Thursday, September 29, 2011

Brad Meltzer’s “Decoded” Season 1 (History Channel)


Having read and mostly enjoyed Brad Meltzer’s novels, I was intrigued when I discovered that he had his own TV show on the History Channel. Political history and the conspiracies that often surround them are popular topics for thrillers, and Meltzer’s novels often fit comfortably in this sub-genre. In Decoded, Meltzer and his team (a lawyer, an engineer, and a history professor) investigate a number of American historical mysteries and conspiracies. Here’s how the History Channel describes the show:

Every now and then, a researcher stumbles upon a historical enigma, an unproven rumour, a story with a puzzling outcome. Such encounters are an irresistible challenge for bestselling author Brad Meltzer, who unravelled many mysteries in the first season of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded.

Now he’s back to explore a whole new set of history’s most compelling and perplexing riddles. Luckily, he’s got a team of investigators to help him out with each mission: Buddy Levy, a professor and journalist who assumes there is always more than meets the eye; Christine McKinley, a mechanical engineer who only believes in what can be proved; and Scott Rolle, a trial lawyer and born sceptic. Together, they’ll sniff out every clue and leave no stone unturned as they seek to reveal the truth.

Season One of Decoded had ten episodes, and quite a range of subjects covered. Here’s how they broke down, with a few thoughts, followed by more general impressions of the show.

White House Corner Stone

This is a weird one, and not the strongest series opener. The White House corner stone was allegedly stolen the day after it was laid down. I’m not really sure what all the fuss is about, to tell you the truth. Nonetheless, it was interesting to hear all the stuff that’s fuelled the conspiracy – for example, the number of Freemasons who were involved in the US’s founding. The show’s visit to the Temple headquarters of the Freemasons was pretty cool, though – the imagery, the architecture and some of the history that came out was all pretty fascinating. It’s a fascinating organisation, primarily because of its extreme secrecy and also the powerful individuals it has held within its ranks (presidents, senators, CEOs, and others).


Secret Presidential Codes

This episode was about the death of Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis & Clark), the man who helped Jefferson develop one of the first codes used by the presidents (a code that would be used by the US Army for almost 100 years). That’s about the only thing that’s related to Presidential Codes, however, because the rest of the episode delves into the man’s death. He was appointed as the governor of the Louisiana Territory, but died in Tennessee. Lewis allegedly committed suicide, however there is plenty of evidence to suggest this isn’t remotely accurate. The team look into who might have wanted Lewis dead, and also the many incongruities of Lewis’s death (for a start, the gun used was hugely powerful, and he had a gunshot wound in both his stomach and also his head… Difficult to self-inflict them both). This was a very good episode, and had a bit of a CSI and Bones feel to it.

Statue of Liberty

I had no idea there was a conspiracy or mystery sounding the Statue of Liberty. Naturally, it revolves around the Freemasons and the Illuminati. The team admit to some scepticism. Meltzer states quite clearly that they don’t necessarily accept the conspiracies that surround these two secret societies, but there’s no denying that their secrecy and frequent appearance is in itself interesting. I’m glad McKinley, the engineer, voices scepticism over the numerology stuff (I thought the ‘expert’ was stretching things at times). The Illuminati are discussed in a wonderfully “are you kidding me?” tone – they are, as Meltzer says, “the most overplayed bad guys in history”. It’s also nice that they try to pop some of the weirder conspiracy theories that surround this iconic statue.


The Lincoln Assassination

In this episode, the team trace John Wilkes Booth’s journey after assassinating Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. It was pretty interesting, as the team investigate the people involved and what happened in the aftermath of Booth’s plot, and how they were brought to justice.

The team specifically focus on a conspiracy I had no previous knowledge of: that the man who was shot at the end of the manhunt may not in fact have been John Wilkes Booth! This conspiracy was born from the strange circumstances surrounding the autopsy following the execution – it was conducted on a boat, surrounded by a small selection of officials, the doctor was a previous acquaintance of Booth’s (who expressed doubts over the body’s identity), and Booth’s family were not given the opportunity to identify the body.

So, who was the man officially identified as John Wilkes Booth, and what happened to the real Booth? What the team show us is quite an interesting look into the historical record, drawing on a number of collections of papers and other evidence to attempt to figure out if any of the potential aliases pan out.

I enjoyed this episode a lot (it was actually the last one I saw), and it appealed to both my love of thrillers and also my love of American history.

Confederate Gold

This was a very good episode – who doesn’t love a hunt for treasure protected by a 150 year old secret brotherhood? As the team tramp around the South, looking for any evidence of the Confederate Treasure that was transported South to save it from the Union. The team hook up with a few long-time treasure hunters (perhaps with ulterior motives), who seem to have been able to decipher the complex and bizarre code the Knights of the Golden Circle developed to hide the gold – apparently with loads of red herrings built in. It was a bit strange, given the fact that the team don’t really believe their local expert is really interested in helping them find the treasure. But, I do love a good treasure hunt.

D.B. Cooper

There seems to be a renewed interest in the case of D.B. Cooper – I’ve seen it featured in a number of TV shows. Into 1971, airline skyjacker D.B. Cooper jumped out of an airplane at 10,000 feet with two parachutes and two-hundred thousand dollars in ransom money. And then disappeared completely. It remains one of the FBI’s most puzzling unsolved crimes, and the team are intent on getting to the bottom of his identity and fate.

This is a straight-forward mystery, rather than cosmic conspiracy. I love things like this (why else do you think I read thriller novels?). The team investigates all the various leads the FBI have acquired. They tell us of the strange fact that only $5,800 from Cooper’s haul has ever been found (by an eight-year-old boy). The rest of the money has never been recovered and, one assumes, never entered circulation. It’s pretty interesting stuff. One of the best episodes, certainly.


