True Monsters debuted on History Channel on Friday night. The show was promoted to be a somewhat different take on “monsters” (cryptids, legends and myths).
“True Monsters sorts the fiction from the often-muddled facts about the most terrifying monsters, awe-inspiring myths, and timeless legends in history. From monstrous creatures to wrathful gods, this series tells the incredible stories that reveal the surprising truths.”
I hadn’t read much about it beforehand, but I did know that historian Dr. Brian Regal was to be interviewed for at least one episode. So, I was hopeful that expert commentary would be the strength of the program to provide us new info about the deeper meanings and alternative explanations for the often overly-simplified and highly-fictionalized pop culture monsters and myths.
The press release for the show called it “provocative”. This was their setup:
“Through a blend of cinematic re-creations and engaging storytelling, ‘True Monsters’ reveals more about our monsters — and about us — than ever before. Touching on traditional myths from countries like Greece and Norway, the series broadens out to include monsters and characters from all kinds of sources, including the Bible and modern day urban legends. ‘True Monsters’ will entertain while also explaining what led humans to create and fear such creatures and stories in the first place.”
A very promising premise but very difficult to do in a hour program on one topic. Unfortunately, they packed several somewhat questionably related topics into the episode thus short-changing them all. I didn’t learn anything new but this show wasn’t made FOR an audience made up of people like me.
The episode was entitled Devils and Hell. You can watch it here. (Will be restricted for audiences outside the US.)
The show was heavy on experts in mythology, history and religion. So, in that sense, it was better than other shows on the paranormal, though some “experts” were of questionable value and credentials. I didn’t care to hear from a comic book writer that didn’t seem to have much expertise on the topic. I’m unclear how they chose some of their experts that seemed out of place. The timing didn’t allow for that type of justification which is travesty.
The first segment, on the Jersey Devil, was OK in relating the legend. I was relieved to see it did NOT rely too heavily on the awful assumption that the animal is real and still lurking in the Pine Barrens – a ridiculous concept that is guaranteed to scuttle credibly for anyone who seriously is interested in the legend. The stories on Hel, Hades, Satan and the denizens of underworld were interesting. At one point, the narrator clearly stated that Dante had more to do with our modern characterizations of Satan (red, with horns, tail and pitchfork) than the Bible. That would be news to the average viewer. The section on Krampus seemed out of place and included simply because Krampus is way popular these days. The segment on djinn was disjointed but would have provided new info for viewers who only know genies that look like Jeannie.
The show really tanked in the last segment about “real” demons – possession – citing the Ammons case that surfaced in 2014. You can read my takes on that story here where I concluded the story was derivative and sensationalized and likely was an excuse for some significant family malfunction going on. There were many involved in that real-life case that failed in their responsibilities to deal with the incidents ethically and let it become the media circus that it was. One of these was the priest who may have been an important catalyst in growing the case to headline proportions. He was allowed to tell his tale in this segment of True Monsters basically unchallenged. The case was presented as convincing and real with only one mention of it possibly being concocted. Of course, the dramatic depictions of unnatural occurrences and exorcism will be what sticks with viewers. That’s the main issue with such programs – viewers will have a hard time determining what is worthy of belief so they will use whatever is presented to reinforced their current or preferred belief. There is not much educational value there.
As typical with these hour-long shows on cable “educational” channels, the editing is terrible – there is the usual fast-cutting and repetitive clips (in case you forgot where you were before the commercial) along with too many flashing background lights, all of which give me a headache. If you extract the substantive content (the experts talking), the show would be considerably shorter. But, they have to make ample use of those scenes where they used up their budget. Jason Colavito expands on this with his review. He REALLY didn’t like the show; I agree with most of his criticism.
Yet, it was not as horrendous as other shows. There was a kernel of hope in it. As the press release stated:
“Our guests are extremely knowledgeable, captivating storytellers,” said Maria Awes, senior vice president and head of development at Committee Films. “They are aware of details in these familiar tales that many of us have never heard—evoking your imagination and compelling you to watch…”
The presentation of “details in these familiar tales that many of us have never heard” is the interesting part. This makes this show somewhat unique but, wow, it could have been so much better. Why are these shows crap? Money.
History Channel is aiming at a very general audience with these shows, people who are not that well-versed in history but curious. They have an average vocabulary and a typical background knowledge of science and literature. Producers also apparently think this audience has a short attention span and, thus, need flashy graphics and dramatic re-creations to keep watching. The experts are important but only in small bites to compliment the dramatic re-creations and scary-faced characters posing menacingly in eerie light.
Those of us that wish for a more intelligent treatment of these subjects won’t find it on cable TV, I’m afraid. The writing I do and the products I like aim for an audience already at least somewhat knowledgeable about the foundations of myth, folklore, science and critical thinking. That’s a small population. We’ll never have the audience size of sensational programming that gets high ratings – such as the mermaids or megalodon garbage from Animal Planet/Discovery or speculative idiocy like Ancient Aliens. Those shows are made for someone else.
I would like to see a more intellectual, less shallow, hoaky and stagy depiction of the history of monsters. I get the idea that folklore may be a new approach that might catch on. That would be better than the silly Bigfoot, ghost, and cryptids shows that portray them only as real animals to be captured.
I would prefer listening to the experts talk, even if they disagreed, for the whole hour. Even more than an hour! I want to see more discussion squeezed out of these topics, not yet another superficial treatment. True Monsters is mythology and folklore for beginners, so non-beginners looking for something more enlightening will absolutely hate it. The least one could hope for is that people who find these topics interesting will follow-up by looking for more from those featured as experts.
In conclusion, True Monsters is a typically-formatted, paranormal-themed, pseudo-documentary show with just a slight edge over similar shows due to the inclusion of expert opinion. Viewers without prior knowledge of the topics will be informed as well as you could be in 10 minutes, not all that much. But they will be fed the same uncritical “facts” that reinforce magical thinking about these topics. Another good opportunity missed.
The next episode will be on Cannibals and Killers. Meh.
Postscript: This production company appears to have additional projects for HISTORY CHANNEL coming up including “Bigfoot Captured” and “Nostradamus: 21st Century Prophecies Revealed.” Umm… Bigfoot has never been captured and Nostradamus prophecies are overhyped and worthless. So, I’m not thinking too highly of them.