Bering Sea Gold debuts tonight on Discovery Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.
More than one reviewer has already called Bering Sea Gold, the latest vein-popping, sweat-stained nonfiction serial from producer/baritone narrator Thom Beers, a cross between The Deadliest Catch and Gold Rush Alaska (A.K.A. "The Deadliest Reality Show"). But aside from the setting and the shiny nuggets that have drawn people there, the show really betrays the influence of two other shows that Beers has had a hand in: A & E's big hit Storage Wars and last year's mining-operation flop Coal, a weird mismatch for its network, Spike, which quietly let it slide off its schedule after half a dozen episodes. Bering Sea, which is about aquatic prospectors looking for gold on the ocean floor in Nome, Alaska, seems to have been shaped at least as much by an awareness of the factors that kept Coal from being a hit as by the ones that have worked for Beers' other Alaska shows.
Once again, the work demands a lot of effort for what may turn out to be very little reward. (The crews have to sift through a lot of muck and rubble to get to the good stuff, over the course of a gold-hunting season that starts out short and may be cut even shorter if the weather doesn't cooperate.) And it may not be much less dangerous. But if the risk of drowning in freezing waters or dying of hypothermia isn't all that much more enticing than that of contracting black lung, it sure does look prettier. The people talk incessantly about how they need to get back out there and make some money before the sheriff shows up at their door with a notice and a padlock, but compared to the West Virginia miners who had to show up every day to go underground and grind their lives down to the nub, the desperation here looks like a working summer vacation. As hard as the work is and as scary as the life can get, at least some of the people here chose to pursue it because the thought of sitting indoors in a cubicle for eight hours a day scares them much worse. One of them, Ian Foster, is just starting out in his new trade after years spent as a social worker. He says he spent his last $15,000 on his boat, and from the looks of his craft, a glorified rowboat called the Sluicey, whoever sold it to him had better have thrown in a treadmill and a plasma TV. Soon, he'll be lamenting his sorry lot and his aching back like everybody else here, but when we first meet him, he's fleeing the offices of his old job and saying something about how he's been thinking about this day for the past six months.
The Storage Wars element comes from the decision to focus on four different operations and review and compare everyone's haul at the end of each episode, turning things into a jerry-rigged competition show. Besides the footloose Foster, there's the eighty-foot, eighty-ton Christine Rose, a family operation headed by the crusty, acid-tongued Steve Pomrenke; the Wild Ranger, captained by Scott Meisterheim, who makes Pomrenke look like the kid in the "Leave Britney Alone!" video; and the Clark, a two-person outfit that looks like the floating junk yard that Kevin Costner was driving in Waterworld. If you discount the Sluicey, which is easy to do, the twenty-foot Clark at first looks like the underdog in this race. Its captain, Zeke Tenhoff, is a youthful D.I.Y. type whose screen image combines the least marriageable features of Steve Zahn, Rainn Wilson, and Michael J. Pollard. Joining him on this magical mystery tour is Emily Riedel, an inexperienced "greenhorn" whose dream is to make enough at this summer job to launch herself towards a master's degree in opera. "She's not used to doing this kind of work," says Emily's father, Steve Riedel, who is a deckhand on the Wild Ranger. "She's used to going to art school."
Zeke turns out to be a capable worker who knows his shit, and the Clark is soon raking in respectable hauls on a regular basis, but why is Emily even there? After she comes up from a dive feeling very much the worse for wear, Zeke tells her, "If you feel sick tomorrow morning, you're not going down all day. You're going to sit up here, with a book, and you're going to, from time to time, do things that I tell you to do." Not exactly slave driver talk, but Zeke delivers this speech as if he wanted to add, "If that's okay", every five words. In the first episode, trying to account for Emily's presence, Zeke says, "Even though she's not my girlfriend, she's tremendously loyal." After a long day spent vacuuming the ocean floor, it's time to go through the good and see what's there. "For Zeke and Emily," Thom Beers intones on the soundtrack, "the process takes place in their beachside yurt." Inside the yurt, Zeke, pleased with his catch, says, "As long as I have enough of this, I don't need a girlfriend." "Ha ha ha," says Emily.
