Part travelogue, part history and more tedium than Ilium, this exhaustive look at the factual underpinnings to Helen of Troy’s mythic tale begins promisingly enough but proceeds at such a snail’s pace that it’s destined to launch a thousand snores. Bringing little concrete evidence to the party, British historian Bettany Hughes has a lovely voice and looks grand sashaying across Greece and Turkey, but that’s a small enticement to actually watch this production, as opposed to, say, leaving it on as background noise while reading.
Hughes previously mined similar terrain in “The Spartans,” and on its famous face, Helen’s story would seem equally fascinating if, as the narrator explains in her introduction, “many of the ancient stories are closer to history than they are to myth.”
Two hours later, though, it’s still not clear what the history really tells us — except that it probably wasn’t 1,000 ships, and that Homer used some real conflicts and plenty of poetic license in penning “The Iliad.”
The challenge, of course, is how to illustrate Hughes’ soothing narration, which is accomplished through a mix of footage as she travels to historic locales, cheesy-looking re-creations and pictures of Bronze Age art, all set to dramatic music. So the camera pans across trees or countryside or the Mediterranean before settling on Hughes, often with her tousled hair waving in the breeze, highlighted by the moment when she wades chest-deep into a mineral spring near the end.
Take that, Indiana Jones.
Although Hughes puts an attractive countenance front and center, “Helen” reinforces an image that PBS has labored to shed — a stodgy, boring haven for British accents and programs more likely to be written about than viewed. Somehow there has to be room for historical discussion that isn’t bastardized, but also doesn’t recall every sleep-inducing film students nap through in class.
PBS still has a strong reason for existing in its ability to serve children and older viewers being disenfranchised by commercial TV’s lockstep emphasis on young-adult demos. Yet much as I wanted to like “Helen,” it was a Herculean feat to stay planted on the couch for its duration. And while this kind of exercise is sure to offend no one — including conservatives who would transform public broadcasting into theAbstinence Channel — after a half-hour or so of “Helen,” even they might begin surfing cable for the R-rated version starring Brad Pitt.