A big TV craze of the moment has hosts finding valuable treasures hidden deep inside a pile of junk. Shows like A&E's Storage Wars, National Geographic Channel's America's Lost Treasures and Syfy's Hollywood Treasure are all good shows that are generating big ratings for their networks.
But, quietly and brilliantly, PBS's History Detectives has been the influence for all of them and many more shows. On Tuesday at 9pm, History Detectives kicks off its 10th season with its 100th episode. And, as she has from the beginning, Columbia University professor Gwen Wright travels the country to find clues about artifacts. In this case, that's a collage signed by "FZ" that may be the handiwork of the late avant-garde musician Frank Zappa.
Gwen spoke with TVFirstLook about History Detectives, Frank Zappa and what the stuff collecting dust in our attics says about America.
TVFirstLook: History Detectives is a great show that has been highly influential for 10 seasons. How did you get involved with the show?
Gwen Wright: I've been involved from the very start. It began with the notion of it being a program about American houses. They came to me because I have written a number of books about American architecture.
Americans tend to get very romantic about their houses. Everyone believes they have a special house that was built just for their family. There are a lot of myths about homes that would make it difficult to do that show. It was going to be called American Attic.
But they changed it within a few months and, since the first year, I've enjoyed watching it grow and change.
TVFirstLook: History Detectives has influenced a whole genre of lost-treasure TV programs. Do you see it that way?
Gwen: I do. I worry, though, that there is a motivation to want to tap into the reality phenomenon.
To my mind, this show has a fabulous formula. It gets people to think. Like, 'Why would an American president have suppressed information' or 'Why would Frank Zappa possibly have dabbled in artwork?'
I think what's very special about our show and what makes us different from other shows is that we don't talk down to anyone and we really try to tell a story.
TVFirstLook: You're a scholar, professor and author. But to many people you're a TV personality. How does that make you feel?
Gwen: I have loved it from the start. There were people who told me that I would lose all credibility. But this is really clarifying how I think and how I work through problems.
About eight years ago, I had a wonderful day. In the morning, I had an email from a brilliant renaissance historian who said that he loves the show. He said it captures how historians think, how we analyze things and how we question our own ideas so that we don't just prove our own first thoughts.
That afternoon, I was walking down the street and a truck driver stopped and said, 'Hey, I love your show.'
The notion that I could reach across that spectrum is wonderful. So, it's great fun.
TVFirstLook: In the first episode this season, you investigate whether or not a collage was made by Frank Zappa. How did you start your investigation?
Gwen: I approached it by asking, 'Why would Frank Zappa, who we know as a musician, dabble in visual arts, if he did?'
What's really phenomenal about the process is that it gave me some real insights into Frank Zappa. He was really trying to change early modern music from last century to his way of thinking. He was thinking about sound, not just music.
Frank Zappa wasn't just a rock musician. He was much more interesting than that.
The collage was really interesting, too. It gives us insight into how artists figure out their ideas and how they find a freer place to experiment.
TVFirstLook: OK, last thing, what does the stuff in our attics say about us as Americans?
Gwen: What fascinates me about all the objects and architecture we investigate on History Detectives is that they give you insights into economic history, social inequalities, people's fantasies and myths about our towns and families.
People are always trying to make up better stories about their towns and our country. But there are also difficult parts of our history to confront. On most episodes, we show something for us to confront about who we are as people, not just as Americans, like our desire for fame and riches.
But on every episode of History Detectives, we also have someone to admire and celebrate.
I'm convinced we can't face the challenges we have as Americans unless there are also things we can hold onto and feel proud about. That's an important way to evaluate our past.