The state of Alaska and the genre of reality docu-TV have almost animalistic mating urges. They just can’t stay away from one another, which is how we at home came to know too much about crab fishing, gold prospecting, grizzlies, snow machines, ice-road truckers, chartered plane pilots and the taste of the season’s first whale blubber. Add to that a certain out-of-work politician and the humdrum patrols of the state’s troopers, and it’s been a whole lot of defrosted drama. Yet very little of it has made for memorable watching.
The real trick is to match the adrenaline and wonder of “Deadliest Catch,” Discovery’s manliest and most rewarding hit to date, which has tossed on the darkened seas for several seasons of crab harvests with a modern, Melvillian sense of doom.
“Bering Sea Gold,” premiering on Discovery Friday night, doesn’t seem at first like it has crossed any new frontier, relying on elements and structure familiar to the form. Enticingly (to the network), it combines the ocean and the gold and the cold and the reactive testosterone among bad-tempered desperados.
To which I am surprised to cry: Eureka, they’ve found it! “Bering Sea Gold” is my favorite new unscripted show. I’ve forgotten quite a bit of mediocre reality TV over the past few years, but I am betting on “Bering Sea Gold,” which turns out to be a testament to how thoroughly absorbing the genre can still be, when it’s done right.
Reality mastermind Thom Beers, whose list of producer credits is long (“Deadliest Catch,” “Storage Wars,” “Monster Garage” and more), takes us to Nome in summer, where residents of the remote town (population 3,600) comb the bay on jury-rigged pontoons and trawler boats, churning up the ocean floor with rapacious urgency.
Glaciers have slowly deposited fine bits of gold all over the coastline floor. In frigid (but diveable) waters about 20 feet deep, a skilled crew can Hoover up several ounces of gold per day among the muck and rocks. “Bering Sea Gold” will do the math for you: In one early episode, a crew brings in more than 40 ounces in one day, assaying at more than $150,000 at the current price.
But don’t hitch your old motorboat to your F-150 quite yet. “Bering Sea Gold,” like its Discovery forebears, does a great job of conveying the angst, financial risk, suffering and physical demands of this annual dredge. The gold-hunting season, which is short already, can be curtailed by bad weather and rising swells. And, as with the network’s “Gold Rush Alaska,” “Bering Sea Gold” features a maddening litany of mechanical breakdowns and human ineptitude.
On a converted, ramshackle catamaran called the Wild Ranger, a bellicose captain-for-hire named Scott Meisterheim positions himself as the show’s alpha male, until reality (or some edited form of it) intervenes. The more he rages at the broken-down boat and his gleefully contrarian shipmates, the less gold his crew finds. It’s almost comically satisfying to watch them return to harbor each day with barely enough gold to dust Wolfgang Puck’s latest a la mode. Meisterheim keeps reminding the camera that he has to strike it rich or else he’ll go to jail for not paying his child support. And whose fault is that, sir? It’s not like the ocean owes you its nuggets.
More happily (at first), a young turk named Zeke Tenhoff and his platonic girlfriend, Emily Riedel, travel on a small craft christened the Clark, looking for all the world like a couple of pampered undergrads on a summer fling. But Zeke’s skill is quickly evident, and they return to their water-resistant yurt each night with a tidy bounty to sift and boil.
Another striver, Ian Foster, quits his job as a child-welfare caseworker and sinks (darn near literally) his last 15 grand into the Sluicey, which seems held together by rubber bands and a prayer. Ian’s summer is saved by the arrival of the capable and unrelated Scott Foster (hello, gorgeous), who brings know-how and, it turns out, an enormous ego. Before long, they’re having $6,000 days, a taste of success that strains their friendship.
Reality TV depends mightily on the chemistry of the people in it — more, perhaps, than scripted drama. The people seen here are “Bering Sea Gold’s” real find. They are believable, outspoken and almost preternaturally prone to mishaps and scuffles, which means they’re a producer’s dream. Aboard the clamorously large Christine Rose, a family-operated crew comes at things more aggressively, clawing the ocean floor with a sputtering backhoe. Their summer is thrown for a loop when the owner’s son gets stabbed in a bar fight — for which “Bering Sea Gold’s” cameras are serendipitously present.
The show is beautifully shot by a film crew that somehow manages to stay out of every frame, above and below the water’s surface, objectively at a remove — even when an underwater suction hose swallows Emily’s arm. And for a golden moment, as with all first seasons, these characters seem uncorrupted by stardom, letting their stories unspool honestly and without much pretense.
But that’s different from saying the show is beautiful. It’s not. It’s gritty and even depressingly acrimonious, embittered, rusted-out. More and more, Alaska looks on television like rural Ohio, only with much better views. One of the state’s overlooked renewable resources is its limitless potential as a metaphor for what we’ve all termed “this economy.” The “Bering Sea Gold” cast members are the faces in a mural of bad debts, unpaid medical bills and other personal miscalculations. Gold is their only hope.
And once again, Alaska comes off more as a dead end than as a gateway to that hope. Upon closer inspection by reality TV, TLC’s “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” when narrowed to just Wasilla, turned out to be the ultimate expression of box-store blight and glum frontier entitlement. Behind Palin came the sad bozos of “Gold Rush Alaska,” a group of underemployed men from the lower 48 who banded together to hunt for quick riches and beat their flabby chests about the American dream yet spent most of their time bickering about broken equipment, back pain and glory holes. In spite of its decent ratings, “Gold Rush Alaska” has become so boring that the show has had to enlist other packs of similar seekers, just to keep a narrative flowing through the sluices.
“Bering Sea Gold” surpasses these other shows because it has so much more actual gold in it. In a flash, a 19th-century mania returns, and you find yourself thinking of Nome, and of trying your luck.
(one hour) premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on Discovery.