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October 7, 2015

TV 101: 'Gold Rush: Alaska' Has More Drama Than Dancing With the Housewives

by Dr. Ryan Vaughan, PhD (no, seriously), posted Feb 2nd 2011 2:00PM
Gold Rush AlaskaYou think you know drama? You, the guy in his bath robe watching 24 continuous hours of 'Law & Order' and its plethora of offshoots, solving every crime before the first commercial break?

You think you know drama? You, the nice old lady wiling away your twilight years with your soap operas and cats?

You think you know drama? You, the 'Real Housewives' addict praying that someday they will do a 'Real Housewives of Shreveport' so you can show the world what tackiness and entitlement are all about?

Well, you may know each of those specific types of drama, but you don't know real drama until you've seen 'Gold Rush: Alaska,' the reality show that puts them all to shame.

The reason that this humble little show on Discovery Channel carries so much more weight is that there's something pure, something authentic at stake for everyone involved in the show. There are certainly different types of drama, and the most common understanding of the word itself relates to uppity women arguing over who has the best plastic surgery.

But for drama to be gut-wrenching and overwhelming, shocking and humbling, there has to be something real at stake.

'Gold Rush: Alaska' (Fridays, 10PM ET) focuses on the father and son team of Jack and Todd Hoffman and their rag-tag crew of local Oregon buddies. With the recent economic downturn, Jack and Todd decided to leverage everything they own: their business, their families, their lives, to go to Alaska with their crew and mine for gold. Mine for gold? Like, with pans and shovels and those weird, floppy cowboy hats? Isn't that like saying "My car broke down again. I guess I'll just buy a horse to get around"?

The cruel irony of the show is that, sitting right across the creek from their makeshift gold mining camp, sits the home of the most legendary gold miner of all time, a millionaire several times over after 25 years of doing what the Hoffmans plan to do in three months. He must sit on his porch all day just rocking and laughing, washing his hands with little gold nuggets.

But that's just incentive for this crew, who give new meaning to the term "going for broke."

Gold rush AlaskaThe Crew
Old man Jack and his son Todd Hoffman: Think Paul Sr. and Jr. from 'American Chopper' only with a twist. Jack is a renegade miner who's ready to die for gold, while Todd is the more methodical "let's talk this through" kind of miner. Both are equally frustrating to the other, yet wholly committed.

Greg Remsburg: The team foreman. A even-keeled, level-headed guy who's out of work and relying on his parents to keep his family afloat. He, and all these men are banking on the old adage "when you ain't got nothin,' you got nothin' to lose."

James Harness: The team mechanic. Calling this guy a mechanic doesn't do what he does justice. He's more like Mechanite, the Norse God of machines, and he speaks with the gentle eloquence of a more refined origin. With an injury-induced prescription morphine dependency, it's no-brainer to risk everything he has for three months of gold mining in Alaska, right?

Jim Thurber: The safety officer. Jim is a pretty quiet and reserved man, but tested every day on the claim by a team of men who have no idea what they're doing. He also has a mustache that will grant you three wishes if he lets you rub it.

Jimmy Dorsey: The guy who's on the journey so everyone has someone to get mad at. They set him up for the fall, really. In his first appearance on episode one, he's looking through the cupboard for a cup and fumbles it onto the floor. The writing was on the floor. He's fiery and eager to work, but that's what generally gets him in trouble with everyone else.

Mike Halstead: The pastor. He showed up on departure day to bless their trip, and ended up going with them.

Gold Rush Alaska"There isn't one man in America, if he's got anything inside him, wouldn't want to be here with us." There's at least one, for sure, but Jack makes a very central point about the show. A lot of what gets viewers invested is this kind of throwback to an America of yore -- that sense of adventure and risk and will that are allegedly what our country was built on.

