An article published Memorial Day in the New York Times captured the imagination — alternately hopeful, fearful, or just nihilistically curious — of a readership that’s never in recent memory felt quite so ready to learn about planets other than our vexed earth. The article described encounters between U.S. Navy pilots and unidentified flying objects, a cliché that actually serves a useful purpose. The objects these pilots met were aloft through indescribable means, zooming through the air at seemingly impossible speeds, and both their provenance and their methods were unknown.
Fairly deep in the article was buried that the story’s witnesses were to appear on History’s new series “Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation.” The show seeks to shed what light it can on a mystery that’s bedeviled the human psyche in theoretical terms — can we really be alone out there? — and, at least stateside, in more concrete ones, from Area 51 to Times reporting from 2017 on the Pentagon’s “mysterious UFO program.” That 2017 piece mentioned military intelligence officer Luis Elizondo, who had resigned that year. Now he’s among the stars of a series that seems jerry-rigged to generate buzz, but whose first episode never quite takes off.
The story of the UFO sightings is in a tricky place — both too off the news and too seemingly lurid, in the wake of endless Weekly World News covers, to get thoughtful and lengthy treatment by a TV news organization, but perhaps a bit more complicated than 2019-era History is built to contain. The show blames the lack of results generated by the U.S.’s Project Blue Book, a 1950s study of UFOs, for making the matter look unserious, but does its cause its own share of harm. The introduction of Tom DeLonge, former Blink-182 rocker and current UFO theorist, saps a bit of the savvy viewer’s excitement. After quitting the touring life, DeLonge says, “the only other thing I was ever interested in was UFOs”: He’s become a remarkably prolific hobbyist, but his presence on the show as a talking head and player in the field of UFO theory is vastly less compelling than pilots telling us what they’d experienced.
Those bits of “Unidentified” are blazingly intriguing, even as they restate a story the Times already published; this is reaching a different audience, anyhow. That audience will likely respond to an “X-Files”-y current pulsing underneath “Unidentified,” a fixation on preparation for the UFO threat that, so far, insists on government action so urgently that it seems to stop just short of saying government inaction is a grand conspiracy. Elizondo bursts with pride on camera after, we’re told, a Navy pilot “met in secret with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including three powerful Senators.” That many intelligence briefings happen in secret, and that any Senator on that committee is definitionally powerful, is elided in favor of the appearance of a win in the face of the alien threat.
“Unidentified” presents riveting testimony about some very weird experiences, if at times papered over with visually uninteresting footage. (That’s the other problem with depicting these stories on TV: With no footage of these specific encounters seemingly available, it’s either just planes flying in the sky or old “Twilight Zone” clips. At least “Unidentified” chooses the former.) It also would seem to at least this viewer to represent a kind of double naivete — that anyone whose first priority is not UFO sightings is in the dark as opposed to just focused on more urgently earthbound matters, and that there’s anything even someone as relentless as DeLonge could even do. If, indeed, alien life is responsible for spacecraft that travels supersonically through the air from a dead stop hovering, we won’t be able to face them down anyway. It’s a dark thought, or a serene one, and one that doesn’t, at least in its earliest going, enter “Unidentified’s” calculus.
“Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation.” History. May 31. Six episodes (one screened for review).
Executive Producers: Tom DeLonge, Steve Ascher, Kristy Sabat, Anthony Lappé, Mike Stiller.