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Cities of the Underworld: The Complete Season Two

(History Channel; US DVD: 24 Feb 2009)

This Aint Your Daddy’s Nova

Who would ever have guessed that Black Friday, that creepy day which launched a seemingly endless run of gruesome slash-and-spatter flicks featuring that hockey-masked punisher of footloose teens, Jason Vorhees, had its origins in the Holy Land? On 13 October, in annus 1307, no less, that region’s Islamic rulers decided to arrest, torture, and eventually slaughter members of the Knights Templar, in an orgy of bloodletting that far exceeded the Nazis’ terrifying Kristallnacht.


Recall, too, the day that at least 50 gangsters were killed in a single gun battle in turn-of-the-century New York’s Chinatown. Apparently, the shooters hadn’t opened their fortune cookies that day.


History junkies – their minds in perpetual Trivial Pursuit mode – gobble up these facts like sugar cookies fresh from the oven, and the History Channel’s Cities of The Underworld delivers them at warp speed. The program, already a stalwart presence on the network, debuted a mere two years ago, and DVDs of its sophomore season have just recently hit online and brick-and-mortar stores. No one will mistake this show for a sedate, scholarly PBS documentary. Uh-Uhnn! Cities of the Underworld is flashy, MTV-quick, pixilated Cliff’s Notes, manna for the I-pod generation, many of whom are cramming as I write for tomorrow’s exam on Mesopotamian outhouses.


Hosted first by Eric Geller, then Don Wildman, the latter an alumnus of Weird Travels, the show premiered in March 2007, and its modus operandi is quite succinct: each week, our scruffy guide visits a different teeming metropolis to learn the deep, dark secrets which lie underneath the tarmac. Conveniently, each city, be it New York, Hiroshima, or Dublin, possesses a thrillingly seamy subterranean histoire, and so much the better for us the viewers.


To wit: Wildman leads us through now-bustling Hiroshima in episode one, titled “A-Bomb Underground”, where we prowl bomb shelters, and hear of the destruction of the majestic Hiroshima Castle. To the likely dismay of Japan’s current government, we’re also told of Japan’s massive bunker at Matsushiro, constructed with forced Korean labor.


The Land of The Rising Sun’s 1941 sneak attack on Pearl Harbor has been exhaustively documented, but less publicized to the masses is its 35-year hostile occupation of Korea, during which Korean nationals, both male and female, were used by the Imperial Japanese Army to satisfy different urges.


Also troubling is “Hitler’s Last Stand”, which presents specious evidence of a so-called “Doomsday” device, an awesome weapon supposedly capable of obliterating all life on earth. The suggestion of its existence seems a tad hysterical, as some journalists have asserted, and at any rate, no such contraption is ever found.


More intriguing are the sinister tales of the Third Reich’s wartime occupation of Prague. Apparently, the Fuhrer’s minions maintained a strategic nerve center under this storied city, inhabiting the dark catacombs left below when the Czech capital was raised to avert periodic flooding. The foreboding Prague Castle serves as a repository of horrific secrets, as it was used to torture and imprison dissidents, continuing a sadistic custom from medieval times.


This charming city, a hip safety valve for underemployed Generation X Americans in the early ‘90s, was also – briefly – capital of the Holy Roman Empire, and the palace remains the seat of Czech government today. I smell a horror film somewhere in there, don’t you?


In “New York Secret Societies”, the labyrinthine mazes under Manhattan Island are revealed to have been the domain of mobbed-up speakeasies, at least 30 of which lay under West 52nd Street alone. Connoisseurs of tony New York eateries may already be aware that the perennial “21” Club began life as an illegitimate Depression-era bar, replete with a two-ton oak door to secure the booze, and a private drinking den for then-mayor Jimmy Walker, who once ordered the NYPD to haul away the cars of federal inspectors trying to stop the merriment.


Although New York’s subway didn’t open until 1904, the original tunnel predates London’s, which was erected during the Civil War. And the Big Apple’s Chinatown concealed a dense warren of corridors, the site of a bloody shootout in 1909.


Now, Junior…what else did you learn in school today?


In other installments – 13 total this season, though the DVD mysteriously omits the final two – we learn that the great humanitarian Josef Stalin deliberately exploded his own soldiers’ bunker – killing over 80,000 – in order to rout a Nazi invasion of the USSR; Moscow’s subway is the busiest and certainly loveliest in the world today’ President Truman would stroll D.C. avenues alone during his tenure’ the sniper-patrolled White House’s original “Doomsday” hideout was located beneath an ultra-luxury resort in the hills of West Virginia; and the Vikings enslaved Irish citizens, deporting them to the Middle East, centuries before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.


Cities of The Underworld is definitely not your father’s Nova special. Laced with jump-cut edits, melodramatic musical flourishes, and appropriate usage of CGI, it commands your attention partly because Wildman’s narration is so lightning-paced that tidbits of information come at you swiftly, discouraging multitasking and keeping your finger hovering near the rewind button.


Scholars may dismiss it as History-Lite, and I won’t quibble. Cities of the Underworld is ultimately yet another entry in the travel/adventure genre, and its rapid-fire “infotainment” presentation will never inform with the depth of a book by Niall Ferguson or the late David Halberstam, but the program remains compelling viewing, and my history-challenged countrymen could do far worse than to check it out.


Beats watching lame-brained time-fillers like Survivor. I mean, have the castaways eaten any rats this season?

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