It's the only chance they have at making you overlook how impractical, irrational, and misguided it is to do what they're doing. It tempers the impact of the drama, somewhat, when you know they willingly put themselves into this situation. Still, your heart and gut admires them for taking the extreme risk when the last risk you took was ordering onions on your sandwich.

The show is often buoyed by the comedy of errors it affords. Not a scene goes by without someone saying "If we screw this _____ up, this was all for nothing." Literally, everything goes wrong, as will happen when you're inexperienced and on a shoestring budget with the futures of whole families hanging in the balance. They can't even get the equipment to the barge to Alaska without a snafu.

What's inspiring, though, and what arguably makes the show work (outside of some epic blow-ups by Dorsey) is their persistence and optimism in the face of negative circumstances. Every obstacle is addressed and dealt with, even as they are losing thousands of dollars a day as a result. Shaker breaks down, fix it. Bear comes into camp, pee on its bed. Daughter has a seizure because of rotting carcasses in the water supply, airlift her to a hospital. They all hold onto a steadfast hope that's refreshing to see.

The show is not without all of the reality show tricks and ploys. Much of the show feels manufactured, notably the fact that they brought their wives and kids up to Alaska for the trip, making the situation even more dire and desperate. I kept screaming at the TV, "Why would you bring your family up there?! They're just going to eat all the food and whine about bears and the toilet situation!"

Currently on the show, they've been at it for two months with only a few ounces of gold ($3,500) to show for it. The families have gone home, and so has Dorsey, who reached his tipping point and got in a fight with Greg. Now they have to dig deeper and somehow justify wagering everything you have -- and a whole lot you don't have -- to find magic rocks in the ground. Either way, I'm sold.

Yes, it's reality show drama, but it's as pure as you can get with cameras around. People's livelihoods are on the line and that is at once inspiring and befuddling. I would say we could all use a little of that unbridled sense of adventure and desperation to revitalize our country, but these rugged gentlemen already have.

Are you a fan of 'Gold Rush: Alaska' or will you check it out?

Dr. Vaughan teaches English/Media/Humor courses at Binghamton University in upstate New York, and he's a wily veteran. You can also check out his blog or friend him on Facebook.

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in harms way

how much do the miners get paid by the Discovery Channel?

February 12 2011 at 5:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"Uncle Jesse" Jack Hoffman and his cast of driven, fumbling, gold-mining diehards has me locked in every Friday night at 10PM.

I for one hope they succeed despite all their missteps, petty arguments, blind pride, and rock-noggin foolhardiness.

February 12 2011 at 10:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

hey I hope you all find the gold yer lookin for but shouldve thought it out a bit better with someone who could set up your equipment rite the first time , a lot of wasted effort, I dont think saying prayers like that will help at all, may God bless us richly with gold yea I bet god really gonna jump on that one real fast, put your pride in your pocket an go across the river an ask the real gold miner for some ideas. good luck

February 11 2011 at 12:34 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Dumb, violent religious Nutjobs!

February 08 2011 at 9:29 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Thats not old man snable sitting in his rocker across the creek is it

February 07 2011 at 1:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I like the show...its' raw and real..........average Joe's who have made this country great from the day-of-dawn. Like a book..........let's see what's on the next page and hope for a happy ending. Rock on boys.................

February 05 2011 at 11:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

bobparks is a dumb homo

February 05 2011 at 10:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

i imagine bring a woman with you from northern nj or nyc you run out of food, free range chicken, and starbucks coffee of course they would be cold alaska is the last place they do not have 75 percent homo men like sf and nyc. watch the show ladies and get a wide on, then look next to you and see the metro sexual with the 11 inch bicept

February 05 2011 at 10:59 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

There is a certain amount of enjoyment in mining for gold. That's if you do it for recreation. No need to go to Alaska. My son has been mining in North Carolina for years. He says the only person making money is the land owner and the guy operating the backhoe but he still enjoys it.

February 05 2011 at 10:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

++++++++++++++++++ OK> BOO.

February 05 2011 at 10:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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