All that, so a guy can stuff his face at Red Lobster™? Discovery Channel has released Deadliest Catch: Season 5, a 5-disc, 17-episode collection that covers our now-famous "real men in danger" Bering Sea captains' and crews' 2008 king crab and 2009 opilio crab seasons. With the sixth season premiere of the hit reality series Deadliest Catch coming up in April, and with the recent death of (arguably) the show's most popular captain, Phil Harris, making headlines all over the world this past January (one would assume this will be dealt with in the new season), I would expect viewer interest in the series to peak. I've followed it from the first season, and while Deadliest Catch: Season 5 may not be the strongest offering of the show, it's still worthwhile reality TV viewing. Plenty of extras for fans of the series makes this an attractive buy.
A brief rundown of the series for those who haven't caught the show. Deadliest Catch follows the tough, intrepid (and one might assume from time to time, crazy) crab fishermen who trawl the unforgiving Bering Sea for their highly-prized crustacean cargo. Unalaska, Alaska's Dutch Harbor port, in the Aleutian Islands, serves as home base for the crab fleet, with the series following the boats' October king crab season and the January through March opilio crab catch. Utilizing 3-ton crab "pots" (steel cages) that are baited with herring and other fish, the pots are stacked high on the crab boat decks, and then winched by crane onto a slider that drops them into the ocean, where they "soak" in the frigid ocean depths for anywhere from 24 to 36 hours. When the boats come back for their haul, a fisherman throws out a grappling hook to catch the buoy lines that mark the pot; the rope is manually hauled in and fed into a mechanical pulley, and the pot is winched up on the slider. The pot is then shaken onto a sorting table, and the acceptable crabs are then funneled into the holding tanks below decks, where they await their fate at the canneries.
Sounds easy, right? Dead wrong. First of all, re-read that description, and then imagine doing all of that on a rollercoaster boat riding sea swells of over 30 or 40 feet, with 40-knot winds, constant ice-needle sprays, bone-crushing waves, and subzero temperatures, as fisherman fight frostbite, hypothermia, and loose footing on the icy decks - not to mention avoiding all the various mechanical hazards involved in the dropping and hoisting of 3-ton pots that could instantly kill them (pots that swing and break away, rope lines that tangle around a stray foot or hand, pulling the owner to the icy depths of the ocean in a split-second). Add to that the necessity of sometimes working 24 or 50 hour shifts, on deck, without sleep, when the crabbing is good...and when it's bad, too. And it can get very bad, with all that dangerous effort offering no guarantee that pots brought up will have enough of the right-sized male crabs that the canneries want (juveniles and females are tossed back to help protect the crab populations). And even if the crews do haul in a valuable load (for some of the ships, the street value of their cargo can be over 2 million dollars), there's no guarantee, what with ice flows and other various delays, that the crabs will survive long enough for the crew to get back to the cannery in time - and they don't pay for dead ones there. The potential for payoff is sizeable (deckhands alone can walk away with a year's salary for a couple of weeks' work), but the downsides are considerable, as well: crushing debt should the pots come up empty or expensive mechanical failures eat into the profits, or a watery grave should you make one simple mistake, or if the weather and sea (and fate) cruelly decide your boat won't survive the night.
I believe Deadliest Catch was the first big ratings success for reality programming that has now come to be called the "real men in danger" subgenre. I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, I loved shows like Hot Dog or even the documentary segments of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, where 16mm cameras documented how a bowling ball or a Twinkie were made on the assembly line (today's How It's Made would seem to be the culmination of that kind of programming). Deadliest Catch isn't really all that different from that earlier programming; it takes us to a place we've likely never been (the intimidating Bering Sea), and thoroughly shows us a process (the true dangers of crab fishing) we probably never though of as we tucked into that "All You Can Eat King Crab Buffet" at Long John Silvers™. The twist with Deadliest Catch, of course, is marrying the reality TV format with the process documentary. In Deadliest Catch, the process of watching how crab are fished is fascinating (those scenes still dominate the episodes), but they wouldn't be varied enough to support a multi-episode season. So "stories" are woven and drama is created around the fishing footage, as we get to know our real-life cast of characters.