This was pretty fun. There’s been a lot of 2012-as-apocalypse stuff going around of late, which makes this quite timely. So, this episode takes a look at the predictions and theories that surround how or why the end of the world is going to end next year. There’s a funny moment when the team are put in an earthquake simulator and Meltzer says “there was no reason to do it” other than it was funny (delivered in a surprisingly unemotional tone, actually). The idea of an asteroid crashing down on earth and wiping us out is pretty scary. But even though some of the guys interviewed said it was only a matter of when, they do at least say it’ll unlike to happen for millions of years. (What a relief!)


The President’s Inner Circle

This episode told us a lot about the Revolutionary War’s spy ring, the Culper Ring (more than Meltzer’s novel, The Inner Circle, in fact). The episode offered a lot of historical detail and information about how the Culper Ring operated, and puts their methods into context historical: their ordeals were pretty impressive, given the times, environment and level of technology available to them (invisible ink! Classic).


Secret Societies

The Bohemian Grove Club – the feared secret society who get together to plot the future course of the nation, decide on who becomes president, and many other sinister examples of these unelected men wielding excessive amounts of power. Because it’s a mens-only club, Meltzer describes it as the “Best-funded frat party” in the world. Some of the strangest (and most unintentionally amusing) parts of the entire series are the impressions ordinary Americans form of these societies – among other things, some people believe that the Bohemian Club (and members of other such societies) are soulless. Actually soulless, not metaphorically soulless. Weird. When the team start snooping around Bohemian Grove, it’s unnerving how quickly the police turn up to warn them away. (They attempt to get into the Grove in other, more sneaky ways anyway.) There’s also a connection to Skull & Bones, the secret society at Yale (perhaps the most famous secret society in the world today) – and apparently, according to one ‘expert’, they come to Bohemian Grove to plot world domination, and they are doing it through the form of a German Death Cult, connected to Druidic rituals…

This episode perfectly explains what drives Meltzer’s imagination and writing when he says of the Bohemian Club: “Maybe it’s summer camp for rich people, but if it is why keep it so secret?” Meltzer is very clear about not believing that presidents and powerful officials get together to “plot against us”. Rather, he believes that there are many people in the world who would go to extreme lengths to rub shoulders with presidents and the powerful, and this is basically what the Bohemian Club is. True, they do seem to have some really weird rituals at the same time… It’s difficult to not think of it as some kind of joke.


Apocalypse in Georgia

The American Stonehenge – the Georgia Guidestones. Built anonymously, covered in texts inscribed in the eight most widely used languages in the world. What are they all about? The text mostly seems sensible and a call for reason. All, that is, except for the top-most statement, which calls to maintain the human population at no more than 500 million. Naturally, this sets off people’s “spidey-senses” because it looks like a call for a mass slaughter.

It’s funny as Meltzer’s field team start pondering why the stones were created and what they are meant to be. Naturally, there’s another secret society involved: the Rosicrucians, and the team find someone who has “hard evidence” that they are an evil cabal attempting to control the world. Meltzer does a good job of shining light on some of the more crazy conspiracies – for example, diminishing the air of mystery about the secret group by pointing out that one supposedly evil member of the Rosicrucians became one by mail order. As Meltzer says, “I can become a bride by mail order”, so it just doesn’t cut it for him.


*     *     *

Overall, the show was quite fun. The historical content is very well portrayed, with lots of documentation and source material drawn on. With some of the conspiracies, they recognise that answering questions or ‘proving’ things is very difficult (for example, with the White House Cornerstone). They don’t really solve any of the mysteries, but they do a good job of discussing all sides of the mysteries. They also show how often the various conspiracies overlap – be it through the involvement of Freemasons, Illuminati, Skull & Bones, or the fact that so many people think we’re all going to die in 2012 (those pesky Mayans and their calendar). By doing this, Meltzer and his team can give viewers some esoteric and interesting nuggets of American and conspiracy history. The level of production is pretty good and slick, which makes the show visually impressive and fun to watch. Each episode is only about 45 mins, but they manage to cram in an awful lot of content, sleuthing and debunking, without feeling too rushed (although a couple of episodes ended rather abruptly).

They maintain a healthy scepticism, and aren’t afraid to voice how ridiculous they think some things sound. Instead of swallowing these conspiracies whole, Meltzer and his team attempt to see how historical mysteries can be informed and also in turn inform how we see things in the present. There’s plenty here that is tongue-in-cheek, and it’s nice that the team seem to be having so much fun investigating these mysteries.

Meltzer also gives some good advice, about how it is very difficult and potentially dangerous to interpret things from the outside, without context or deeper understanding. In the case of the secret societies discussed in the series, this is especially important. Some episodes are better than others, offering more intriguing analysis of some of America’s more famous mysteries and conspiracies. As a whole, this is a pretty interesting series, with plenty of fuel for the imagination.

I preferred the episodes that were more centred on straight-forward thriller-type mysteries (John Wilkes Booth, the Culper Ring and also D.B. Cooper). The other episodes were still interesting and fun, but the speculation about the secret societies, while interesting, did not have as much punch due to the overblown conspiracies and paranoia that surround them. (Which, let’s be honest, is why they are interesting in the first place and feature at the centre of so many novels.)

Overall, Decoded is a fun diversion, and if you have some time and like this sort of thing, I’d definitely recommend you check it out.

The second season will air on the History Channel in October 2011.

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