Feeding off the Friday night success of The Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush: Alaska which begat Bering Sea Gold, the National Geographic throws it hat into the weekend-shows-about-prospectors ring with Goldfathers. It’s a familiar setup, another entry in the kind of reality programming that focuses on people who are essentially professional gamblers. The gold mining business, like the alligator hunting trade or the crab fishing racket, has a potentially huge payoff, but the process of getting to that glimmering pay dirt is a long, grueling one. The aggressively folksy voiceover reminds you of the perils the miners face as much as possible. Every minute that a part doesn’t fit or an engine overheats is a minute that could be used to strike it rich. But the constant reminder of the high stakes involved doesn’t offset how tedious the steps to getting the gold are. Goldfathers ends up being as much of a slog as the work it documents.
Take Doug Baker, for example. His operation, Mudminers, hopes to make the most of the short Alaskan summer to draw as much gold out of the ground as possible. But he’s starting from behind: His operation spent the previous year working on a claim that didn’t produce anything, so he’s about $500,000 in debt to begin with. His excavation methods involve a giant set of water cannons, designed to blast 50 feet of dirt away from what he hopes is the gold-rich land at the bottom. That sounds like pretty exciting stuff, except that most of the first episode focuses on the nitty-gritty of assembling the machinery to do that. Not to mention that Baker needs to tap a water source by digging a stream up to an existing canal, a trick that requires quite a bit of on-the-fly hydraulic engineering. Baker is understandably worried about it—needlessly, as it turns out—but the tension just isn’t enough to make the problem into an interesting plot force.
One interesting thing about Goldfathers is how different the mining companies the show focuses on are. Baker’s outfit is a relatively big one compared to CCR mining, the brainchild of Creighton Lapp and his friend Chuck Durant. Lapp’s method for prospecting involves electronic dowsing rods, or as the owner of the claim he wants to mine calls them, “wizardy sticks.” He convinces his landlord, who has the wispy white hair and toothy grin of an old West portrait of a miner, but CCR has trouble getting started. There’s the trek with a bulldozer over the Alaskan wilderness, a place where tow trucks are of no help when you’re having mechanical trouble. And there are money issues, too. Durant’s credit card gets declined when he attempts to purchase $15,000 worth of fuel, setting the team back a day and spurring a rant about the untrustworthiness of financial institutions. “I didn’t have a bank account for 35 years,” Durant explains. “I trust cash, and I trust gold.” That makes sense. It also taps into the appeal of show like Goldfathers: There’s something inherently untrustworthy about our modern institutions, and the only real way to live life is through tough jobs and precious metals.
Alas, there isn’t any actual gold in either CCR or the Mudminers’ segments. In fact, the only miner who manages to dredge up anything precious from his claim in the first episode is John Reeves. He claims to be the largest landowner in the state behind the government. “My desk is my truck, and my office is the state of Alaska,” he says. Reeves bought up the Alaska Gold Company’s old land, and now he’s determined to go back through the heaps of debris to find whatever gold they left behind. But before he starts mining, he “prospects the shit out of the land.” How? Using his grown children as a workforce, of course. They process some of the dregs with plenty of attendant whining. After a long day of shoveling through mud, Reeves and his brood unearth a small handful of gold dust. It’s a lot of drudgery for such a small quantity of riches, which is pretty much how watching an hour of the show feels.