Author Brad Meltzer has made his name by spinning stories culled from history, whether they be thriller novels like The Book of Fate or picture books like his biography-focused I Am ... series. But for his latest television series, he's trying to entice his audience to play along.
Debuting tonight on the History companion channel H2, Brad Meltzer's Lost History documents significant artifacts from politics, culture and more that have gone missing. The first episode tells the story of the American flag that New York City firefighters flew over Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001, gangster John Dillinger's prison-break Tommy gun, and a set of jewel-encrusted swords owned by President Harry Truman. Each episode will also feature a call to action in which viewers can submit leads to still-lost items through a tip line, and H2 has offered as much as $10,000 in reward money for information that results in recovery.
"The show really came from my own outrage," Meltzer revealed in a recent conference call. "When we started doing it, I came to History and pitched it to them not just as a TV show but as a mission. It's upsetting that these things are gone ... but the fact that no one knows about it? Well, here's our chance to get it back. When people start seeing not just that these things are missing but how many of them are missing, shock turns to outrage.
"History does not just belong to rich people who can buy it all up for themselves. History belongs to all of us. So the idea came when History said, 'Brad, you should just tell people how you feel.' When we filmed the pilot, I was a little nervous that they were going to say 'Tone it down. We want to do this in a normal way,' but to H2's credit, they said there did need to be a call to action. We're really here to get these items returned."
Lost History marks Meltzer's second outing with History, following Decoded, but the writer admits that upping the game with a focus on retrieving lost treasures can be viewed as a long-shot proposition. Still, he has confidence that something positive will come from the show.
"I can't possibly know what we're going to find, but somehow, somewhere we are going to find something," he said, noting he has already begun to get a response before the premiere. "Leave it to Florida, but some woman in Boca Raton called me at home telling me she had some documents she wanted me to see that her husband had from World War II. I always get calls, and no one gets crazier mail than me, but I know that once I say to America, 'We want what's in your attic,' that somehow it's going to surprise people what we get. We have one of the former head investigators from the FBI wading through the tip line, so we're doing this with the best of them."
The drive to complete this mission is fed in part by the show's format, which will highlight one object from history that's already been found, alongside still-unsolved cases. "The original version of the show began when I was in the National Archives, and they pointed out to me this tracking map from the Bay of Pigs and said, 'You know, this was missing for years. Do you know how we found it?' I said, 'How?' And they told me that JFK's secretary had taken it home with her, and when she died, her family found it in the attic,” Meltzer said. “I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me' -- one that it was gone because it's such an important piece of history and two because I started to make a list of all the things that are still missing.”
"I can tell you that things are found in the attic, but every episode is set up so we cover two things that are missing, and the middle story is about something that's been found. That way you can see all the ways in which these things are found by regular people. Sure, sometimes the FBI will get called in to help. But it's always someone just keeping their eyes open and saying, 'I saw this thing.' Those stories let you know your own power. They make you say, 'This is possible. Now let's start looking.'"
And while certain items like the flag that flew on 9/11 may be more difficult to pin down, Meltzer is taking a wide view of what the show's search can mean in the end. "It's wild," he said of the flag. "We knew what we were doing when we did the story, but it wasn't until we were actually filming it and I ended up flying to D.C. on the 9/11 anniversary ... and I rode to the Pentagon to start filming that we walked in and all looked at each other and realized that we could really find this. And if we do, it'll bring peace to a lot of people. This isn't just us trying to bring this back because we want it. This will bring people closure in a way. That was a humbling moment."
However, the series won't be only tales of tragic loss, but bizarre stories as well. "We go searching for JFK's brain. Let me say that again, slowly: JFK's brain. Is missing. It sounds like a bad 1950s sci-fi movie," he laughed. "But at one point in time after the assassination of JFK, there was someone walking around D.C. with a metal can that had the president's brain in it. You'd think that with autopsy studies and people wanting to know about what happened to a man when he's hit in the head with a bullet, we would have done a forensics study on JFK, but the government never did. It's one of those moments where we were looking for it and research was coming back, I said, 'There's no way this is true.' When you see the episode, you're not going to believe it.
"It's not like we think someone's going to turn in a brain, but the call to action there is that somebody must know who took it and why they took it. It's pretty fascinating because there's no evil guy stroking a cat and trying to make some grand conspiracy. I think it was taken for the most human reason of all – to protect a family member."
Known to comic readers for his runs on titles like Justice League of America, Meltzer noted that there are a number of pop-culture artifacts working their way into the mix as well. He professed a desire to do an episode on the missing Marvel art pages of Jack Kirby, and said that in the currently slated season, "The ones you're going to see for sure include James Bond's original Aston Martin. The one that was driven by Sean Connery in Goldfinger is missing. There were two of them – one used for exterior shots and one that Connery actually drove. And that's the one that's missing. I loved that because I wanted to show people that we weren't just doing old stuff, but we actually had some current culture in there. We also do James Dean's crashed car, the Easy Rider motorcycles and one of Marlon Brando's Oscars. There are so many items from pop culture in there, and there's one that I can't say, but it's Superman-related, and I'm really hoping it turns out to be what I think it is."
The writer believes a show like Lost History will at the very least open viewers up to a different way of looking at the past. "I think what we do as a culture is say 'History is a bunch dates and facts you have to memorize,’” he said. “History is nothing like that. That's not what history is at all. What history is is a selection process. It chooses every single one of us every day, and it only matters if you hear the call ... This is not just us telling the story of very famous people. It's showing us what we're all capable of on our very best days."
Brad Meltzer's Lost History debuts tonight at 10 ET/PT on cable channel H2.