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Why reality TV buffs can't get enough of Alaska's 'Deadliest Catch'

Morgan X’agatkeen Howard
Courtesy Morgan Howard

This blog is in response to a recent article in The New York Times entitled, “A Soap Opera on the High Seas”. The article was mostly about Thom Beers, the creator of "Deadliest Catch," but it also attempts to explain why “Deadliest Catch” is so popular.

"(Thom Beers) turned crab fishing into one of the best soap operas ever,” W. Clark Bunting, the former president of Discovery, says.

For years I have been reading this line, that “'Deadliest Catch' is a soap opera for men.” I think that’s condescending. At the very least, it’s lazy journalism. “Deadliest Catch” has been on cable now for eight years, so we have had a few serious journalists write about the show. Often, the premise of their articles is based around the question, "Why is a television show about crab fishing so popular?" The final conclusion, as if they are discovering an original thought, is that it’s like a "soap opera."

Much more than a soap opera

Yes, "Deadliest Catch" is episodic television with reccurring characters who deal with issues familiar to all of us. But that’s where the similarities to a soap opera end.

As Thom Beers states in the article, there has to be good storytelling first and foremost:

Instead, they made hard work conform to the expectations of a drama. “All of my stuff,” Beers told me, “is based on the three-act structure, as if I was writing a play.”

Beers, meanwhile, was trying to extract a formula from “Deadliest Catch,” settling on a few rudiments that have since become staples of his work. There had to be a ticking clock; there had to be teams in competition with one another; and there had to be a primal, omnipresent external threat.

Good conflict makes for a good story, and “Deadliest Catch” has plenty. There are four classic conflict types:

  • Man vs. Man
  • Man vs. Himself
  • Man vs. Society
  • Man vs. Nature

I believe "Deadliest Catch" also taps into the universal story of the "Hero’s Journey."

The universal story of the greenhorn

The late Joseph Campbell authored a book entitled, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” Mr. Campbell studied myths and stories from different cultures around the world and found that there was one universal story that everybody shared. He called it the “Hero’s Journey” and he laid out the steps and structure to the story.

In a nutshell, the hero leaves the ordinary world by answering a call to adventure. He meets mentors and acquires training that will help him on his journey. He crosses the “threshold,” never to return to the ordinary world the same. He is tested and eventually is confronted with death or his greatest fear. Out of this moment of death comes a new life. He now looks to return home with a new treasure, but not without being severely tested once more as he has crosses back into the ordinary world. The hero returns home with the treasure, which may transform the world as the hero has been transformed. The hero has changed and is never the same. (This is an extremely abbreviated version of the different stages of the Hero’s Journey. Click here for the full version.)

I believe this story is why the “greenhorn” stories on the “Deadliest Catch” are so popular. It fits the “Hero’s Journey”.

Every Greenhorn carries a story in their heart and a question mark on their back… Will they make it? Will he go home broken and defeated? The merciless Bering Sea humbles the hardest soul and quiets the anger and angst of any young buck. The life they once knew is now a distant memory. Their world is now 40 feet of beat-up wooden deck, and a dictator with an ego as large as the Bering Sea.

It’s a physical and mental test. As the skipper and crew transform the greenhorn to seasoned fisherman on the Bering Sea, we learn what drives him and what’s been holding him back.

Good storytelling is mandatory, but there’s more going on here that has produced longevity with the audience. There has to be something underneath the story that resonates with the audience -- and “Deadliest Catch” has this by the boatload.

Hard work and the American dream

“Deadliest Catch” and the Cornelia Marie are a metaphor for the American Dream. Through fishing, a man can still work hard, play by the rules, take a risk in life, and get ahead. However, this is not just an “American dream.” The show resonates with men and women across the world through this universal theme of “making your way in life through hard work”.

For the past four years, the world economy has been struggling. We are now experiencing major changes in what is valued in terms of work. The industrial age is long over. We no longer need as many folks who can provide physical ability with limited “knowledge” skills. These types of jobs certainly don’t bring high wages. The warning now is: If someone overseas can do the job cheaper, then that’s where the job is going.

