The goal of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, a hokey conspiracy theory investigation show where supposedly serious-minded investigative journalists, dig up very shallow dirt about famous crimes and infamous events. Meltzer and his trio of journalists reveal just how disingenuous they are whenever they wring their hands and warn viewers that the highly speculative insinuations that they’re making could be wrong. They’re almost as bad as Glenn Beck for doing this, propounding wild theories and even emphasizing the dire implications of these theories one minute and then warning viewers not to casually jump to the conclusions that they just leapt to.
Even Unsolved Mysteries was never this self-conscious or apologetic about the kind of show it was putting on. Host Robert Stack gave his spiel dressed in a trench coat and would always swagger out into a spotlight from out of the dark of a theatrically dim studio. But on Decoded, Brad Meltzer makes himself look that much more ridiculous by plaintively gabbing in front of a green screen while complex mathematical equations and models form spontaneously all around him. It’s that veneer of rationalized respectability that smacks of total bullshit. While I love Identity Crisis to bits, I’ll believe Stack’s account of the Mothman before I’ll believe Meltzer’s crackpot team of truth-seekers.
Tonight’s topic of discussion on Decoded was the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I, a subject of some controversy considering the fact that no official inquiry into this pope’s death was ever revealed to the public. Then again, that’s part of Vatican tradition: no autopsies are performed on popes. As Meltzer explains, the Vatican is an autonomous country, so its traditions and laws are its own.
This gave one so-called expert the opportunity to insinuate that the Vatican tradition of not allowing autopsies on dead Pope’s sets up what are, “Not even loopholes, they set up for loopholes.” I’m not even sure what that means: the Vatican created this law in anticipation of needing to kill one of their own? Or is there some other loophole that this guy is obtusely alluding to? We are talking about a guy that smugly tells Christine McKinley, one of Meltzer’s three investigators, “Rome is eternal.” According to him, the corruption of Rome, of which he is also woefully vague, somehow necessarily made the Vatican corrupt, too.
The story that Decoded tries to tell about Pope John Paul I is pretty convoluted: he died 33 days after becoming pope because he was threatening to expose corruption within the Catholic church. Furthermore, this death was possibly foretold in the third of the Three Secrets of Fatima and he was threatening to get rid of the Freemasons’ influence on the Vatican. Also, he might have been about to blow the whistle on a banking scandal in Venice that involves the Mafia.
This might have seemed logical or even believable if information weren’t presented in such a scattershot way. Take for instance when journalist Nick Pisa talks about how a couple of Italian investigators and an investigative reporter that were looking into John Paul I’s death were murdered shortly after his death. Pisa doesn’t give us any substantive information on how they died or who murdered them. Furthermore, these deaths are only obliquely alluded to earlier in the show when Meltzer refers to a “trail of bodies.” But we only realize that that’s what he’s talking about later when Pisa speaks, after Meltzer and the gang talk about the Freemasons and the Three Secrets of Fatima. So both immediately, when Meltzer says, “trail of bodies,” and later, when we found out about those bodies, Decoded’s story loses credibility just because McKinley never asks about the particulars of deaths that might have given the episode’s theories some severity.
Meltzer’s team is comprised of three unequivocally awful interviewers. Buddy Levy, one of the show’s three investigators, tries to lead one expert by nonsensically suggesting that the walls surrounding Vatican City might be “keep[ing] us from the truth—potentially, maybe, potentially.” It also doesn’t help that Levy risibly gasps whenever a teasing hint of a conspiracy is revealed. Dramatic stings and manufactured looks of shock accompany every whiff of potential corruption, making it even harder to trust people that almost never bother to press their interview subjects very hard. For instance, when talking to Pisa, McKinley gawps at the idea that the Vatican never, by a rule, conducts autopsies on their Popes.
So she never asks Pisa why he strategically says that John Paul I’s brother said there was no history of heart attacks in their family when she had told him that John Paul I supposedly had a personal history of heart disease. All we know is that, according to Pisa and his sources, John Paul I was a very fit man. So according to the show, he couldn’t have died naturally from a heart attack. This is just patently wrong: you can be perfectly healthy and still be highly susceptible to heart attacks. By letting Pisa off the hook on this simple contention, McKinley winds up looking like a sensation-seeking muck-raker whose agenda supersedes her integrity.
But the worst aspect of Decoded isn’t that it’s skimpy on specific information or that it’s investigation is conducted by suspect interrogators, but that it’s trying to pass as a respectable show that’s not really trying to rock the boat too hard. At one point, McKinley tries to butter up Pisa by saying, “I’d hate to think the Vatican was involved.” Even though later she says (twice) that she can’t help but look at the Vatican in a different light (“Does that not look like a haunted house to you now?”).
Meltzer weakly tries to wrap up tonight’s episode by saying that he’s not laying blame on the Vatican as an institution but rather suggesting that there were corrupt individuals within the Vatican (“The Vatican doesn’t lie, people lie.”). But this is after he enthusiastically pounces on a link between a banking scandal and Mafia-loaned drug money by saying, “Now you’re getting the real money.” It’s also after he tackily jokes that, “Not every Freemason is an evil mastermind,” defensively anticipating that that’s the prevailing attitude he’s going to encounter. And yet, he does nothing to dispel that image. Instead, he revels in the vagueness of his conspiracy and uses it to create really hokey canned drama. Surely Robert Stack is spinning in his grave.