Josh Bernstein, the explorer/survivalist/TV host whom Discovery hired away from the History Channel, has staked his TV career on being an everyman's man, a conquering hero in performance fleece. Early on in his new series, "Into the Unknown," which premieres tonight at 10 on Discovery, he demonstrates one of his most stunning superpowers: He can ride a moped through Rome while looking directly at the camera. As a feat of bravery, that's nothing to sneeze at.
Like "Digging for the Truth," the History Channel series that made Bernstein a star, "Into the Unknown" purports to answer deep and unexplored questions about human history. But in the premiere, at least, the title is a misnomer. Bernstein explores the history of gladiators, reminding us every few minutes that Hollywood movies portrayed them as pathetic slaves. Soon enough, he announces the vaguely counterintuitive truth: They were actually celebrities in their time, iconized and slightly reviled, a little like today's professional wrestlers.
Intriguing enough, but hardly a secret; this territory has already been well-trod by the historians, scientists, and self-proclaimed gladiator experts Bernstein meets on his travels through Italy, Europe, and Asia Minor. Information-wise, this show is no different from any of the countless historical documentaries that populate Discovery, History, and PBS - except that instead of just the brainy talking heads, we get Bernstein as a guide.
With his tousled hair and his attractively craggy face, he walks us through ruins, peers at human bones, and dresses up in gladiator gear, acting as a stand-in for the couch potato dude who fancies himself a history buff. And for the mostly male Discovery audience, Bernstein has to be the perfect fantasy persona. He's suitably smart and comfortably casual, and he inhabits the high end of the geeky-sexy spectrum.
When he visits a modern-day gladiator school, the teacher muses about what his trademark skill might have been, and concludes - no joke - that it's his handsomeness. That about sums up his TV career, as well.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com.