“Charles Darwin may be rolling in his grave right now, but it’s very possible that mankind came about because of extraterrestrial intervention.”
That’s a direct quote from Ancient Aliens, the History Channel series that’s racked up over 100 episodes since it first aired in 2010. The show, which returned for season 11 this past May, functions like a typical documentary with talking heads, video footage and artist renderings, all rounded out with a commanding voiceover.
The format is familiar to us; it’s the content that makes Ancient Aliens so infamous. The show gives a hot mic to theorists who believe extraterrestrials engaged ancient human civilizations in contact, and guided mankind’s evolution and technological progress.
There’s something glitch-like about Ancient Aliens, a mesmerizing sequence of image and sounds that ultimately conveys nothing. The show fully embodies the conspiracy genre, trafficking in recurring symbols, secret societies, and unexplained ruins, while preaching a trail of shadowy information accompanied with dramatic music and increasingly tenuous reasoning.
As per example, one episode suggests Washington, DC, arranged monuments to project the image of a pentagram into space. Another postulates that the engraved sarcophagus of a Mayan king depicts him operating a spaceship. Almost every statement is prefaced by “it’s possible”, or “it’s very possible”, a word that seems to have a different meaning for ancient alien theorists than for the rest of us. It’s not surprising critics have lambasted the series for shamelessly endowing pseudo-science with production values and an audience. There are entire threads and forums dedicated to debunking the show.
While I can’t bring myself to believe any of the theories espoused by Ancient Aliens, I also can’t deny its watchability. I enjoy it, more than ironically and less than genuinely. I’m a substance-free guy, so I can only imagine how it comes off if you move a few degrees from sober. Thanks to Vice Media’s TV channel Viceland, I no longer have to rely on imagination.
In 2014, Viceland replaced H2, the History Channel offshoot that aired later seasons of Ancient Aliens. This past summer, Viceland aired a new program called Travelling the Stars: Action Bronson and Friends Watch Ancient Aliens, a sort of backhanded shout-out to H2 synthesized with Vice’s love of weed culture. It’s just about as close to avant-garde as network television can get. The same effort Ancient Aliens puts into being serious, Bronson and Friends puts into not giving a damn.
Action Bronson is the large, tattoo-covered, red-bearded, white chef-turned-rapper best known for his mixtapes Blue Chips 2 and Dr. Lecter, his feuds with Azalia Banks and Ghostface Killah, as well as his debut album Mr. Wonderful, which dropped last year to decent reviews. He’s collaborated with Vice since 2014 for Fuck, That’s Delicious, a culinary web series housed on the “Munchies” web channel that documents Bronson’s food experiences on tour. Apparently, in addition to loving good food and good weed, Action Bronson also loves Ancient Aliens.
When Bronson and Friends producers Hannah Gregg and Jordan Kinley became aware of this information, they had the wherewithal to ask a very specific question: What would happen if you took this crackpot extraterrestrial docu-series and had a bunch of rappers and artists talk about it for an hour while completely and utterly blazed out of their minds?
Bronson and Friends’ lead-in is Viceland’s complaint hotline (646 851 0347) accompanied by a recording of an irate Australian fan of Ancient Aliens. “I still don’t understand why these stoners are on Ancient Aliens,” he complains, later asserting that it makes no sense to “have guys that are sitting there saying absolutely nothing, blocking most of the fucking screen”.
Bronson leads the “cast” of regulars, including his frequent collaborators The Alchemist, Knxwledge, and Big Body Bes, alongside an unnamed man wearing a green morphsuit that covers all but his face. They sit on a couch in the middle of a greenscreen set, surrounded by obscene amounts of marijuana and paraphernalia. The day’s episode of Ancient Aliens appears for the audience on the screen behind the cast, who smoke weed and talk about it.
The effect of the floating living room and constant smoke creates a low-budget digital collage aesthetic. Yet, despite its simple structure, Bronson and Friends is edited with a lively finesse that sews the patchwork operation together. Cuts are quick or purposefully awkward, zooms last too long, and a Word-Art graphic sensibility flickers over the studio haze. Elaborate superimpositions, looped footage, psychedelic effects, and bleeped expletives abound.
The Boston Globe summarized the main schools of reaction to Bronson and Friends as twofold: highly offended Ancient Aliens devotees, and viewers who find Viceland’s production a “stunningly elastic achievement in meta-television, which deserves a special Emmy that also functions as a bong”.
Ancient Aliens is an easy target. The show’s a ridiculous trip, which is why the idea of smoking weed and watching it is funny in the first place. So the angriness of its fans, as represented by the opening caller’s complaints, simultaneously makes the issue both funnier and meaner. You might ask, is it cool to laugh at and disrespect something hundreds of thousands of people believe (or want to believe)?
Then again, can you actually disrespect content that isn’t respectable in the first place? Content that, despite the ardor and salesmanship of its theorists, is a textbook example of forcing-the-evidence-to-fit-your-argument?
