Hidden City debuts tonight on the Travel Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.
I'm going to do two traditional A.V. Club things in this review. First, I'm going to quote The Simpsons. In their Model U.N episode, “Das Bus”, Bart is called upon to explain Libya. He hasn't done his homework. So he bullshits:
The exports of Libya are numerous in amount. One thing they export is corn, or as the Indians call it, 'maize'. Another famous Indian was 'Crazy Horse'. In conclusion, Libya is a land of contrast. Thank you.
It's the last bit that's most relevant here. “In conclusion, x is a land of contrast” is essentially nonsense, the sort of thing that sounds intelligent for a half-second until you realize that it's a framing device, and is applicable to virtually any geographic region with the right twist. So when Hidden City quotes it almost directly – “But this is also a city of contradictions” – it's clear there are going to be problems.
The second cliché I'm going to fulfill is a story about my past. My first full-time job was as a researcher on Chicago history. I'd worked part-time jobs before in order to make some money – soccer referee in high school, wrote for the newspaper in college – but my school, Antioch College, had (invented) a co-operative education program. Roughly every other term, we went and worked a full-time job for four months, then back to classes. As a history major, I was drawn to one as a researcher for a documentary program called Chicago Stories at WTTW, the public television network. So I went and watched previous episodes of the program. I read books on the city and its history. I went to the Chicago Historical Society on a regular basis. A few years later, I studied at the Newberry Library, immersed in more Chicago history.
So while I wouldn't call myself an expert on Chicago history, it's fair to say that I have a decent grasp of it. Perhaps more than that, I have a grasp on Chicago's treatment of itself, the legends that the city has about itself, the idea that Bart's bullshit “land of contrast” line might actually be true here. The sheer number of nicknames it has for itself is an example of this belief, only New York and possibly Los Angeles can compare. This is not to say that Chicago isn't special, just that its mythology seems to be so important that it becomes its own end – it mythologizes its own mythology.
Hidden City's first episode frustratingly buys into that mythology, making constant declarative statements about Chicago as or more often than it actually supports them. People who watched this year's The Chicago Code may remember making or hearing a constant stream of jokes about adding “in Chicago!” to everything, like “That's how we do things…in Chicago!” If you missed that, then Hidden City may be perfect for you. If not, then it grows increasingly difficult to recommend.
The show takes the form of three different important Chicago stories: the serial murders of H. H. Holmes, the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the escapades of bank robber John Dillinger. “And the best stories are usually about the worst people” is how the show frames it. But these are not hidden stories. Devil In The White City was a nonfiction crossover hit on Holmes. The '68 Democratic Convention is one of the most-examined events in post-war American history. And Dillinger had a big-budget film on his crime spree just last year, a fact that the host even notes.
The host is Marcus Sakey, a crime novelist, a fact that his narration never fails to mention. “As a novelist…” might be uttered more often than bromides about Chicago, which takes some doing. Sakey is the show's greatest strength, in that his perspective on the events is the only thing that prevents it from being a superficial documentary on a few key aspects of a city. He's generally charismatic, and surprisingly profane for a basic cable show. His willingness to turn the show into the story of how he interprets events, by getting into these figures' minds, forms the most interesting and telegenic bits of the show. For example, in order to understand the serial killer, he goes to a morgue and handles a sliced brain. In order to understand police crowd control strategies, he gets himself pepper sprayed. And in order to understand Dillinger, he goes to Indiana and shoots a Tommy gun. Some of this is of dubious value, but it at least makes for entertaining television.
Sakey has two major problems, though, and it's hard to determine if they're primarily his problems or if they're problems that come from the constraints of the television show. First, with his narration on the essence of Chicago, he doesn't necessarily make a strong enough case that these stories are necessary to understand the city. Sure, he says that they are - “If you want to know the real Chicago, you need to know the story of Holmes” - but it never goes beyond basically saying “Holmes did bad things during a good time, and good and bad things happen in Chicago.” They stories are fairly clear as symbols, but the show seems to want to call them causes, and doesn't succeed.
Second, Sakey's approach to politically charged subjects is superficial. He introduces the tumultuous times in 1968 by discussing the race riots, including the ones that occurred in Chicago and elsewhere after Martin Luther King's assassination. But he does so with lines like: “The Mayor issued shoot to kill orders on his own citizens. But it was during the Democratic Convention in August that things really erupted.” Eleven people died in the post-King riot. I'm not sure there's any way, other than media exposure, that the Convention riots could be treated as more of an “eruption”.
He also takes a superficial approach to “understanding” the riots. His preferred mechanism is to interview people on both sides, so he finds a cop who was on the ground and the time, and Tom Hayden, a leader of the Students for a Democratic Society who were a major part of the protests. This is hardly an even approach, as the policeman was nowhere near in charge, and Hayden was probably as close to anyone in charge of the protests. But that's less of a problem than simply turning it into a he-said/she-said argument, which lasts for several minutes until a clip of Hayden referencing the Walker Commission's conclusion leads to Sakey describing that conclusion and largely adopting it as his own, rendering the entire “what really happened?” framing a waste of time.
It is perhaps unfortunate that I have to grade the show on its first Chicago episode, as I'm probably not the target audience thanks to my Chicago knowledge. But it was also the producers' choice to pick a city with a perhaps overbearing mythology and very popular stories, and not add much to them. As a background show, Hidden City can be competent and occasionally entertaining, but by not moving beyond the surface level in its analysis, it squanders a potentially far more interesting premise.