Deadliest Catch and the Death of Captain Phil Harris

Deadliest Catch has found itself with a fine line to walk in its sixth season. One of its crab-fishing boat captains, Phil Harris of the Cornelia Marie, suffered a massive stroke in January on his boat and passed away in an Anchorage hospital a few weeks later. Deadliest Catch has been The Discovery Channel’s highest-rated show for several years now, and as such his stroke and subsequent passing were much-publicized in the mainstream news media. Since these events happened in the middle of filming, there was no way for the show to gloss over his death. In fact, Harris himself insisted that the cameras keep rolling while he was in the hospital.

The show and The Discovery Channel have handled the situation differently, and understandably so. Thom Beers and his production team have faced these events bluntly and with raw emotion, telling the story as it happens without overtly tipping its hand about what’s coming. Since Phil’s stroke did not occur until well into the season’s second half, it wasn’t until episode 10 that viewers started to get real hints that something was seriously wrong with the captain.

We knew this was coming. So moments like Phil’s goodbye to his crew at the end of King crab season, where he told them “I plan to be here for a long, long time,” naturally had extra poignancy. A few episodes later, Phil’s son, deckhand Jake, had to leave the wheelhouse when a distress call went out from another boat about a man having a heart attack. It reminded him too much of a terrifying incident from 2008 when his father had to be airlifted to Anchorage after a blot clot passed through his lung. For viewers, it was a heartbreaking moment of foreshadowing.

Beers knows, though, that there will be a time when a future viewer might watch the show, either in reruns or on DVD, without any knowledge of what happened to Phil Harris. So as the captain suffered his stroke, off-camera in his stateroom, in the 22 June episode, the show left the future hanging.

For the next three episodes, Deadliest Catch deftly shifted between the events on the rest of the boats, still fishing in the Bering Sea, and the events at the hospital in Anchorage. It would have been easy (and crass) to go all-Harris family, all the time, but there were other things happening in the world of the show. We saw the reactions of the other captains as they heard the news, and how they had to press on with their jobs in the face of a good friend fighting for his life.

We watched on the 13 July episode as Phil began to recover from the stroke ahead of schedule, and shared in his happiness as son Jake admitted his problems and made the difficult decision to check into rehab. At the episode’s end, though, we heard the audio of the phone call as Josh Harris called his brother Jake back in Seattle and broke the news that their father had died. Under this audio, the show cut between the various boats on the Bering Sea as they began to battle the huge waves and freezing spray of the worst storm of the season.

Then, as the show ended on its saddest note yet, viewers experienced emotional whiplash as The Discovery Channel instantly shifted gears to the laid-back, bluesy intro of After the Catch, the annual postseason roundtable discussion between the captains and host (and Deadliest Catch narrator), Mike Rowe. Unlike the main show, this year’s edition of After the Catch has made no secret of the passing of Captain Phil, with a picture of him hanging near the table and the other captains reminiscing about him. The 13 July edition was dedicated entirely to Phil, with Josh and Jake Harris sitting in and everyone trading happy stories. The episode also showed footage of a Seattle memorial that was held in his honor, and ended with a New Orleans street funeral that celebrated his life.

The Discovery Channel’s promos for the show over the past month have highlighted the difficulties that come with dealing with an event like this on a reality-based show. The ads and promos have promised that things would be happening to and with Phil, but tried to couch it in terms of a tribute to his memory. It’s been mostly effective, but it’s hard not to come off sounding like they are hyping his stroke and eventual death for ratings.

Beers himself has not helped matters in his interviews, complaining about things like his show having to go up against The NBA Finals, “I’m having a hard time. I still haven’t finished Episode 14. I can’t watch it. I tell ya, it’s killing me, and not for nothing, f*** the Lakers and f*** the Celtics. They can’t get this f***ing basketball game done before my show?” Granted, Beers was in the middle of editing the final episodes of Deadliest Catch together at the time of the interview — it was undoubtedly an extremely emotional situation — but maybe that wasn’t the best time for him to be talking to the press.

Captain Phil Harris

For better or worse, though, the death of Captain Phil has paid off in the ratings. The 13 July episode drew a show-record 8.5 million viewers and 6.8 million of those viewers hung around to watch After the Catch. Is the audience genuinely moved by these events, or just morbidly curious passers-by? Probably a little of both.

For myself, a fan since season 2, the show has been difficult to watch over the past month, with each episode ending on a progressively more depressing note. My brother has also watched the show for years, but he couldn’t even bring himself to turn it on this year because “It’s too sad.”

Still, Deadliest Catch has been the best of this subgenre of reality TV for years, with its outsize personalities working a job that is always treacherous, even in the best of conditions. The show’s recent Emmy nomination in the “Nonfiction” category, side-by-side with PBS standout Ken Burns’ The National Parks and BBC/Discovery’s Life, is well-deserved. Although Beers himself may have crossed the line in interviews and Discovery may be close to crossing it with its promos, the show has handled the end of Phil Harris’ life with respect and dignity.