Friday, February 6, 2015
Josh Gates is a beefy fellow, muscular in a soft sort of way, with a reddish beard and a self-satisfied smirk. His first starring venture in the world of paranormal TV was a show called Destination Truth. That program followed a reliable formula: in the first five minutes, Gates would meet his team at a sort of funky clubhouse in LA and discuss the apparition of a monster or ghost in some remote part of the world. Then, Gates and expedition members would fly to that place and interact with the colorful locals for fifteen minutes before venturing into the spooky boondocks. Usually, Gates et. al. would access the haunted location by dirt-bike or dune-buggy or some other suitably picturesque means of conveyance. At the site, Gates would wait until dark, establish a perimeter with motion-sensing infra-red cameras, and, then, hike around in the inky blackness until someone either got hurt or panicked, dashing through thorns and brambles with some large and hulking something in hot pursuit. Scientific samples, typically in the form of a strand of hair or a lump of fur would be collected, put in baggies or plastic bottles, and, then, returned to the United States for invariably inconclusive laboratory analysis. Sometimes, when things got dull, Gates would trot out a staple of all paranormal investigations -- the EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) session, in which spirits and poltergeist are invited to comment by whispering answers on microphone to belligerent questions poised by the researchers. The resulting tapes inevitably contain a shimmer of static or a tremulous gust of wind or the stutter of old boards creaking, sounds that, with the proper manipulation, can be made to approximate snarled threats or enigmatic two-word burps. Destination Truth was fun in a disreputable way because Gates' obvious contempt for the paranormal trappings and his apparent inclination toward National Geographic style ethnography -- he always seemed more interested in the local folkways and cuisine than the ghosts and monsters that he was supposedly hunting. Gates' new show Expedition Unknown on the Travel Channel capitalizes on the hosts somewhat shaggy and avuncular appeal -- it's Gates' bid to become respectable, a sort of Anthony Bourdain of the mysterious and eerie. Gates' crew of easily spooked fellow adventurers has been jettisoned and he now plots his trips from pseudo-Victorian digs in Manhattan. He no longer indulges in the hokey EVP sessions and there is no green-screen infra-red camera footage of shadows and inexplicable hot spots perambulating through the bush. Its' clear that Gates takes his cues from Anthony Bourdain, whose show follows on the heels of Gates' program, and the host now exudes a sort of faux-naif but sophisticated savoir faire, he is a cosmopolitan adventurer seeking to broaden his mind by encounters with primitive people. In the first episode, an ungainly two hours long, Gates went to Papua, New Guinea, ostensibly to search for the remains of Amelia Earhart but really to visit exotic-looking tribal people with long, intimidating lances and scary masks. To find some bones, he has to worm into a crawl space under a tropical bungalow, a place that is scary, of course, because of the arachnid ecosystem but, otherwise, prosaic -- he wriggles around under the hut like an exterminator. Of course, he finds nothing. In the next episode, Gates' travels to Cambodia, eats some bizarre foods ala Andrew Zimmern, tours a Khmer Rouge concentration camp where he looks like he is about to cry, staring at the horrors like a sad-eyed Labrador Retriever, and, then, hikes around a ruined city in a thunderstorm: there's a little, badly damaged bas relief of serene-looking Buddhas but, other than that, he finds nothing. The third episode puts Gates' on horseback -- he looks handsome and would do well in cowboy movies -- searching for Jesse James' lost gold in Oklahoma. The premise is questionable, but the show features an interesting comedy interlude, Gates' trying to coax balk mules across a shallow creek. There are some interesting landscapes and Gates' rappels down a cliff in a thunderstorm (bad weather is a staple on his show) but discovers nothing of any note. The fourth episode has Gates' driving on bad roads in the Andes looking for a lost city. He pulls a few withered and ancient potatoes out of an icy mountain lake but, other than the spuds, of course, he finds nothing. At the end of each episode, Gates provides ninety seconds of poetic, quasi-rapturous commentary on the fact that he has found nothing -- usually words to the effect that "although I have not discovered the lost city of gold, I found something else probably more important -- the warm hearts and generosity of the gracious Peruvian people, hardy ancestors of the Incas proudly inhabiting these spectacular mountain heights..." In a few more years, I suppose, Gates will migrate to Public TV and, perhaps, host legitimate archaeology shows, perhaps, on NOVA or Secrets of the Dead.