If we needed any more notice that November sweeps is long over, we find ample proof in this hourlong primetime documentary that has Hugh Downs donning a hardhat and climbing through slabs of limestone in search of mummies — jumping from “20/20” to 2020 B.C. in one swift maneuver. Chock full of odd reenactments, “Tales From the Tomb: Lost Sons of the Pharaoh” exposes the pitfalls that broadcast networks face when they try to imitate the Discovery Channel.
Trumped up with forced melodrama, the hour special reduces the hunt for ancient tombs to the level of “Unsolved Mysteries.” (But that’s still probably better than if it had landed on Fox, where we’d be treated to “When Pharaohs Attack.”)
Part of the problem is that archaeology just doesn’t play well on TV. There is only so much you can do with hieroglyphics on stone walls, mummified remains and dusty debris. It’s never going to dazzle. It’s also difficult to make a burial site sexy, particularly when Downs is putting us to sleep by saying stuff like, “After nine days, they found a doorway.”
Hour focuses on the relentless quest of an archaeology professor named Kent Weeks, who is followed by a camera crew over many months as he searches Kings Valley Tomb No. 5 (or KV-5 for short). It’s believed to be the site where more than 50 sons of King Rameses II were mummified and interred deep in the ground.
If Weeks can unearth some of these bodies, it will be a find on a par with the discovery of King Tutankhamen in 1922. But it’s no easy job. He and his workers encounter a complex underground labyrinth of stone passageways and dead ends. Every time it seems the bodies will turn up, they hit a stone wall.
“Tales From the Tomb” becomes something of a laborious tease despite some truly majestic locales flawlessly photographed by Nigel Meakin and his team. The exciting moments are likewise undercut by Barbara Jampel’s oft-repetitive script.
There is, however, some funny stuff here. Downs describes King Rameses as a pretty great guy who loved every one of his more than 100 children like crazy. And even though Rameses went through eight wives and countless concubines, Downs insists that he was “a devoted husband.” Evidently, he had a lot of devotion to go around.
Those who make it all the way through “Tales From the Tomb” will be rewarded with the news that Prof. Weeks earlier this year found some of what he was looking for in the way of mummified remains. A happy ending, 3,000 years later.
Now, for the unwrap party.