I'm don't believe in UFOs. But I also don't NOT believe in UFOs. A belief which I suspect puts me in the same camp as about 75% of humanity.
While most UFO reports are bunk, there is a small percentage that can't be explained away and those are the sightings that continue to leave me confused. Because those unexplained sightings can really only be attributed to one (or more) of four possibilities:
Secret technology controlled by the American government
Secret technology controlled by a foreign government
Secret technology controlled by some powerful tech company or billionaire
Aliens (with the subset choice of one of the first three, but utilizing alien technology)
The problem with any of these choices is that in the end, we just don't know. There is some compelling footage out there, and government officials from former President Obama on down have acknowledged that there is something weird going on. Although at least in Obama's case, he declined to discuss whether the government had any idea what those mysterious objects might be.
So we're left with many more questions than answers and if there is one thing that television adores is the chance to produce programs that examine the mysteries that can't be answered. Along with Bigfoot and various Knight Templar-adjacent historical tales, stories of UFOs have become a staple of television. Shows featuring some variation of the search for answers about Aliens and UFOs make regular appearances on channels such as History and Travel. Even Netflix weighed in with its own series last week, which managed to be both familiar and lightweight all at the same time.
Now Showtime has weighed in with its own four-episode docuseries produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot and Glen Zipper and the result is essentially a Travel Channel series with a much larger budget and a bit more cultural clout.
UFO consists of four one-hour episodes that - like the Netflix Cecil Hotel doc - seek to provide a framework for a conclusion by focusing each episode on a different theme. Episode one introduces the viewers to the subject. Episode two focuses on the people seriously trying to find a science-based answer, ranging from private individuals to the government. Episode three spends more time on the charlatans and mysterious figures that are part of the UFO hunt movement. While the final episode tries to draw some conclusions while also focusing on stories of alien abductions.
I don't think I'm spoiling the series to mention that the four episodes ultimately don't draw any conclusions. If anything, the series does a remarkable job of bringing up questions and then quickly shifting to another, completely unrelated topic. I suppose it's an effort to illustrate how complicated the conflicting stories and agendas can be. But even in four hours, most viewers will probably be left with more questions than when they began watching.
The bigger budget for UFO and the credibility of the producers does give the episodes access to interviews an ordinary producer probably couldn't have accomplished. One highlight is an interview with former Arizona Governor Fife Symington, who was one of the people who witnessed the very well-known 1997 "Phoenix Lights" sighting. The experience was so unsettling that he asked state and federal officials to launch an investigation. But not long after that call, he inexplicably gave a press conference in which he made an appearance with a guy dressed like an alien. The event effectively ended any investigation and it's fascinating to see Symington now try and argue he has no recollection at all of doing a press conference next to someone doing UFO cosplay.
The production also did long interviews with two of the three New York Times reporters that broke the news in 2018 that the U.S. government had spent at least $22 million on an effort to track and identify UFOs. The reporters provide some good context for their reporting, although the documentary implies that perhaps they were being used as tools by the government in some way that never quite gets defined.
One of the issues with UFO is that it is ironically constrained by subjects being covered by other TV shows. There are mentions of Robert Bigelow and his work investigating the strange events that have reportedly taken place at Utah's Skinwalker Ranch. The documentary mentions that he sold off the ranch, but it would be nice to mention that History has been airing episodes of a series entitled Secret Of Skinwalker Ranch, which seeks to get some answers to the mysterious sightings (spoiler: they haven't succeeded yet, although some of the episodes have been very unsettling).
In fact, a number of the faces in UFO will be familiar ones if you've watched any of the other UFO-centric television shows. That's not automatically a bad thing, but given the presumed budget of the series, I felt more than a bit disappointed at the end of the four hours.
I think I would have much rather watched a documentary about the peculiar life and career of the late Art Bell, who was doing a wildly popular overnight radio show focusing on UFOs and related subjects well before it was a popular mass-market subject. That's a story that hasn't been previously explored and would be a lot more interesting than a well-funded retelling of familiar UFO basic cable tales.
UFO premieres Sunday, August 8th, 2021 on Showtime.