And it still works, for the most part, five seasons into the series. I can't say that the crab potting sequences hold the same level of fascination for me that they once did in earlier go-arounds. After all, how many different ways can you show a steel cage, loaded with crab, get plucked out of the ocean and emptied onto a table? If you're a fan of the show, you get the appeal by now. There's still an undeniable measure of suspense when they pull the pots up, with the viewer wondering if it's going to be a good load (everyone happy), or empty (curses from the captain on down, and growing tension). And as far as "action scenes" go, Deadliest Catch is never boring, with something always going on on-deck to keep your attention, whether it's someone just missing getting squished by a crab pot, to a seriously questionable decision by a skipper to put guys out on top of the stacked pots, in typhoon-force winds, to tie down a tarp (he almost kills all three fishermen). Eventually, though, you're going to need something more than just random action shots and endless crabbing techniques to maintain interest, and that's where the carefully-crafted stories come into Deadliest Catch's reality TV format.
Following Captain Phil Harris of Cornelia Marie, Captain Sig Hansen of the Northwestern, Captains Keith and Monte Colburn of the Wizard, and Jonathan and Andy Hillstrand of the Time Bandit, the Deadliest Catch cameras have made stars (at least in the reality TV world) out of these unlikely television "actors," so by this later point in the series, their and their crews' personalities drive as much interest in the show as the crabbing sequences - for better or worse. If the storylines created by the editing here are interesting, we've got a good season. If they seem familiar or lack sufficient dramatic conflict...well.... Certainly last season's health scare with Captain Phil Harris was one of the more compelling elements in the show (as will be how the series treats his death from a stroke in the upcoming sixth season). Captain Harris misses out on the king crab season in this fifth go-around (he cites health concerns), and his return for the opilio doesn't yield any scenes we haven't already seen in previous seasons, so the focus shifts somewhat more to the other captains and the problems with various deckhands. Captain Keith Colburn's potentially disastrous decision to send men out in a typhoon, and his subsequent battle to regain his confidence, is an intriguing element this year. Younger deckhand Mike Fourtner's right-on-the-edge smarting-off is amusing, particularly when he finally shuts up when threatened with getting fired, while older deckhand Russell Newberry's firing by personal friend Captain Jonathan Hillstrand is quite sad, until he's resurrected by Captain Colburn, who snatches him up. Newberry replaces greenhorn whiner Josh Warner, who can't cut the harsh hazing that seems the norm for initiating and training new crabmen. That failure is contrasted by greenhorn deckhand Jake Anderson's further evolution as a fisherman, showing a lot of heart and courage when he learns his beloved sister has died back home (one of the best moments in the series as even Captain Sig Hansen shows he has a heart for this young man).
Certainly Captain Sig Hansen - my favorite from the series - is always fascinating to watch. A total pro who becomes quite scary and even maniacal when stressed out by lack of sleep and poor pots, Hansen angry, sometimes snarling rejoinders would make anyone wonder what the hell they were doing out on the Bering Sea with this guy. Playing cruel practical jokes on the crew (giving them extra time to sleep in...and then turning back the clocks), or gleefully telling the cameraman he doesn't care one bit if he's pushing the men too hard, Hansen without sleep, gripping the wheel tightly while getting madder and madder, is some seriously compelling TV. However, the two most fascinating sequences in this fifth season of Deadliest Catch have nothing to do with the regular cast and featured boats, but with two harrowing Coast Guard rescue operations. In the first, the sinking of the Katmai and the loss of seven men is a heartbreaking and terrifying reminder of the unforgiving power and destructive force of the Bering Sea. The personal accounts of the four survivors of the Katmai are some of the most harrowing descriptions of a sea tragedy I've ever heard. And for sheer excitement, the foundering of the Icy Mist on the treacherous shores of Akutan Island, and the crews' desperate gamble to get off the boat before its broken apart by the waves (winds make rescue via a hovering Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter impossible), is the season's single most electrifying moment. As compelling as they are, the fact that these two non-crabbing sequences are the highlight of Deadliest Catch: Season 5 might be an indication that the formula is starting to wear a little thin five years into the series.
Here are the 17 episodes from the five-disc collection, Deadliest Catch: Season 5, as described on their slimcases (see the "The Extras" section for Disc 5's bonus episodes):
Everything on the Line
The 2008 king crab fleet faces huge stakes - before boats even cast off. Skippers Keith and Phil could be sidelined by life-threatening illnesses, and all the boats are in debt from summer repairs. A skipper is pressured to take a potentially fatal risk.
Red Skies in the Morning
It's week two of the season, and boats are hunting down the elusive king crab. A vicious storm kicks up, and a Mayday goes out. The skippers are glued to their radios - waiting to hear the fate of 11 brother fishermen in distress....
