Death Was Televised in 'Deadliest Catch'. So Was Life

by Lana Cooper

22 July 2010

Deadliest Catch handles the death of Captain Phil Harris in a moving, dignified manner. While reality television is typically founded on exploitation, the Discovery series proves there is hope for the genre to be something better.

When I was a kid, I remember my mother and father talking about the then-new concept of reality television. Shows like MTV’s The Real World had spearheaded the movement with competition reality shows such as Survivor soon followed suit. Following the writers’ strike of 2000, reality television soon permeated the airways in an effort to bolster networks’ television schedules affected by a lack of show scribes, reality television received a surge in popularity that stuck well beyond the strike.

One of the most frequent points that cropped up in my parents’ conversation regarding reality television was one or the other griping: “It’s only a matter of time before they show somebody die on television.”

As it turns out, my folks were right. It happened. Death was televised and broadcast to the masses—this time in entertainment form, rather than via newscast.
In the past several weeks, the Discovery channel aired several episodes of the reality series, Deadliest Catch that focused on the death of Captain Phil Harris of the fishing vessel, Cornelia Marie.  Harris passed away on 9 February 2010 due to complications following a massive stroke at the age of 53.  He had been a part of the show, now in its sixth season, since its inception. A fixture of the Discovery channel, Deadliest Catch has chronicled the crabbing seasons of four or five fishing vessels in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska along with their captains and their crews.

I had approached the most recent episodes of Deadliest Catch with serious trepidation. I was hesitant to watch how the show would treat the death of Harris, one of the most likeable and colorful captains on the show. His gruff, yet laid back attitude and sense of humor had made him one of the most popular personalities to emerge from the reality series. 

Throughout the course of the show, Harris’ relationship with his two sons, Josh and Jake, was explored as they joined him, taking up the family business alongside their father and the rest of the crew on the Cornelia Marie. Spinning sailor yarns about “crab farts” (which, another crew member noted is impossible due to the fact that the critters do not possess air bladders) and noting that “You ain’t a man until you pull a tooth out with a pair of pliers,” Harris was serious about his job, but tried to make a very dangerous profession enjoyable for his crew. Working 20 hour shifts to extract crab from the sea is an arduous task and you need to find the joy in it somehow. 

Over the years, on Deadliest Catch‘s sister-show, After the Catch, a round-table with each of the captains and various crew members discussing the episodes taped that season, Harris came across as a humble, soft-spoken guy with a love for his two sons, motorcycles, and making elaborate bird-feeders. More than just a burly seaman, Harris was a multi-faceted individual. Each of the captains and crew members featured each week on Deadliest Catch were very real people, possessed of a tremendous work ethic for their dangerous jobs and devoid of pretense. In spite of the fact that they compete with one another to make their haul and quota for the crabbing season, there is a definite camaraderie and respect between each of the vessels’ captains.

To the credit of Discovery and all involved with Deadliest Catch, the tragedy of Captain Phil Harris’ death was treated with complete dignity. The last few episodes of the series’ season have been a moving, human portrait of not just one man, but of each of the men who ply their dangerous trade every crabbing season on the sea—which has been the show’s premise since its outset.

Fans of the series were well aware that Captain Harris had passed away prior to the airing of Season Six of Deadliest Catch. They didn’t know that the cameras had captured his journey from the Cornelia Marie in the Bering Sea to his final moments in an Alaska hospital bed.

Death is an extremely personal thing. As desensitized as we are as a society, bearing witness to nearly every other phase of life from birth to divorce (just ask Jon and Kate), the subject of death hasn’t been handled on reality television. To see a hale and hearty captain go from giving orders from his wheelhouse one minute to being felled by a stroke and airlifted from his boat is a very sobering shot of, well, reality.

During the run of the show, Phil had bonded with the cameraman who had been assigned to him, Todd Stanley. On an episode of After the Catch, Stanley talked about how Phil had actually requested that he keep rolling, even while he was in his hospital bed.  Captain Harris wanted everything documented, even the most brutal parts of him awaking from an induced coma to touching moments with his sons, squeezing their hands and telling him how proud he was of them and how he hoped he was the type of father they could be proud of.

It was heartbreaking to watch, especially knowing the eventual, tragic outcome of the situation. Fortunately, Harris’ very final moments were not show and it is doubtful whether or not they were actually recorded.  Prior to his death, to see Phil’s family discuss his health with the doctors who had given them so much hope in his recovery as well as the jubilation of his fellow captains when they got word of his positive progress made the scenes where they were informed of his demise all the more gut-wrenching.

Each man grieved in his own way. Sig Hansen of the Northwestern—perhaps the crustiest captain of the bunch on Deadliest Catch—attempted to hide his grief from the camera, walking back to his wheelhouse where he privately mourned his friend and comrade.  The typically jovial (albeit slightly cantankerous) Captain Keith Colburn of the Wizard allowed his tears to flow freely, setting up a buoy in the ocean with brimming crab pot, emblazoned with a memorial to Phil Harris in the Bering. To see men who are so typically stoic come together to mourn an equally hardy friend and colleague captured a very human moment in television.

In the vast cesspool that is reality television, it’s refreshing to watch real people on television who list an occupation on their tax forms that doesn’t solely read “reality television personality”. The men of Deadliest Catch made their bones in a genuine profession before they were made into reality television stars. Despite the added recognition the Discovery channel series has brought to them, they still remain unflinchingly real. The show eschews the pre-fabricated situations that most “reality” shows possess. 

Reality television typically focuses on the beautiful, the well-off, or people who are famous for the sake of being famous. With nearly ten percent of the United States’ citizens currently unemployed, this is hardly a “real” representation that viewers can identify with. It’s not even escapism, but rather an ostentatious display of consumerism at its most crass.

In terms of scripted television, corporate culture or people with “upwardly mobile” professions are mainstays of the television drama or sitcom landscape. Blue collar workers are typically relegated to the status of bumbling ne’er do wells (à la Homer Simpson) or completely marginalized. The much-vaunted corporate culture that so pervades daily existence seems to have negated a sense of pride in an individual’s work or the value of working with one’s hands, yielding zero return or loyalty to those who have opted into it. 

Deadliest Catch may be the only show on television that shows the working class in a dignified light.  It doesn’t glamorize the manual labor done performed by the seamen aboard the fishing vessels, however, it endows these men with the respect they deserve for both their work ethic and strength of character.  For every smirking slacker Jim from The Office the average viewer may know, chances are, you may know twice as many hard-working men like Captain Phil Harris from Deadliest Catch

As concerned as I was that reality television was stooping to a new low and could possibly be exploiting the very real, very sudden and tragic death of a human being, I was actually very impressed with how Discovery handled Captain Phil Harris’ passing with the grace and dignity he deserved. The grief of his family and friends was not exploited, but rather tactfully handled, as were numerous tributes at the post-show After The Catch roundtable devoted to Harris’ memory. The images of his loved ones coping with his loss afforded viewers catharsis for any deaths that may have affected their own lives and created a human bond of sympathy between long-time (or even casual) fans of the show and the men they tune in to watch every week. It’s compelling because it’s as real as reality television gets, yet at the same time, signals that there is some hope for the genre that typically bases itself on real-life frivolity. 

That said, I’ll take a dozen Sig Hansens or Phil Harrises over one Kardashian any day of the week. In the case of Captain Phil Harris, while death was televised, so, too, was a celebration of a life filled with hard work, integrity, strength of spirit, and a devotion to family and friends. Now that’s real.

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