PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Deadliest Catch and the Death of Captain Phil Harris

How has Deadliest Catch handled the much-publicized death of one of its boat captains during the middle of filming this year? There have been a few problems, but overall it's been done with dignity and respect.

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.