Is a television show “quality” because it has narrative complexity and psychological realism? Or is quality more about challenging, confronting and provoking the audience? Pay networks like to market themselves as the home of quality TV and certainly shows including “The Sopranos” or more recently “Homeland” would make the grade for most people. Rarely, would a reality TV series be considered. So what I’m about to argue may be surprising: “Bering Sea Gold” is a quality show and one you should be watching.
The quality of Discovery Channel’s “Bering Sea Gold” lies in its ability to document the drive, desire, ambition, anger, desperation and joy involved in a dangerous and fascinating occupation in a way that captures both the complexities of relationships and the hardships of making a living when everything is at stake.
The men and women featured on the show risk their lives dredging the bottom of the waters off Nome, Alaska for gold. Similar to “Deadliest Catch,” the show about Alaskan crab fisherman, this latest addition to what cable networks prefer to call “docuseries,” focuses on several boat crews. Here, gold replaces crustaceans while hoses and sluice machines replace steel cages and holding tanks. The boats are smaller and most are hand-built but the drama is just as intense.
With little space on deck, two and three person crews take turns slipping into thick wet suits attached to air and hot water (to prevent hypothermia) before diving into the freezing sea. They work for hours wrangling a hose that sucks the ocean floor topside into a sluice machine that separates the gold flakes from rocks and sand. Along with the small boat operators is one larger crew who work from a big dredge ship where the owner, an experienced land gold miner, has ingeniously attached a backhoe to the deck. It digs buckets of ocean dirt and swings them to the sluice, thereby eliminating the need for divers. But whether they are large or small, the crews are tested by the weather, machinery failures and physical and mental exhaustion.
When the action returns to shore, the dredgers must carefully sift and dry their gold haul and prepare it to be weighed. More flakes than nuggets, it looks like glitter in glass vials but with gold selling at an all time high, ounces of this glitter are worth thousands of dollars.
The three month summer mining season means the dredgers have a brief window to make money. For those who are in serious debt, finding gold will literally save them from financial ruin. With stakes this high, you can’t help but empathize with their situation. In terms of what makes a show quality television, perhaps this is the characteristic that matters most.
“Bering Sea Gold” is on Friday on Discovery Channel at 10pm E/P.
- To: The Parents Television Council
- To: Reality Television