When I was younger, after I'd grown out of early-morning cartoon shows, the things I wanted to watch on television were usually specials (magic specials...sue me, I was young!) or movies, and I'd often forget to record or watch them. These days, I rarely watch shows on television; my mind still resists the thought of having to sit down and watch things on a certain day and time. If I did watch TV, however, I'd probably watch a whole lot of the Discovery Channel. Every one of their shows looks clever and interesting (the one I really wanted to see was "Smash Lab"), and high on my list of curiosities after years of theatrical ads was their popular crab-fishing documentary series "Deadliest Catch". They were already running promos for Season 5 at the movies when the opportunity to review the Season 4 dropped in my lap, and even though I hadn't seen the other seasons, I dove right in.
The show introduces us to our four central captains: Keith Colburn of the Wizard, Sig Hansen of the Northwestern, Johnathan Hillstrand of the Time Bandit and Phil Harris of the Cornelia Marie, as they search for crab in Alaskan waters. Each boat has its own little story: on the Wizard, Colburn is keeping a watchful eye on his newest greenhorns: Lynn Guitard and Jason "Moi" Moilanen, as they try to get their bearings on the Bering sea; Sig Hansen is watching his experienced deckhand Matt Bradley and new deckhand Jake Anderson fight as Anderson tries to get a full share in the boat's profits; Hillstrand is bringing one of his sons along to see if he can keep the crab fishing a family-run business tradition; lastly, Harris watches his cigarette, coffee and caffeine addictions catch up with him as he suffers through a stressful fishing season. During the season, we'll also meet Rick Fehst of the Early Dawn and Sten Skaar of the North American, and during the season's second half, when they switch from red king crab to opelias, Johnathan's brother Andy Hillstrand takes over the helm.
The show is definitely engaging: you get to learn the personalities of the people on board (especially the captains) very quickly, and as you get to know the crews, you're automatically invested in what's happening to them. Personally, while I liked all four main captains, I was most interested in seeing events on the decks of the Wizard and the Northwestern. Edgar Hansen, Sig's brother and deck boss of the Northwestern (who reminded me of actor Paddy Considine), provides a fairly even-handed account of what he thinks about his brother's captaining through both good and bad experiences, and he also seems a little crazy, fighting with his brother and playing amusing pranks. Meanwhile, "Moi" really provides a perspective from which the audience can view the experience, as he's battered with wind, rain, fishing equipment and the abuse of his co-workers. I admit, I never really thought about how hard professional fishing must be, but once you see the physical torment laid upon Moi, you'll start to understand. Of course, Moi also opens himself up to his fair share of abuse through inexperience and a fair share of slacking off. I'm also not a smoker, but nothing will put you off faster than watching Cornelia Marie captain Harris burn through pack after pack while eating nothing but coffee and Red Bull. It almost made me nauseous.
Still, I was disappointed at how standard a television show "Deadliest Catch" really is. I don't know why it bothers me; perhaps I was expecting it to feel more like a documentary, but the editing has all the hallmarks of those magic specials I wanted to record, especially when any sort of interpersonal or physical drama rears its head. Even if the feeling is unwarranted (and I'm definitely not accusing "Deadliest Catch" of lying to the audience), the editing can't help but detract from the authenticity of the show a little bit. A reeling machine breaks on the Wizard, and it's played up as a big deal in one episode but never mentioned again. Anything particularly shocking is shown repeatedly, and often in slow motion. The show also inconsistently teases future events (sometimes at the opening, sometimes at the end, sometimes in special "on the next episode" bumpers). It becomes slightly confusing; I couldn't tell if the filmmakers were purposefully re-using footage (which definitely happens) or trying to trick me into thinking I hadn't seen the footage before, and I often had trouble remembering if I had seen things before in a flashback or as part of a previous episode. Another inconsistency is the way they bleep profanity. Sometimes they use fitting sound effects, like a hull crash or a beeping computer, and sometimes they use regular old bleeps. I'd rather the latter, because the former seems silly. Lastly, the red king crab episodes have a listing of how much crab the various skippers have caught, which often seems out of sync with what's actually happening in the episodes.
