I’ve never watched Deadliest Catch for the same reason that I don’t watch Ice Road Truckers: because work is work is work, and work is boring to watch. “Will they drive the big truck into the cold ocean before it is time to punch the clock?” I don’t know. “Catching fish is dangerous, but the world needs to eat fish, will these guys catch some? Will they get hurt doing it and collect worker’s compensation insurance? Find out tonight on a very special episode of Someone’s Job.” Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t watch a show about pop-culture blogging, either. There is no nostalgia in this shit here. But, anyway, so: this week on Deadliest Catch, reality TV faces “the ultimate test” (relax New York Times): death. During the taping of this season, Captain Phil Harris suffered a stroke and later died. (“Phew, we are off the hook. Get it?” — The Fish.) Producers supposedly struggled with whether or not to air all of this, and eventually decided to air most of it. (Sounds like a tough struggle.) The first episode featuring Mr. Harris’s stroke aired last night, and his prolonged decline will be stretched out over four episodes. I guess because once you decide to air something, YOU DEFINITELY AIR IT A LOT.
Naturally, this situation has created a real STIR in the media. Classic media.
Is it appropriate? Is it tasteful? Are we entering a new era of something something. Personally, I don’t see what the big deal is. I mean, the question of whether or not reality TV itself is appropriate or tasteful remains OPEN, but once you accept reality TV as a medium, then why on Earth would death be inappropriate? Especially in this case, of course, since not only is it a borderline-documentary about a particularly fatal line of work, which Captain Phil Harris spent his entire life doing, but he died from complications after a stroke. It’s not like he cracked his face open on the Big Balls during a particularly tense episode of Wipe Out. He was a man who had agreed to have his life taped (taped!) to find out what really happens when people stop catching fish, and start having strokes.
Admittedly, the name of the show now seems unwise in retrospect.
But frankly, reality TV faced its real “ultimate test” last summer. And failed. The VH1 show Megan Wants A Millionaire was quickly pulled off the air when it was revealed that one of its contestants had committed a gruesome murder. Yikes. The story only got sadder when the suspect fled to Canada and committed suicide in a motel room. Of course, pulling the show off the air may have been the most politic way to deal with the victim’s grieving family, as well as to avoid the perception that VH1 was trying to capitalize on the sensationalism of such a tragedy. But the reality (ding dong) of the situation is that VH1, and all of the major reality TV proponents, specifically search for people with deep emotional imbalances and an overenthusiastic love of alcohol in order to create dramatic tension. It was only a matter of time before that shit EXPLODED. So to pull the show entirely and pretend like it never existed–to the point of refusing (unspoken) to allow Megan Hauserman, a once rising reality star at the network, whatever THAT means, to participate in any future programming–is the height of dishonesty and malicious cowardice.
There are plenty of deleterious social effects that have developed from reality TV, namely the exponential increase in fame obsession (and the attendant sense of entitlement and misuse of the word “deserve,” as in “I deserve to win”), and an aggressive strain of schadenfreude as our culture’s key emotional note. But the portrayal of death, the one thing that we definitely all have in common without exception, seems both entirely above board, and one of the more difficult things for the producers to crassly manipulate with quick-edit interview segments and half-gallon bottles of cheap vodka. Showing people dying on a reality TV show is certainly no worse than showing people living on Hoarders.