‘Deadliest Catch’ is a keeper

A fisherman’s schedule doesn’t allow for much appointment TV viewing, but Matt Thompson, 44, of Monhegan Island, Maine, maintains one weekly ritual. Every Tuesday night — provided a barge isn’t coming into port and he isn’t out on the water — he meets up with a friend who has a satellite dish and watches several hours of “Deadliest Catch.”

The Discovery Channel’s Alaskan crab-fishing reality series, which wraps up its second season on Tuesday night at 10, provides for a raucous little gathering, Thompson says. There is beer drinking, shouting at the screen, and inspiration. This spring, after watching TV crabbers play a complex practical joke involving a pipe and a buoy, he tried a similar prank on a fellow fisherman’s line.

But if the show is inside baseball to him, it’s also validation. Thompson has caught scallops and groundfish in the Bering Sea, where “Deadliest Catch” is filmed, a few degrees shy of the Arctic Circle. He’s battled the frigid air and the towering waves. When people ask him whether the show is true, he can say, with pride and authority, that it is.

Discovery Channel executives believe that’s why their top-rated program has a following among far more than fishermen. “Deadliest Catch,” which draws nearly 3 million viewers each week, is the highest-rated nonsports cable show Tuesday nights; the May 30 episode beat the FX hit “Rescue Me” among 18- to 49-year-olds.

The series has made minor celebrities of rugged crab boat captains, and become such a reliable draw that Discovery programmers want to nurture it. Jane Root, the network’s executive vice president and general manager, says she’s intent on running a single March-to-June season each year.

“It’s almost like our `American Idol,’ ” she says.

Like “Idol,” the show is different things to different people. Discovery message boards are full of viewer testimonials, praising “Deadliest Catch” for its glorification of hard work, its supply of vicarious adventure, its abundance of ruggedly handsome, strong men. It is notable, Root says, that the show draws more female viewers than most Discovery Channel fare. “In the world of metrosexuals and men’s colognes,” she says, “I think maybe there are a lot of women out there who hanker for a guy who’s not afraid to go out in 20-foot-high waves.”

But for fishermen the show holds a special sort of value. It’s a cult hit in places like New Bedford and Gloucester, where Discovery promoted the second season by handing out coffee, knit caps, and season one DVDs on fishing docks.

And for a line of work that’s oft-ignored and constantly imperiled, fishermen and their allies say, “Deadliest Catch” invites uncommon respect.

“You think about how many shows there are about fishermen versus how many shows there are about doctors or lawyers or cops or firemen,” says John Bullard, the former mayor of New Bedford and a Clinton-era official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Where danger usually makes for good TV, fishing is really nonexistent.”

“Deadliest Catch,” which premiered in the spring of 2005, grew out of a crab-fishing segment in a series about Alaska, says David McKillop, Discovery’s vice president of production. The men and the work were compelling, he says: Fishing for king and opilio crabs can bring in tens of thousands of dollars for less than two weeks’ work. And as the show’s voice-over points out repeatedly, between the heavy equipment and the hell-froze-over weather, injuries are practically inevitable.

“It’s the last great cowboy story,” says McKillop. “That’s part of the American psyche. “

To capture the experience, the cameramen have to be cowboys, too. Discovery tracks six fishing boats with one- and two-man crews ; once a boat leaves dock for 10 days or two weeks, nobody can get off. Between the salt air, water, and ice, McKillop says, 60 percent of the TV equipment is destroyed.

But braving the same elements — in one recent episode, the camera shot suddenly swooped toward the sky as a cameraman slipped on the deck — has a way of earning fishermen’s trust. Last year, McKillop says, a couple of captains asked if the cameramen would return for the next crab season, as deckhands.

The footage these men capture is repetitive but chilling: crashing waves and swinging 700-pound “pots” — giant cages filled with crabs — that always look as if they’re about to slam into someone. Two seasons have dealt with injuries, deaths, and near-death experiences. Last season, a man who had fallen overboard told the cameraman to keep rolling, even after he was hoisted back on deck. He still thought he might die, and this would be his mother’s last chance to see him.

There are many such moments of Marlboro Man pathos; the show captures manly men struggling with pain, fatigue, sleep deprivation, and the drama of close-quarters living. Last week, “Northwestern” captain Sig Hansen — the favored beefcake on Discovery message boards — grew fed up with his grumbling crew and stormed into the hold . . . with a handmade suggestion box.

While the show may be an escape for white-collar viewers, many fishermen and their families see it as realism. Rodney Avila, a fishing boat owner in New Bedford, says his wife doesn’t like to watch. (“She says, `Do you really go through that stuff?’ I say, `Not as bad as those people.’ “) And Jim Kendall, a former New Bedford scallop fisherman, says the show offers a technical look at the heated topic of regulation. Between this season and last, Alaska changed the way it runs its crab hunt, replacing a catch-what-you-can derby with a system of per-boat quotas — though, as last week’s episode showed, the new rules aren’t always clear.

That frustration rings true to fishermen used to bad news.

“Most of the time, our discussions pretty much revolve around our own difficulties,” Kendall says. “What’s that saying — misery loves company?”

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