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Reality Check: A golden age for Alaska reality TV

Emily Fehrenbacher
Kyle Safieh

I recently learned that the average American watches about 30 hours of TV a week. At first, I scoffed at that statistic. But then I looked at my DVR, Netflix and HBO GO accounts and had a stunning realization: I'm the average American.

Some of this consumption consists of news-ish programming, critically acclaimed dramas and smart, witty comedies. The rest is reality TV. Let the judgment flow.

Reality shows have been a staple of my TV lineup for almost as long as the genre has existed. When I was 19 years old, I filmed an extremely awkward "Real World" audition tape in my parents' basement. When I was 21, my best friend and I applied to be on "The Amazing Race." I was not picked for either show, so I had to make my own adventure (sadly, without cameras following me around): I moved to Alaska shortly thereafter.

I settled into Alaskan life as a heightened interest in all things Alaska was taking hold nationwide. It was 2008, the time of Sarah Palin's Alaska (which in 2010 actually turned into "Sarah Palin's Alaska"). "Deadliest Catch" had already been on for years, and "Ice Road Truckers" and "Alaska State Troopers" were in their early seasons.

It was strange to go home to the Midwest for the holidays and have family members ask detailed questions about the crabbing season or if I'd ever been to Wasilla (not because of the Palins, but because of a "crazy episode of 'Alaska State Troopers'"). No other place, except for maybe New York City and Southern California, has the TV star power that Alaska has.

"Deadliest Catch" and "Alaska State Troopers" have become the flagship shows, but new programs chronicling the ordinary and extraordinary lives of Alaskans keep appearing. By my best count, there are currently 13 shows airing that take place in Alaska. This is the Golden Age of Alaska Reality TV.

There are several categories of Alaska reality shows: there are the classic standby shows about extreme jobs ("Catch," "Troopers," and "Truckers"), with a few new ones recently added to the slate ("Bering Sea Gold," "Gold Rush," "Railroad Alaska"); shows about surviving the elements ("Life Below Zero," "Alaska: The Last Frontier," "Ultimate Survival Alaska"); shows about businesses ("Buying Alaska" and "Wild West Alaska"); and my favorite genre, the fish-out-of-water show ("Alaskan Women Looking for Love," "Alaska Gold Diggers").

The premise of "Alaska Gold Diggers" is beautiful in its simplicity: five blond Southern California women move to interior Alaska and try to start a gold mine. What could possibly go wrong? I'm sure comedy will ensue. As I said, we truly are in the Golden Age of Alaska Reality TV.

A lot of Alaskans I've talked with have a hard time getting into Alaska Reality TV because it seems fake. The most commonly given example is "Alaska: The Last Frontier," a show about the Kilcher family, who live just outside Homer. These people live extraordinary lives, and not just because they are Jewel's relatives. They harvest much of their own food and are all-around entertaining human beings. But the way the show is edited makes it seem as though the Kilchers will surely die if they don't shoot a moose or catch a halibut. We know that they can just go to the Safeway in Homer, but my Midwestern family doesn't know that.

It's like an astronaut going to see the film "Gravity" or a doctor watching "Grey's Anatomy." Instead of sitting back and enjoying the ride, they are probably looking at all the inaccuracies of space travel or daily hospital life. The trick is to put aside the skepticism and enjoy these shows for what they are: entertaining television. Because even when they're overly produced and heavily edited, these shows still tell interesting stories about the place we call home and the larger-than-life people who live here. To quote our former governor and TLC star, "I'd rather be out here, bein' free" than sitting in a trendy loft with seven strangers on "The Real World."

Next week: A preview of the new cast for Season 2 of "Ultimate Survival Alaska"; a look at the new series "Railroad Alaska."

• Emily Fehrenbacher lives in Anchorage, where she writes about Alaska Reality TV.

 


By Emily Fehrenbacher
Daily News correspondent