Stay Focused or Die
The fleet is still dialing into the crab, and already a typhoon has taken its toll. A boat has sunk, and bone-chilling accounts of the fate of its men relay around the fleet.
Put Up or Shut Up
It's week four of king crab season. Seven souls have perished, but the fishermen soldier on in the hunt for crab. Grueling hours and vicious hazing test the greenhorns - and some start to crack.
Long Haul, Short Fuses
Crab pots still come up empty and the skippers are out of ideas. Low bait and long grinds take our crews to dark places - the smallest infractions from a greenhorn or fellow deckhand cause tempers and even violence to flare.
A new deadline is set: an upcoming drop in the price of king crab has the skippers rushing to finish their season. But crew battles and a fierce Arctic storm block the way.
Down to the Wire
The king crab season is down to the wire, and skippers are desperate to top off their quotas. It's looking bleak as crews pick through the boneyards of fished-out grounds. Some boats dig deep for an end-of-season sprint, while other boats just scrape by.
It's the start of the 2009 opilio crab season. Anything the Bering Sea held back during king season is now being paid out in spades. The skippers have their eyes on the oncoming ice pack - but it's a lethal 40-foot rogue wave that's on the hunt.
No Second Chances
The fleet arrives on the opi grounds, and boats struggle with ice, big seas, and bad information to hunt down the crab. A skipper regrets sending his men out in savage weather to save the boat - but there are no second chances on the Bering Sea.
Sea of Misery
It's week three of the opilio crab season. Long hours and miserable conditions already have the crabbers turning on each other. Boat-crushing ice stands between one skipper and the safety of harbor.
After weeks battling freezing spray, 40-foot waves and sub-zero temperatures, skippers have begun plugging their boats with opilio crab. As they race to St. Paul Harbor for offload, the 250,000-square-mil Arctic ice pack stands in their way.
A Slap in the Face or a Kick in the Butt
Halfway through the season, each skipper faces his own personal form of hell. Frozen crab, frozen gear, and a frozen harbor chill the hearts of the most callous of fishermen. On the Northwestern, Sig battles a fierce cigarette addiction - and a fierce storm.
Ends of the Earth
When the fleet gets word of great fishing by the ice pack, the chase is on to the ends of the Earth! Hellacious hours and missing pots - a journey to the Far North will push these men over the edge.
Weeks into the opilio season, the fleet is bone tired and desperate for home. As delirium sets in, deadly, rib-crunching mistakes are made. But for one fisherman, a tragedy on land spells gut-wrenching heartbreak at sea.
For two decades the Alaskan crab fleet has been haunted by the legendary "Black Sunday" storm. Now history repeats itself when multiple Maydays go out during a massive Arctic storm. Most Coast Guard assets are deployed to save a boat from going ashore.
It's the final 24 hours of the 2009 opilio crab season. A savage Arctic storm causes multiple vessels to send out Maydays. The Coast Guard is in a race against the clock to save four men before their boat is pounded into splinters against jagged rocks.
A nice change of pace from the History's transfers I usually review. Discovery Channel does it right, though, releasing Deadliest Catch: Season 5 in anamorphically enhanced, 1.78:1 widescreen. The image is sharp, the colors dullish and gray (as one might expect, since there's not exactly a rainbow of color out on the winter Bering Sea), and no compression issues to speak of. Looks quite good.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo audio mix could have been stronger (loads of opportunities for blow-out separation effects are dropped), but it's adequate for the job here. Recording levels are decent, and English subtitles are available.
Hours of extras. First, at the end of Disc 4, there are some good featurettes looking at the series' production. Behind the Scenes, running 43:04, shows how it's not just crabbers but cameramen, too, who face death every time they step out onto one of those decks. Catch Confidential, running 11:40, sees Captain Keith visiting Seattle (and getting kicked out of the Market Place). And Minisodes, running a total of 35:01, fills in some of the background on the series, including a brief look at Jeff Whited from Magone Marine fix-it-shop (that guy ought to have his own series). Disc 5 consists of 5 full-length After the Catch episodes where newcomer interviewer Ben Bailey talks to the captains and crews of Deadliest Catch about the finer points of Season 5's stories. If you're a big fan of the show, these After the Catch interviews are almost as interesting as the actual episodes.
Newcomers to Deadliest Catch won't have any of the context to the backstories of the captains and crews and their various feuds and shared experiences in this fifth season, while loyal fans may start to feel a bit of déjà vu at the crab potting scenes. Still, several story elements this season are as compelling as they come for the series, so I recommend Deadliest Catch: Season 5.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.