The Critical Mass

The Curse of Bad TV

Bill and Jim Vieira are looking for giants.

Bill and Jim Vieira are looking for giants.

When I decide to blow a day by doing nothing, I take the job seriously.

That was Saturday. Before the cable deal  runs out and dies a natural death, I thought I’d see what’s behind that mysterious ON DEMAND button on the remote. Not much, as usual, but I did stumble across a function that allows me to see what’s available on each network. I clicked on The History Channel, figuring I’d check on how World War II is coming along. Watching the Nazi War Machine rampage through Poland in black and white is a guaranteed nap.

Instead I discovered a handful of unfamiliar offerings. Two episodes of a new show called The Curse of Oak Island. That sounds cool, I’ve read a bit about Oak Island. It’s a scrubby chunk of real estate off of Nova Scotia where, in 1797, one of the local Huck Finn types supposedly found a block and tackle dangling from a tree branch overhanging a mysterious depression in the ground, like something had been buried there. Wow, buried pirate treasure! Over the ensuing centuries no one’s been able to get to the bottom of what’s been dubbed “The Money Pit,” where it’s claimed someone went to great lengths to boobytrap what appears to be a 150-foot deep shaft.

The Curse of Oak Island follows two brothers from Michigan, Rick and Marty Lagina, who bought a major chunk of the island in 2006 and are now hell bent on getting to the bottom of the money pit. That’s not gonna be easy. Treasure hunters over the years have torn up the island to such a degree that no one’s actually sure where the original shaft was located. I saw two episodes of the Laginas toiling at what they say is a million-dollar effort to find the treasure. Stimulating TV that includes watching guys with Ground Penetrating Radar slog through swamps, drill muddy holes and sit around a table while they point at various spots on a map.

Let me just say that the Laginas and their treasure-hunting pals may be earnest, but they are terribly uninteresting characters. To inject a little drama into this story of rich oil guys aimlessly drilling holes in Canada – and The Curse of Oak Island sorely needs some pizazz – there is much talk and joking of the Oak Island curse. Viewers are reminded that six men have died during these treasure searches over the years. The curse supposedly assures us that seven men will die before the treasure is found.

At some point, I fell asleep on the couch.

When I awoke, I moved on to The History Channel’s  Search For the Lost Giants. It’s a team of brothers again, this time Jim and Bill Vieira of Massachusetts. Jim in particular seems convinced that America was once populated by a race of giants, 7 and 8 feet tall, maybe even taller, who ate Native Americans. We know these mega-human existed because their skeletons were being found in the 1800s and into the early 1900s, some with huge skulls bearing double rows of teeth. But damn if every one of those skeletons hasn’t been lost due to careless handling by museums. Or misplaced by the relatives of the people who initially dug the bones out of the ground or found them in caves. Even the Smithsonian seems to have lost their giant, the brothers moan.

The Vieiras first use that invaluable tool of the possessed, Ground Penetrating Radar, to discover what they believe is a 12-foot by 4-foot slab of stone buried deep in the Massachusetts woods where a long-dead historian claimed the skeleton of a giant was found. As legend has it, the indigenous people there often placed such burial slabs over notable dead folk, apparently even giants who were trying to kill and eat them. The slab would roughly correlate to the size of the individual. Alas, the brothers tell us, they are not allowed to dig up the suspected grave, as it is on protected Native American land.

Such bad luck! Better fortune was surely waiting at the Goshen Mystery Tunnel, about 15 miles away. Its existence has been known of since the early 1800s, although the tunnel’s builders and its purpose remains a mystery. A root cellar, perhaps? No, use your imagination! Without offering much of an explanation, the Vieiras have linked this curious stone tunnel to giants because, well, we know the giants’ tombs were built of stone. The fact that a normal-sized man has to crawl on his hands and knees to move about in the Goshen Mystery Tunnel matters not to the brothers. They’ve already decided that the Goshen Mystery Tunnel’s legendary hidden chamber, which has yet to be discovered, is a giant’s tomb.

The wheels have already come off the narrative, and we’re just a half-hour into the show. But now the Vieiras are off to the Ozark Mountains, where they talk to old fellers who heard tell of something odd back in the day, and even uncover a photo in an old newspaper of what’s purported to be a 7-foot skeleton. Never mind the fact that there were hoaxes perpetrated back then to promote tourist attractions, and circus sideshows often featured such exotic creatures. Fakes cooked up by showmen like P.T. Barnum with the understanding that “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

By the time we get to episode three, the Vieiras are in the Vermont basement of a couple in whose home, generations earlier, once lived relatives of a guy who claimed to have found a giant skeleton. Yes, there is one strange aspect to the house, the homeowner says; a wall where there shouldn’t be a wall. Yes, the Vieiras realize, that must be a secret chamber where the skeleton of the giant was hidden! They knock out a few stones and pieces of mortar, peer behind the wall and see… it’s empty. They’re too late, the giant is gone!

The Vieiras present their evidence to archeologists and scientists in the hope of generating interest in an archaeological dig. The scientists listen patiently, they’re  nice people. Some even agree that, yes, that pile of sand that they found at the Goshen Mystery Tunnel is of a composition not generally found in western Massachusetts, it’s likely beach sand. But mostly, the reaction of academics seems to be, “No, that’s highly unlikely, but sure, I suppose there’s always a chance…” The Vieiras take that “there’s always a chance” and run like insane men for the goal line.

What drives these brothers? They’re angry that “mean” people reject their theories. Pissed that mainstream science has no patience for something that will upset conventional wisdom. Those “mean” people include scientists and archaeologists, even though a couple of them admit that, Yeah, I’d love for someone to drop a giant skeleton on my desk.

The Vieiras’ credentials for investigating ancient cultures? They’re stonemasons.

American TV viewers love the idea of lone wolves bucking the mainstream. Duck Dynasty, Ice Road Truckers, guys wrestling alligators, cutting down trees, mining for gold and driving souped-up Jeeps across Alaska. Honey Boo Boo. What’s with all of these rednecks? The only one I’ll admit to enjoying is  The Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot, which I love for the shots of the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and the sight of four delusional people who think the sound of every tree limb falling in the dark is Bigfoot following them through the woods.

And, incidentally, I’d love for them to find Bigfoot.

Both The Curse of Oak Island and Search for the Lost Giants rely on the prompt “according to legend…” Pseudo-history relies on those legends being accepted as truths.  There are plenty of people out there who think that, on a world made of rocks, a rock that they deeem out of place is a sign from Irish monks who floated across the Atlantic Ocean two centuries before Columbus. A handful of round faces carved in a cliff side is a message from a lost race, rather than teenagers’ graffiti from a few generations back. As with the Vieiras’ giants, and despite how well known the Oak Island mystery is, the supposed “facts” of the case aren’t as well-documented as the show would have its viewers believe. There are geologists who think the money pit was just a sink hole, of which there are a few around the island. And probing Google, I find no Oak Island story that mentions a curse calling for seven men to die before the treasure is found. Not until the TV show appears, anyway. Call me cynical. I just don’t share the optimism of these shows when they propose the possibilities that the pit could contain Captain Kidd’s pirate gold, the lost works of Shakespeare or valuable ancient artifacts stashed away by the Knights of Templar. Someone get Dan Brown on this case!

The author of The da Vinci Code apparently did show up to help guide the Laginas through the uncertain legends that carry the story of  The Curse of Oak Island. And if the Vieiras got any help from Edgar Rice Burroughs to help them sort out the illogical mess that is Search for the Lost Giants , I’ll never know. I fell asleep again.

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