Decoding the Past

TV review by
Emily Ashby, Common Sense Media
Decoding the Past TV Poster Image
Mysterious history docu has some intense moments.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

The series routinely deals with mature issues like religion, cults, conspiracies, and unexplained events.


Graphic descriptions of murder, torture, suicide, cannibalism, and other violent topics. Weapons of war and crime (guns, knives, hatchets) are shown in photos and re-enactments as their uses are described, and shots of corpses and dismembered skeletons are common.


Photos and artwork occasionally depict nudity (breasts, buttocks, etc.), but it's all pretty non-sexual. In video footage, all sensitive areas are blurred.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

When the subject calls for it, discussions include detailed descriptions of drugs used to subdue crime victims, as well as their effects on the body and mind when used recreationally.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this documentary series delves into a wide range of mature topics like cults, conspiracy theories, religious mysteries, and unexplained disappearances. The show's ever-changing subject matter makes predicting content difficult, and the controversial and potentially confusing nature of most of the stories ensures the series isn't for kids. In addition, graphic descriptions of violence (murder, torture, and cannibalism, for example) may be too much for sensitive tweens and teens, so parents will want to screen some episodes carefully before giving the go-ahead.

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What's the story?

DECODING THE PAST is a documentary series that investigates some of history's most unusual events and long-standing mysteries. Episodes have focused on everything from the Holy Grail and the seven wonders of the world to the Bermuda Triangle and the secrets behind the layout of the dollar bill. Each episode focuses on a series of topics that are linked by their relation to the show's overall theme. Experts lay the groundwork for each story, providing an overview of the events and placing them in the appropriate historical, geographical, and cultural context.

Is it any good?

The series' concise narrative means that a lot of information is shared in each hour-long episode -- but, true to the topics' mysterious nature, no hard-and-fast conclusions are drawn. Where details are open for interpretation (in the case of religious mysteries, for example), experts on all sides of the debate present their impressions and offer evidence to support their claims. In a segment exploring taboos in human society, for example, historians discussed stories about religious cults, cannibalism, the use of LSD (both in CIA interrogation methods and recreationally), and body-snatching of corpses to be used in medical dissection. Investigating various examples of each topic, experts explored the question of why these practices have long been frowned upon in civilized society and why they nonetheless persist today. But ultimately, viewers are left to examine the facts and make their own interpretations.

With its mature, often-controversial subject matter and frequent graphic details of violence, Decoding the Past certainly isn't for young kids and may be iffy for sensitive tweens and teens. But older viewers may enjoy pondering the legendary mysteries and debating their credibility.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the media's role in education. Is the purpose of this series to educate, to entertain, or both? Does it succeed in its goal? Does it fall short in any way? Are there certain types of shows whose information is more credible than others? Which ones? Can viewers take everything they hear from those programs at face value? How is the credibility of facts and legends affected by sources, time, and debate?

TV details

  • Premiere date: August 22, 2005
  • Cast: Ted Allen
  • Network: History
  • Genre: Educational
  • TV rating: TV-PG
  • Available on: DVD
  • Last updated: March 14, 2020

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