Reviews

Digging for the Truth - The Complete Season 1

Matthew A. Stern

Digging for the Truth ads an element of adventure to historical research that, whether concocted at points or not, can foster an interest in the ancient world among even the most casual viewer.


Digging for the Truth: The Complete Season 1

Distributor: A&E Home Video
Cast: Josh Bernstein
Length: 650
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: History Channel
First date: 2005-01-24
US Release Date: 2006-09-26
Amazon

You'd imagine that The History Channel would not need to add a whole lot of action to their standard documentary style programming. After all, for hardcore history buffs even the driest and most academic historical facts spring to life in a way that makes content and coherent presentation more important than thrills. But with Digging for the Truth, now entering its third season and coming in as the highest rated show to thus far grace the network, it seems that within a lot of history enthusiasts reside armchair adventurers who can't get enough of the perennially cowboy-hat clad host, Josh Bernstein, as he gallivants around the globe, following experts through sometimes dangerous territory in an effort to dig up the truth about mysteries of the ancient world.

In the introduction to each episode on the Digging for the Truth - The Complete Season 1 DVD set, Bernstein states that not only will he be digging for the truth, but also "going to extremes" to do it. It's the "extremes" that really carry the show and set it apart from standard History Channel fare. The show doesn't do as much to find "the truth" as it does to illuminate contemporary strains of thought about history's mysteries. Bernstein interviews archaeologists, forensic pathologists, experts on ancient texts, and other historians worldwide.

Most of the mysteries that the show features would require an unprecedented scientific breakthrough to solve conclusively, let alone conclusively enough to quell the theories of crypto-archeologists and left-field theorists. But since you can't expect him to randomly fall into a never-before-explored chamber of a goldmine, or offer up a new translation of an obscure piece of scripture in each episode, it's enough to see Bernstein jet-setting around the globe, sometimes placing himself (and his camera man, who can't be getting paid enough) into immediate danger in the name of educating the audience.

Most of the show isn't taken up by his narrating over sepia-toned, slow motion historical re-enactments (though a portion of it is -- this is, after all, The History Channel). Instead, Bernstein gets his hands dirty, or at least dusty. In episodes such as "Who Built Egypt's Pyramids", in between back-and-forth refereeing a disagreement between a legitimate archaeologist and a fellow who insists that the Pyramids were built by the residents of Atlantis fleeing their sinking continent, Bernstein catches up with some Egyptian stonemasons to see if he can cut and drag a block like the ancients. If Josh Bernstein can do it, after all, the ancient Egyptians probably could too, never mind the ancient Atlantians.

Some scenes throughout the first season can't help but seem a bit contrived. Bernstein, after-all, is dressed like a dead ringer for Uncle Traveling Matt from Fraggle Rock, though he's insisted in more than one recent interview that any Indiana Jones worship found in his wardrobe is purely coincidental. Regardless, Bernstein's Eddie Bauer adventurer gear certainly looks a little touristy placed next to the black robes of the stoic old monk he quizzes about Moses and the burning bush in "Hunt for the Lost Ark".

But if some parts feel a bit like performance, leaving you wondering what real truths about Bernstein's interactions with the natives lurk beyond the mise en scene, there's enough spontaneity to remind you that Bernstein isn't digging for the truth solely from the comfort of a posh hotel room. Flooding rivers and concerns about bandits in "Hunt for the Lost Ark" aren't the half of it. For example "The Ice Man Cometh" episode was his attempt to see the place where the pre-historic man, Oetzi, was found. The experience nearly has Bernstein (and once again, his camera man) replacing Oetzi as the prime popsicle-person of historical significance stuck in a glacier in the Alps.

The personal touch that Bernstein's persona adds makes parts of a few select episodes of Digging for the Truth resonate in a way you couldn't expect from a traditional documentary. This might help explain the show's huge ratings, even more than the excitement of seeing a fellow who looks like an everyman but climbs mountains and sleeps in snow-caves of his own devising. Bernstein really does seem a bit blown away when, in "The Lost Tribe of Israel" he sees elements of his own Jewish heritage practiced among the South African Lemba people, who purport to descend from a lost tribe of Israel.

The continued allusion to the fact that Bernstein is out there being led in all different directions by new information he's discovering on the spot tends to grate a little. It's a TV show, after all, and the episodes aren't filmed in real-time. But this aside, Bernstein's presence does lend a certain unconventional charm to the process of exploring history. Digging for the Truth ads an element of adventure to historical research that, whether concocted at points or not, can foster an interest in the ancient world among even the most casual viewer. It's enough to make one wonder if sales of Indiana Jones-type hats have increased dramatically in the suburbs since the show's debut.

6
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