplained or Legends of the Lost, where producers once again mistook a toxic stew of ignorance, arrogance, and incompetence for sly intelligence.
But, hey, nobody watched, so we don’t have to think about this anymore—unless something truly paranormal happens at Discovery headquarters.
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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