Gold Rush: Alaska has been a massive success for Discovery Channel on a pretty quiet night. There’s little that’s on on Fridays, but Discovery has managed to turn this tale of a bunch of rookie gold miners betting everything they have on being able to strike it rich in the Alaskan back country into something so compelling that it draws a slightly bigger audience ever week, even though it seems like most of the show boils down to a bunch of guys with beards digging in something called the “glory hole.” In fact, almost everything I knew about the show came from The Soup, where the show is edited down entirely to a long series of dirty double entendres using the term “glory hole” and how deep the men have to dig in it to strike gold. (These punchlines write themselves!) On some fundamental level, I just didn’t see how this show could be exciting.
Gold Rush: Alaska comes out of a long line of programs in this vague genre, shows I like to call “blue collar reality.” The blue collar reality show usually presents a bunch of scruffy, colorful dudes who go about their back-breaking jobs in the great outdoors, usually under life-threatening circumstances. The first series of this type to gain any kind of success was Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, still probably the best example of the format. That show’s conceit of fishermen heading out into the worst possible conditions to try to catch anything turned into something at once action-packed and weirdly poignant. Why did these people do this? Didn’t they see how crazy they were to even think about trying it? And would any of them die? If so, how would the show handle that? The series was so successful and so exciting because it legitimately stood poised between life and death in a way very few, if any, reality shows were. Sure, you could sense the manipulative hand of the producers here and there, but the sheer terror of the elements, the bravery it took for men to plunge forward into the roaring sea, that was all REAL in a way that things fundamentally weren’t over on Survivor.
The genre has continued along, creating shows that are popular but not exactly buzzed about, in the years since. Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men, and Black Gold are all examples of the genre, even if every new example of this type of reality TV creates a sense of diminishing returns. On the one hand, it’s kind of fun to watch these guys at their work. On the other, it’s often just the same thing over and over. As much as any of these shows tries to come up with new obstacles for the guys to overcome, new dangers for them to work their way out of, there’s just no good way to keep the grueling pace of the work week dramatically interesting for all that long. Deadliest Catch worked and continues to work, but it’s entirely possible that that show just hit the sweet spot of the one profession where life and death cross paths with something approaching genuine intrigue and excitement. Any one of the other “blue collar” reality series could make a fine documentary film, but they’ve struggled to stay compelling TV series.
Enter Gold Rush: Alaska. As mentioned, it would seem to have the most limited potential for a reality series, since it’s, after all, just an hour of a bunch of guys digging in the ground every week. Even the danger is more to their equipment than it is to the guys themselves. And the show is heavily, heavily serialized, in a way that few of these other shows are. Sure, those shows all are based around a certain “season,” when these jobs are possible and forced competitions between crews, but Gold Rush: Alaska is centered almost entirely on one small crew of “greenhorns,” who head out into the bush to try to make gold appear from the ground as if it really were being held there by magical beings or something. After watching as much of the show as I could find on Discovery’s press site, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. It’s nothing profound, but there’s something fun here.
I think most of that stems from the characters. I don’t know how long this show can sustain the premise of “a bunch of guys try to pull gold out of the ground,” but the series has been surprisingly good at establishing what’s at stake for these guys if they fail and then showing their desperate dig for more and more gold, even as the elements move in and essentially force them to shut down. They’re obviously not experienced. In Friday’s finale (the series will be followed by an epilogue episode next week), their efforts to reach bedrock—where they have the best shot at pulling loads of gold out of the ground—are stymied by the fact that they’ve expanded their dig so wide that a nearby creek is beginning to seep through, requiring constant pumping. Of course, their pump is leaky, and they’re low on diesel, and the winter winds are beginning to grow colder and colder. It’s a race against time, basically, and a surprisingly well-edited one, considering that both of the most exciting moments involve a man trying to drive an excavator out of a pit (very slowly).
The finale also does something pretty bold: It lets the guys lose. You can feel the manipulative presence of the producers around every corner. Even if the producers, say, didn’t pay the fuel guy to drive into the camp up a steep mountain road (in a giant diesel truck, no less) so the crew could get the fuel it needed, the moment is so triumphant that it FEELS like they did. There are moments like this scattered throughout the first half of the episode, when the guys get just the thing they need to keep going, and it’s not hard to feel as if someone’s trying to construct a happy ending here, let these guys go back to their families with their goal completed and their lives intact.
But instead, the guys can’t get to the bedrock in time. They pull a nice amount of gold out of the ground, but it’s going to be just enough to cover expenses, it would seem. Paying down mortgages? Caring for families? Living the American dream? That all gets postponed, pushed back by silly mistakes made in the early going and by the inability to beat back the rough Alaskan winter. And, yeah, these guys are probably getting paid for their involvement, and, yeah, the show will get another season, so they’ll at least have enough cash to cover another expedition to the glory hole. But it’s not easy to watch their dreams disappear in a puff of smoke. Gold Rush: Alaska still has to get around the central problem that every episode of the show is pretty much the same thing happening over and over, but the guys are compelling enough, and the way the whole series panned out is shocking enough that I’m sure I’ll be in for season two. It’s not often you see people crushed on television, but ending season one in this way makes me just want to see season two that much more, no matter how real any of this was.