There was a period of time, right after The Da Vinci Code movie came out, where everyone around me pretended to have advanced art history degrees, and waxed poetic about secret societies and religious symbolism in popular media. Ultimately, Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books and their subsequent adaptations are not that deep.
Following the Harvard symbologist as he treks across the world solving crimes with his knowledge of art history, the bestselling series consists of pulpy action-adventure crime thrillers that sprinkle in more science and history than their usual genre counterparts (though those facts probably skew more sensational History Channel special than art history honors seminar). And it worked: Brown nailed the page-turning appeal of good guys facing off against formidable villains with grandiose schemes, saving the day with their specific academic skill sets (with the added serotonin hit of getting the answers right in trivia).
Peacock’s new series, The Lost Symbol, based on the third book in the franchise, delivers on that same thrill in its first episode, which airs on Sept. 16. With its over-the-top puzzles and villainous plot, this episodic take on the material promises the same energy as the books — but with a slightly different take on lead character.
The Lost Symbol is the only book in Brown’s series to take place primarily in the United States. Unlike some of the other Langdon novels, which often interrogate the Catholic Church, this one investigates the Freemasons and the founding of America — with a bunch of freaky mind science thrown in, because why not? It’s familiar territory, and while this adventure comes after the events of Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, the series turns it into more of an origin story for the symbologist.
The first episode kicks off when a pre-dangerous-romps-across-Europe Langdon (Succession’s Ashley Zukerman) receives a call from his old mentor, Professor Solomon, and a man claiming to be Solomon’s secretary invites Langdon to come to Washington for a conference. Turns out, the man has actually kidnapped Solomon and left his severed hand pointing toward the ceiling in the Smithsonian. From there, it’s puzzles and clues and cryptic phone calls — sweeping Langdon off on a high-stakes mission.
Zukerman imbues Langdon with more dorkiness than the character’s often overly suave literary counterpart. This man is an art history professor, after all! In the books, Brown goes out of his way to remind readers constantly that not only is Langdon a scholar, but also a tall, athletic water polo player and a sexy heartthrob with “bedroom eyes” who can’t stop women from hitting on him constantly. The TV version of Langdon is more like an enthusiastic puppy, just starting out on his adventures. It’s endearing, and turns the character from a male power fantasy — the James Bond of the art history world — into someone more relatable (and definitely more likable than his book counterpart). This version of Langdon doesn’t totally deviate from the novels, but by positioning itself as a prequel, The Lost Symbol promises an actual arc for the Langdon character instead of just dragging him along for a wild plot.
And could any of the plot feasibly or logically happen? No, not at all — as is the charm of Robert Langdon’s adventures.
Watching Langdon and a CIA officer discover a hidden trove by using their knowledge of Latin, and throwing water onto a stone wall to disintegrate written letters to reveal a handle — all while the walls of a creepy underground chamber full of human bones slowly close in — feels like something out of an edutainment video game. Mysteries invite viewers to follow along with the protagonist; in the case of Langdon’s adventures, where so many of the clues come out of textbooks, it adds an extra layer of intrigue. Of course it’s wacky and completely unrealistic, but considering it’s basically an adult Carmen SanDiego CD-ROM game, that is exactly the appeal.
New episodes of The Lost Symbol premiere Thursdays on Peacock.