The truth behind history’s most provocative secrets.
The idea here is that bestselling author Brad Meltzer (Book of Lies) has rounded up a group of experts to solve the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history. This first season of History Channel’s Decoded features ten episodes:
• “The White House”
• “Secret Presidential Codes”
• “Statue of Liberty”
• “The Lincoln Assassination”
• “Confederate Gold”
• “D.B. Cooper”
• “The President’s Inner Circle”
• “Secret Societies”
• “Apocalypse in Georgia”
In many ways, this show is speaking my language. I love history, but not in the traditional sense. I love the quirky, weird side of history, as opposed to the boring “what law was passed when” homework side of history. Decoded rests firmly in the fringes of history, spinning stories of murder, conspiracy, and secrets.
Meltzer only appears as narrator, occasionally chiming in from a studio. For the bulk of the series, the actual investigating belongs to Professor Buddy Levy (the nice guy), mathematician Christine McKinley (the brains), and prosecutor Scott Rolle (the skeptic). Some of the show’s most entertaining moments are when these three drop the “historic detectives” shtick and just be themselves, whether marveling at a historically preserved site or bickering with each other like brothers and sister.
The better episodes of the series are the more concrete, factual ones. When our heroes explore the death of Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame), and find materials to support that it wasn’t suicide but murder, it’s exciting. Similarly, investigation into conflicting reports about whether presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth actually died days after Lincoln’s shooting or lived for years afterward shows valid arguments on both sides. These episodes are peppered with real-life anecdotes about what life was like back then, with looks at the actual historic sites today, and it’s all thrilling stuff.
When episodes get into more abstract territory, they get less enjoyable and more ridiculous. The Statue of Liberty episode is not about the statue, but about the Illuminati, an alleged secret society that may or may not have powerful members everywhere. There’s no evidence to suggest that the Illuminati ever existed, and, conversely, no way to prove that the group is total fiction. Our three investigators are left wandering around New York, interviewing conspiracy theorists and skeptics, with the results being that they know just as little as they did when they started. Similarly, the Freemasons are in the spotlight more than once this season. Because of their alleged secrecy, the Freemasons get blamed for everything, despite the fact that they give the investigators full access to their New York archives and insist that they are not plotting to overthrow all the world’s governments. These episodes end up being all speculation, and not really about anything.
The biggest flaw of the series is that these cases rarely have any resolution. Even the better episodes, such as the one about Booth, Lewis, or famed thief D.B. Cooper, bring us this close to a concrete solution, only to end before anything can be decided. This happens in cases when the investigators want to exhume a body for DNA evidence, only to be told they can’t because the graves is a historic site and…the credits roll. Each episode leaves us hanging like that. The series promises to solve history’s greatest mysteries, but we’re instead left with merely talking about history’s greatest mysteries. Whether it’s a 200-year-old unsolved murder or the already long-since-debunked 2012 apocalypse thing, the lack of a concrete solution in any given episode is bound to frustrate many viewers.
History buffs will want to make this one a rental, but I don’t see a lot of replay value beyond that. Tech specs are a standard made-for-TV picture and 2.0 sound, with a big fat zero for extras.