However, good old fashioned tension still works. While the editing is exploitative, it is still solid in the sense that I never felt like we'd strayed from one of the four main boats for too long (the North American and Early Dawn kind of disappear in the second half of the season, but never our lead captains), and even though the show plays it up over and over again, it's always satisfying to see a "pot", as they're called, filled to the top with crab, come swinging over the side of the boat. The show also isn't too complicated: "Dirty Jobs" host Mike Rowe makes for a good narrator, 3D graphics are employed to explain a handful of danger situations, and even though this is the fourth season, I wasn't confused by the process of crab fishing (although I suppose on the level that a TV show needs to explain it, it isn't that complicated). The show is also good at finding other things to focus on to make sure the audience doesn't get bored. While the inclusion of a deckhand being taken to a hospital for potentially deadly seizures is a little strained (the deckhand is from a boat the show isn't following), it's still a tense side story. The only thing I'd have liked to see more of is the logistics of the show's camera crew on board the boat: where they sleep, how they stay safe during the more dangerous storms, and whether anyone gets yelled at for talking to the camera. Still, this could have been tackled in other seasons, and I wouldn't know, so I'm not bashing Season 4 for it.
I liked "Deadliest Catch", but it couldn't quite live up to the version of it I had in my head after seeing the ads for it year after year. Maybe I'd feel differently if I'd seen the previous three seasons or if I'd been able to pace out the episodes the way they'd be shown on television, but this fourth season is only lightly engaging. Discovery Channel junkies and people interested in ocean work might find it more interesting, but it's just a good show instead of a great one. Still, I'd be lying to you if I said I wouldn't be thinking about the incredibly tough work done by these four captains the next time I find myself eating some delicious crab.
Episodes in this DVD set include:
Disc 1: "Get 'Em Back Safe!", "Striking Out", "A Numbers Game", "Unsafe and Unsound".
Disc 2: "No Mercy", "Racing the Clock", "Seeking the Catch", "No Season For Old Men".
Disc 3: "Storm Season", "Blow Up", "Big Weather, Big Trouble", "Mortal Men".
Disc 4: "Fresh Blood", "Changing Tides", "Catch as Catch Can", "The Final Hour".
"Deadliest Catch" Season 4 arrives in two two-disc slimpaks and one one-disc slimpak slid into a slipsleeve. The covers are on the text-heavy side and they're not particularly stylish, which honestly might have affected my desire to buy the DVD. How about some pictures next time, eh, Image? There is no booklet, and the menus are equally text-heavy and simple. The music on the menu (the show's theme song) is also pretty repetitive; I'm fine with the theme song itself, but even silent menus may have been an improvement to the track starting over each time you select anything.
The Video and Audio
The show is shot with a variety of cameras and filming styles, and this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation reflects them accurately, even if the footage varies wildly in quality. In almost all of the shots, whites are blown out, color seems a little faded, and I detected a bit of edge enhancement, and there are other times (usually at night in the captain's wheelhouses) where the footage is buzzing with mosquito noise. On the whole, though, things look pretty good: I didn't detect any jagged edges or compression artifacts, although in choppy waters sometimes it's hard to tell. Curiously, the "flashback" sequences really "pop" with vivid color timing; I almost wish the entire show had been color timed to look like the flashbacks, even though it wouldn't really be accurate. Hmmm...
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is actually quite solid. Dialogue comes through the front and music and action splashes down on the side channels, which is more enveloping than you'd expect. The sounds themselves are like the picture, affected greatly by the technology and conditions with which they were recorded, but I didn't have any trouble hearing what was going on. Even if I had, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are provided on all episodes (and the show itself has burned-in subtitles already for some of the harder-to-hear segments).
There's only one extra here: "After the Catch" (approximately 3 hours and 35 minutes) is another show Discovery produced that features series narrator Rowe sitting in a bar discussing crab fishing trials and tribulations with some of the series' regular suspects. I was worried, because the Season 4 opener, which has the captains at the local watering hole, was one of the least-interesting parts of the season. However (for better or worse), these episodes are pretty much equally interesting as the rest of the series. You'll learn more about fishing, obviously, than the making of the show, and some of it is a little corny, but anyone who loves the series will probably enjoy this special series.
Episodes include: "Legends", "Brothers", "Emergency", "Deckhands", "Real Life".
Each disc also has a cool promo for The Discovery Channel, although it's the same one on each disc (and the version of it online is longer). "After the Catch" also includes English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.
I liked "Deadliest Catch", but I didn't love it. The DVD has one substantial bonus feature and a TV-accurate presentation, but as a new convert to the show, I see myself picking up seasons for cheap instead of running out on release day. If you're a fan of the show already, this release is recommended, but for others, I'd suggest catching an episode on TV or renting it before purchasing.
And I might start with Season 1...
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