You certainly don’t find these types of “skilled or craftsmen” workers on the cover of business magazines or being interviewed by Charlie Rose. Who are the heroes of young men now? What does the media tell us about the definition of “success?” American boys growing up today hear about people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. They even made a feature film about “Zuck.” These are the definitions of successful men in today’s society.

What if you’re not a programmer or even comfortable on a computer? Or even worse, what if your definition of torture is staring at a computer screen for eight hours a day? What if we as people aren’t meant to be sedentary with our brains tied into computer terminals?

Longing for real work

This idea that we are all not cut out to spend hours toiling away in a cubicle is shared by many. Mathew B. Crawford wrote a book entitled “Shop as Soulcraft.” In his book, Mr. Crawford “questions the educational imperative of turning everyone into a 'knowledge worker,' based on a misguided separation of thinking from doing.”

I was so happy when I found his article entitled “The Case for working with your hands” in The New York Times. In this piece, he mentions the “Deadliest Catch.” In Mr. Crawford, I found someone who felt like I did when it came to the idea that maybe working with your hands is not only a good alternative to “knowledge work” but may be more natural and satisfying.

The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.

When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur — the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use,” which concludes with the lines “the pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.

These two passages strike at the heart of why I think “Deadliest Catch” is popular. We long for work that is real because it’s more human to undertake this type of work. Through the show, an invisible class of men (and women too) see a world they long for, a world where good people can work hard, and, with a little guts and determination, can make something of themselves.

Work hard, play hard

The popularity of “Deadliest Catch” owes a lot to one man -- our late skipper, Capt. Phil Harris. Phil embodied many of the elements I write about in this article. He worked harder than most men, and enjoyed himself along the way. Folks could identify with him -- he bared it all, from his bravado to his vulnerability.

When asked what his dream was as a child, he answered“To try and be successful no matter what. I always had this idea that I could very easily just become a bum and homeless. (Laughing.) That idea still keeps me motivated.”

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, I still receive emails from around the world as viewers of the show find out about the loss of Capt. Phil. Often the email starts out, “I hope you don’t think I’m strange but I feel sad even though I never actually met Phil…” I don’t think they’re strange.

If you have watched a lot of episodes of "Deadliest Catch," then you’ve actually logged a lot of hours with another person who decided to let the cameras in to show the good, the bad and the ugly. Phil decided if he was going to do it, he was going to go all the way. And the cameras kept rolling. So, I would think it would be strange if you didn’t feel anything after watching that episode.

Phil will be remembered forever by anyone who watches season six, and this story element is unique to “Deadliest Catch”.

Gone but not forgotten.

When a boy becomes a man

In today’s society, when and where is the threshold that a boy crosses to become a man? Is it after puberty? The arbitrary dates of 18 or 21? When they become a father? In many societies and for thousands of years, there have been ceremonies and activities to mark these occasions. Today, this passage from boyhood to manhood goes seemingly unnoticed. When does a guy feel like a man? You can be 25 years old and still be living your life as a boy -- untested and lacking confidence.

I believe that young men of today long for the feeling of being a “man.” They feel the need to test themselves to see if they “have what it takes.” Today, that often takes the form of athletic endurance competitions and sports. Perhaps, some young men even join the military to engage in the ultimate test of manhood -- combat. These young men long to be greenhorns, too, and enter the "Hero’s Journey," as explained earlier.

For me, one of the definitions of being a man is the ability to support my family. If I can’t bring home enough money to feed my family and provide them with what I need, then I am a failure as a man. Where this definition of being a man intersects with hard work is where “Deadliest Catch” lives.

Stories from letters

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t receive at least one email from a guy looking for a job. (This despite our contact page that states we don’t have any job openings on our boat.) The reasons vary but often include the ideas I have talked about so far. I would like to share some letters I have received. This first letter I just got today. Valiant has a wife and young boy and lives in Slovenia. He was born and raised on a small island in the Mediterranean Sea. He spent his adult life working as a waiter, lifeguard and construction worker.

Life here is not easy and we hardly make ends meet month by month, my family is getting hungry and I can not offer my son basic things let alone something more. Almost every night he falls asleep crying his eyes out… and it hurts me and its breaking my heart. I have done many different things in my life to be better to live better, I got a lot of experience down the way, but better life is slipping away always just by an inch.