After awhile, the constant reminders that Emily is not Zeke's girlfriend (…and she doesn't want to be, right, Emily? Because if you really would like to be, and every time I remind you that you're not, it's breaking your heart, you can just tell me. Because if you're worried that it would spoil our friendship, it totally wouldn't!) start to give their scenes a certain degree of subtext. The show may be having some fun with this in the fourth episode, when it uses instructional animation to describe a technique he wants to use that would involve him diving down and stradling the vacuum hose while Emily stays on board the Clark to monitor the controls. We see the figure representing Zeke at the ocean floor, with a long, thick hose between his legs that extends to the deck of the boat. We are shown how, if someone gets distracted or overexcited and Emily mishandles the controls, the hose would retract too fast and Zeke would come flying up, his head connecting with the engine, to unfortunate effect. Sadly, the imagery is strictly all-ages, but I bet there was a moment when the producers were tempted to outsource it to the South Park guys.
At the opposite end of the scale from Zeke and Emily and Ian, in terms of resources, we have the Pomrenke family operation, which is the only one making do without a diver. Instead, the Christina Rose uses an enormous shovel mounted on a long neck, which makes the ship look like Robo-Nessie. By itself, the Christina Rose makes this show must viewing for anyone who misses Battlebots. (At one point, the ship's motor gives out, and the crew uses the damn shovel to paddle its way back to port.) But the true monster of the Bering Sea, and the man positioned to be this show's breakout star, is Captain Scott Meisterheim, who sums up his own personality, along with his relationship to those under his command, when he snaps, "I don't have an anger management problem, I have an idiot problem!" The prize idiot here is Steve Riedel, who looks like a Bob Balaban who's been ridden hard and put away wet.
Riedel is either a genius at passive-aggressive behavior or the sort of strangelably clueless git who insists on getting jollier and jollier the angrier the people around him become. You can imagine his last thought, just before a bullet hits him right between the eyes someday, being "Hey, I think maybe he really is a little pissed off. I thought we were just teasing each other!" In the first episode, he shows up for work late, then wanders off again until Meisterheim, in a fury, leaves without him. He returns later to get into a fight with the ship's owner that builds to a "You can't fire me, I quit!" exchange, then shows up again the next day. When Meisterheim asks him, incredulously, what the hell he's doing there, he confesses that he's as mystified about it as anyone. But Meisterheim is so hard up for help that Riedel ends up sticking around, even when he persists in singing "She'll be fillin' up my gas tank when she comes," to the tune of "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain," while filling the gas tank. "It's been forty-four years I've been alive," Meisterheim says to the camera, "and I still can't figure out why God keeps puttin' assholes in my life." To Steve, he says politely, "I'd really like it if you didn't [bleep!]in' sing today." Steve smiles, nods just as politely, and sings, "She'll be riding that Wild Ranger when she comes…" One hates to imagine what it's like being around this joker on Talk Like A Pirate Day.
Steve is such a doofus that it says a lot that, after a while, Meisterheim's choking rage begins to seem a little over the top. Of course, he has other things making him testy. He is, he says, "$150,000 in debt. I got bills to pay that, if you don't pay, you go to jail for." It develops that his most worrisome debt is a dog-choking load of unpaid child support. In my misspent youth, I spent some time in grad school, where I met a douchebag named James who had won some kind of prize for his poetry and who, until people learned to dive out the nearest window at the sound of his approaching footsteps, liked to pull a crumpled copy of his award-winning poem out of his pocket and treat you to an impromptu reading. After a few episodes of this show, I started wondering if Meisterheim might carry a copy of the court order around in his pocket, so he could pull it out at bars and impress the ladies. He refers to his situation again and again, with a little more detail every time, and a little more visible anger, as if he thought that being a deadbeat dad was the most relatable thing in the world. There's not much going on around him to lighten his mood, either. As his ship falls apart and the gold eludes him, he begins to take on an almost Job-like aspect, with the crucial difference that Job didn't have it coming to him.
With its multiple-character setup and exotic activity, Bering Sea Gold is carefully designed to not be boring. (If one person's story is nothing to write home about—and Ian, in particular, seems very reluctant to light his corner of the screen on fire—there's sure to be something going on someplace to film, even if it's just Scott Meisterheim having another tirade.) If I'm incapable of getting very excited about it, that may be because it reminded me that I actually miss Coal, which as reality TV was not exactly a pick-me-up, and as an example of the art of documentary film was no Harlan County, U.S.A., but did have the virtue of recording an actual way of life that impacts most of our lives in some way, but that most of us couldn't be more divorced from or ignorant of. Watching it, you felt a little more in touch with the real world. That's not the case with the expertly crafted eccentricity on display here, but it's not exactly headline news that information about the real world isn't what most people want from reality TV.