The title “Deadliest Catch” can be confusing. The catch in question isn’t great whites or stingrays or even that deadliest of prey, man; it’s the Alaska king crab, which can take off a finger if you’re not careful, and can get pretty messy in a restaurant, but is otherwise harmless.
What’s deadly isn’t the catch, but the catching: the profession of venturing into the churning waters of the Bering Sea each fall on crabbing boats. And that deadliness is relentlessly driven home. Before tonight’s opening episode of the show’s third season on the Discovery Channel is five minutes old, we’ve been told that the Bering Sea has claimed 41 lives in the last 10 years, and that “this year will be just as deadly”; that “this year is going to be exceptionally rough, that we do know” (though we’re not told why); and that “this year at least one fisherman will not return alive.” To make sure we don’t miss the point, the opening-credits montage ends with a shot of a seaside cemetery.
Presumably it’s this lurid focus on the dangers of rogue waves and flying ropes and dangling 800-pound steel crab pots that has made “Deadliest Catch” a cult hit. Otherwise there wouldn’t be three seasons’ worth of drama in the life of the crabbers, as opposed to those of top models or bounty hunters. Or at least that’s what the Discovery Channel seems to think. It’s possible that viewers are responding to the show’s other attractions, like the authenticity of its characters — these captains and bait boys and ship’s cooks are about as real as reality television gets — or the wintry beauty of its signature images of orange-clad fishermen against the lowering sky.
After all, “Deadliest Catch” has its place, however small, in a great American tradition of maritime storytelling, from Herman Melville to Sebastian Junger. It’s just presenting the old story — days of boredom and mischief punctuated by moments of terror, the salty mix of danger and free enterprise and manly sentimentality — in reality TV terms. That means highlighting every brush with death, or at least minor injury, that the cameras were lucky enough to capture and using the daily business of crabbing as narrative glue between those scenes of mayhem.
As this third season starts, you’re forced to wonder whether the grounding in real work that makes the show stand out could be compromised. Now that the show is an established part of these people’s lives, what exactly goes into decisions to name a 26-year-old a captain or to add family members to a crew or to send an inexperienced (and blond and female) cook out on deck for the first time to sort crabs? There’s no way for us to know, and perhaps no way for them to know either.
Toward the end of tonight’s episode, and continuing into the next, something happens that both confirms (as if that were needed) and finally justifies the producers’ fixation with death. A boat — not one of the handful the show is following — capsizes, and we fly along in the Coast Guard helicopter sent to look for survivors. We see one being pulled out of the water, and on the flight home we see him treated for hypothermia as he sits next to the bodies of two less fortunate crewmates.
Back on dry land, still sitting in the helicopter, clearly not yet himself, he agrees to be interviewed about his experience. Dry eyed and with just a bit of a tremor, he describes waking up as a wave knocked the boat on its side and struggling to escape with “Cowboy there” and “my buddy here,” pointing at one dead body and patting the other on the shoulder. It’s absolutely riveting television. Back on their own boats the normally chatty captains of “Deadliest Catch” hear of the wreck’s toll, and for just a moment there’s silence in the pilothouses.