What is this? An omen or something?
— Sig Hansen, Northwestern
Deadliest Catch enters its sixth season much like any other, with the now familiar captains and crews preparing to launch the 2009 king crab season. Every year, we follow the fates of the various vessels, anticipating the peril they face as they endure “the world’s most dangerous job” on the unforgiving Bering Sea, hoping to cash in on an $82 million king crab haul. Along with these outdoor adventures, the series also offers “family drama” among all these tough guys.
The new season does bring with it a change. After filming it, Phil Harris, one of the show’s best loved captains, died after suffering a stroke on his boat, the Cornelia Marie. Harris’ health issues had been a part of the show’s narrative for the last two seasons, and he missed out on the 2008 season altogether because of it. Harris’ death was widely reported, and Discovery has now added several “Captain Phil Tribute” features (and a Captain Phil Quiz) to its website. Even if the Season Six premiere doesn’t specifically mention his death, we all know about it, and so now we’re watching to find out when in the season it will unfold.
This awareness adds an eeriness befitting a show that makes no bones about the superstitions, luck, and omens that frame the fishermen’s experiences. Suddenly, much of what Harris says and does seems loaded with meaning. When Northwestern captain Sig Hansen and Harris decide to swap two deckhands who, according to the latter, “need to be brought down a smidge or two” (a notion hard to imagine, considering the incessant ridicule that is a part of the drill on these boats), one can’t help but worry when one turns out to be Harris’ own son, Jake. It’s a painful separation for the two made even more terrible for the viewer who knows what’s at stake.
Captain Phil’s future notwithstanding, the deckhand switch is a refreshing twist to a well known format. For Jake Harris, this means realizing that he took the familiarity of the Cornelia Marie for granted, plus the added humiliation of a demotion (which he takes remarkably well). Jake Anderson, on the other hand, feels duped by Hansen’s promise that the switch was going to make him a better fisherman and that this was what is best for him: baiting pots is about the same no matter what boat you’re on.
But even as knowing about Captain Phil amplifies some situations in the season opener, it also renders other aspects of the show mundane. Every season features a “Crab Count” scoreboard for each boat, a game-show gimmick that has never been that interesting. This time, it just feels tacky. Likewise, the accusations of crew poaching and insults tossed between rival captains Keith (of the Wizard) and the Time Bandit‘s Jonathan and Andy Hillstrand, seem particularly juvenile now. (Jonathan Hillstrand whining, “Just stop pretending to be my fucking friend, okay?” is more Mean Girls than manly, and everyone witnessing the throwdown looks pretty uncomfortable.)
Luckily, such squabbles recede into the background before too long. The show’s real life and death drama comes back to the forefront, especially when the boats receive a distress signal from a smaller vessel, the Carly Renee. The story of her sinking is captured on a cell phone video camera by a crew member of the first vessel to arrive on scene. While none of the regular crews of Deadliest Catch witnesses the disaster, they do hear of it. The Carly Renee‘s bewildered and clearly frightened captain is a stark reminder to us that this is far more than mere entertainment for some.