Well, in regards to Bronson and Friends, this point is pretty moot. Because while the Viceland hotline intro might lead you to believe the channel is going to be ruthlessly mocking Ancient Aliens and its fans, nowhere near this level of disrespect actually transpires. What happens instead is something far more abstract and entertaining.
Bronson engages the theories of Ancient Aliens, and at many points defends them against cynical guests. He assumes a kind of cryptic, agnostic approach, low-key praising the exploratory spirit of these theorists, and occasionally lapsing into fits of passion (“We’re never gonna know!”). As producer Jordan Kinley temperately put it, “I don’t believe much of what’s talked about in the original show, but I think it’s a good time for people to realize that some of our history is manufactured.”
Rather than frustrate viewers with its lack of reason, Bronson and Friends trusts that you are a viewer precisely because you want to see something unreasonable and far-out. Watching people throw barbs at a show about extraterrestrial beings influencing human evolution wouldn’t work across multiple 45-minute episodes. Agreeing with a non-believer is a satisfying one-off, but watching Bronson treat Ancient Aliens with bemused reserve and fascination is the gift that keeps giving.
The charm of Bronson and Friends lies in its total blunt-force sincerity (no pun intended). Bronson enjoys the show. His friends enjoy his company. Everyone enjoys the free food and weed. There’s absolutely no narrative, theme, character development, problem, or resolution. Yet Bronson and Friends wrings consistent hilarity out of its derivative premise, compounding layers of ambiguous mockery, belief, and 420 humor into something fresh that almost resembles an homage.
To what? I’m not entirely sure.
Naturally, baked insights populate the series. In an episode centering on the Orion constellation, Bronson remarks to guest Melissa Etheridge, “People are fucking petty. There’s no doubt about that. I’ve held grudges for nothing.” Observing a reenactment involving an actor in colonial garb, Earl Sweatshirt reflects, “End of the day, he put his New Balance back on and drove himself home.”
Bronson exudes a kind of effortless and affectionate chemistry with everyone on set. His modulated, slow New York accent hypnotizes. Occasionally, he tips old-man-style into a weird recollection of his past and brings up a dick piercing or a time he got in trouble at school. Just when you’re wondering “how much longer can I watch these guys watch this?”, a puppy comes out, or they eat lunch.
Bronson and Friends could have easily been edited down to fill a half-hour timeslot, but I’m glad it wasn’t. Part of the show’s spell is its stamina. Each of the 10 episodes is so long and the need for continuity so nonexistent, that the viewer can easily skip 15 or 20 minutes and miss absolutely nothing of value. Because there’s never, at any point, anything of value to be missed.
This is a majority guy-centric show. Female guests do appear in small numbers — Etheridge, the mysterious Alorah, a yoga instructor, a pedicurist, an excited caller, Vice’s Director of Standards and Practices Fatima — but for the most part, Bronson and Friends seems content with its boys’ club. This isn’t particularly desirable, since we all know how necessary and amazing female stoner humor is, but what’s desirable is show’s general lack of sexist humor. The bar isn’t high, even if they are.
While great editing is always a given, the enjoyability of guest personalities — their effect on the overall chemistry — is inconsistent. Some funnier standout episodes include “Unexplained Structures” featuring Tyler the Creator, “Founding Fathers” featuring Too $hort, Eric Andre, Simon Rex, Earl Sweatshirt and Mayhem Lauren, and “Destination Orion” with Melissa Etheridge.
Watching Bronson and Friends, you may find yourself asking some hard questions as you decide on it’s overall quality:
Is this a rote cannibalization of internet meme culture? Is it anti-intellectual? Does it celebrate a stoner lifestyle and teach our teens that kush is “cool”? Did I watch an hour of “documentary” TV and learn nothing? Are some of the guests obnoxious? Do some of the guests go the entire 45 minutes without speaking? Are some of the guests only there for the free food and marijuana, which one producer described as being so overabundant it was sometimes “discarded like trash on the floor”? Are we coddling a white rapper with a history of all-to-familiar misogynist outbursts? Did the rocks of Stonehenge really get moved through levitation? Did aliens orchestrate the extinction of dinosaurs? Did Bronson ever figure out why he got called about a $4000 medical bill for someone named “Orion”?
“Who,” as Tyler the Creator cries in one episode, “has the answers?”
Bronson and Friends isn’t a statement; it’s a complete non-statement. It’s blissfully distracting and funny and so intricately fatuous that any bitterness you might feel about it almost embarrasses you. The show works hard to look lazy, and in this way, also shields itself from harder criticism.
“Founding Fathers”, the season one finale, aired September 23rd. It’s unclear whether Viceland will produce another season, having emphasized from the start that this was a limited-time thing.
Perhaps the whole experiment can be best summed up by rapper and guest Meyhem Lauren. When handed the mic by Bronson, he simply states, “Ancient Aliens. We out here. I got nothing to say. Call me when its lunch.”