Beginning 5 January, the History Channel offers a new entry into the stranger and stranger realm of “tough men” reality programming. As other cable networks have already covered crab fishermen, lumberjacks, truckers, gold diggers, gun shop owners, motorcycle customizers, and oil drillers, The Curse of Oak Island takes up treasure hunters on a small island just off the coast of Chester, Nova Scotia, about an hour’s drive from Halifax.
The first episode is a mixture of intriguing mysteries and frustratingly drawn-out storytelling. We learn the basics in an eight-minute opening sequence: Rick and Marty Lagina are brothers from Michigan who have been obsessed with the story of Oak Island since reading a Reader’s Digest piece about it back in 1965. Turns out that the island has a history of attracting treasure hunters that dates back to the late 18th century. At that time, a couple of kids discovered a hole on the island that contained wooden beams about 10 feet down, and every 10 feet after that. Stories about this hole spread, and over the centuries, many attempts were made to excavate it and all failed. Six people lost their lives in the attempt, and supposedly there’s a curse that says seven people have to die before the treasure will be recovered.
That’s a nice setup, but History attempts to spruce it up with over the top horror music cues, whooshing sound effects, and ominous graphics that inevitably fall flat because there is nothing frightening in the least going on in the plot. Interviews with Rick and Marty explaining the outline of the story and treasure possibilities — lost works of Shakespeare! Captain Kidd’s pirate gold! Artifacts left by the Knights Templar! — are intercut with scenes of middle-aged guys standing around a snow-covered island in February. All hope that an oil well drill comes up with some evidence of man-made material by digging close to the so-called “money pit.” At one point, one of the men says to Marty, “You know, we should be doing this in August and July when we’re not freezing our fucking ass off! Whose bright idea was this, anyway?” Marty replies, “Well, you gotta do ‘er when you gotta do ‘er, you know?”
Shortly thereafter, the show cuts to its opening credit sequence and then picks back up with Rick and Marty returning to the island in mid-summer. Clearly, we’ve been watching an edited version of Rick and Marty’s “proof of concept” video that sold History on the show. The reason they were on the island in February is because they needed to get the TV show approved so they could go into full production during the summer of 2013. The fact that the seams are showing this obviously less than 10 minutes into The Curse of Oak Island’s first episode is not a very positive sign. Sure, viewers will likely wonder about the winter setting as well, but Marty’s non-answer might raise more questions about the intelligence of the entire enterprise.
Since making his fortune in the oil business, Marty has managed to buy up most of the island. He and Rick are working with the father and son team Dan and Dave Blankenship, who first went after the treasure back in the early ‘70s and now live on the island. Marty tells us that Dave is slowed by an injury that permanently disabled one side of his body, but that “he can outwork any three guys because he’s done physical work his whole life.” Later, when we see Dan, the voiceover tells us, ridiculously, that Dan is “the type of man that other men call ‘tough as nails.’” We get it: the Blankenships are real men’s men who were true badasses in their day. We’re apparently supposed to ignore the fact that one is hobbled and the other is too old and infirm even to cross the 140-acre island to watch them work at the site.
The Curse of Oak Island, by title and general aesthetic, focuses on building up the mysterious aspects of island lore. But in the first episode, the only unexplained moment occurs when some HD footage vanishes from the guys’ computer in the middle of a presentation. The rest of the show explains why and how the holes are flooding and Rick and Marty’s plans to get around it. We then watch them pumping dirty water into a dumpster and talk about scuba diving into a nearby cove to try and find the source of the flooding. None of this suggests a curse or conundrum, not even when Rick runs across an odd vertical wooden spike in the cove during low tide.
The pumping operation and the scuba plans are worthwhile first steps to getting at the treasure. But the former is not exciting television and the latter doesn’t even get started by the end of the episode. As The Curse of Oak Island documents the excavation step by step, you might anticipate that watching the show on a week to week basis will be akin to being there with Rick and Marty in real time this past summer. The series stops short of showing what the brothers are eating for breakfast and dinner and where they’re staying, but just barely. It spends plenty of time driving in the car with them as they discuss what they’re about to do for the benefit of the cameras.
At the same time, the premiere holds back information concerning the island’s history, such as how exactly six other treasure hunters died in this quest. The better to break up coming episodes from the monotony of slow digging, one supposes. Despite the pacing problems, though, the central mystery of Oak Island is engaging. But viewers may be not have enough patience or free time to see it through.