I want to work as a greenhorn and prove myself and maybe be something more later on…I have been fishing since I was 5, I know how sea behaves, am used to the boats, to cold, wet and long hours… am hardworking and fast learner and I will do my best to satisfy and prove myself to you or anyone who would be willing to hire me!!! (If you can help Valiant, please email him at vali.susak@gmail.com)

Out of the thousands of letters I have received, none have included requests for money. The writers ask only for a job -- for a chance. Here is another:

Hi my name is Jim, I’m currently a roughneck in Pennsylvania (US) (1 yr) i worked on a navy ship for 4 yrs and now id like a shot on the CM i have a 2 yr old daughter and a fiance…. id like to prove myself and show i can do the job…… i know you don’t have any openings but i would like to learn from the best please contact me… at least give me a shot……..

I feel for these men. I have been there -- that place where you’re just looking for a break. Not a hand out, just a way out. It seems no matter how hard you try, you can’t get ahead.

My name is Bobby, i live in portland,tn and i m a 15 year. pipefitter fire sprinler systems and worked wet hard and in food storage freezers at 32 below zero… and there is no work here ive worked out of town for nearly 15 years and would be honored to just work i have a ten year old son to provide for and only work i have now is repairing small engines it doesnt pay the bills please give me a chance and ill make you proud. thank you guys.

Some guys are so desperate to break into the fishing business that they are willing to work for free.

I know you guys get probably thousands of e-mails from people wanting to work, and im no different. I know im not the only one who will say i’ll work for free, but i’d work for a full year FREE… I’d like just one chance.

I feel this is where “Deadliest Catch” provides a disservice. The numbers they place on the screen for deckhand earnings do not take into consideration any expenses.

Recently, I flew back from Alaska and sat next to a fisherman returning from Dutch Harbor. He was a greenhorn and just finished working the recent king crab opening in the Bering Sea. He had just completed six months working on a fishing boat and made essentially nothing. The few thousands that he was paid barely covered his airfare in and out of Dutch Harbor. For the record, the Cornelia Marie does not operate this way. If you work, you get paid.

Many of the letters I receive are not very elegant in their writing style. This doesn’t surprise me, as most of the fishermen I know don’t spend much time on the computer writing. If you wanted to reach Capt. Phil, you could have visited him or called. He didn’t do email, nor did he care about Facebook, twitter and the rest of them. The only computer he used was on the boat. In this letter below, we see it clearly stated, “I want to become a man, a real man!”

Like Jake, l have been an adict, too. and, that is why l feel close to him.will be honest to me to meet the brothers, think we got a lot in common.what is my hope? …be sure that you can save my life,and make my dreams come true. l am 37, and after all mistakes made in past, the only thing l want is to become man.a real MAN!!

Some of the letters are hard to read as many folks around the world have been dealt difficult situations. My heart goes out to all.

I have had folks from all walks of life tell me they would like to “give it a try.” For various reasons, the story of the greenhorn calls. I believe this is why I receive so many letters from folks wanting to go out fishing on the Cornelia Marie. It’s the young man who’s ready to push himself, test his will and gut-check his courage. It’s the unemployed father that finally feels like a man. He couldn’t find work in the new knowledge economy, but he can work miracles with his hands. He’ll bring home the big paycheck and show his son that’s there still a place in the world for a guy like him.

For the record, everything written in this article applies to women as well. I focused on men because they make up nearly 100 percent of the Bering Sea crab fishermen. Of course, women perform and enjoy hard-working jobs. I have a sister who is a professional, full-time welder, and my mother (Cornelia Marie Devlin) was a cannery foreman in Alaska. So take that guys!

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Morgan Howard is the son of Cornelia Marie Devlin, the majority owner of the F/V Cornelia Marie that's been featured on "Deadliest Catch." He was born and raised in Alaska and now lives in Seattle. He serves as a director on two Alaska Native enterprise boards, and he's the founder of Morgan Howard Productions, CorneliaMarie.com and NativeCo.com. His commentary first appeared on his website and is reprinted with his permission.