The distorted reality of Alaska reality shows
The 49th state is quickly approaching a point where it has more reality shows than salmon — and there are a lot of salmon up here. Unfortunately, the call of the wild, ratings dreams and tax credits haven’t always attracted Hollywood’s finest.
When the reporting staff of AlaskaDispatch.com sat down one day to rank the 10 worst Alaska reality shows, there was no problem coming up with contenders. The difficulty came in deciding which was the worst among the bad.
About the only reality show that looks real to the people who live here is “Deadliest Catch,” which has picked up 10 Emmys in nine seasons. Most of the rest do a spectacular job of misrepresenting the state and the people who call it home. Some, like “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” are fake, fake, fake. Others, such as “Wild West Alaska,” make us look like deranged misfits. And then there is “Alaska Moose Men,” which would be better if it were about creatures who are half-human, half-moose, as its title suggests.
Into this mix now comes MTV’s planned reality series “Slednecks.” Segments being screened for advertisers are reported to feature snow-machine riders (snowmobile riders, for you in the Lower 48) crashing, arguing and jumping into a frozen lake through a hole in the ice. There will no doubt be plenty of backwoods beer-drinking, bear-fearing and beard-sporting, too, for people who haven’t gotten enough from the other Alaska shows.
Whatever reality “Slednecks” depicts, it will probably have little to do with how most Alaskans live. Alaska isn’t as wild and crazy as seen on TV.
“Any other place you go, any place down south, it’s all been mapped, logged, hiked, game-managed,” Marty Raney, a cast member of “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” claimed in a New York Daily News interview. “In Alaska, if you go a mile off a road almost anywhere in the state, you’re putting your foot on ground that has never been walked before by any human being. Ever.”
Truth be told, if you go a mile off the road in most places, aside from where the road goes through federally protected lands, you’re probably trespassing in someone’s yard. Beyond a mile, the state gets wilder, but it’s all been mapped and trodden, and Alaskans are game-managing the hell out of it. We’re busy killing wolves and bears to help “grow more moose,” as the Alaska Moose Men would say. Though sometimes when we want big game, we just farm it. When “Wild West Alaska” went on a wild elk hunt, the stars scrambled into a floatplane at Lake Hood in Anchorage and made a short hop across Cook Inlet — to a place where the only elk are at the farm where the hunt was staged.
The average Alaskan is more at home in or near civilization than in the wild, though you wouldn’t know it from watching “Life Below Zero.” That’s the show in which Sue Aikens lives “all alone” at the Kavik River Camp — except for the film crew, the Internet connection and the many visitors who drop in to go hunting, fishing or hiking. She’s a rarity.
More than half of Alaska’s 730,000 residents live in Anchorage or just north in suburbs known as the Valley. (Former governor and Wasilla mayor Sarah Palin grew up a Valley girl.) Add in the people of Fairbanks and Juneau, the capital, and you’ve captured two-thirds of the state population.
Wild Alaska does sometimes interject itself — it’s not unusual to spot a moose, or even a bear, in Anchorage — but at the foot of the awe-inspiring mountains is a pretty mundane landscape, with sprawling subdivisions of cookie-cutter houses, plenty of fast-food restaurants and the usual big-box stores.
Of course, crazy people doing crazy things in crazy places makes for better TV. So the Alaska reality programs play up the freak-show aspects. “Hitch a risky ride along with the Ice Road Truckers as they drive headlong into bone-chilling danger,” hypes “Ice Road Truckers.” Experience “forty-foot waves, hurricane force winds, heavy-machinery and massive icebergs,” proclaims “Deadliest Catch.” And “Bering Sea Gold” promises everything “from possible jail time to injury and even death.”
It’s true that the real Alaska sometimes kills people. Witness Timothy Treadwell, star of the documentary “Grizzly Man,” who, along with his girlfriend, was eaten by a bear. Or Chris McCandless, subject of the book and movie “Into the Wild,” who starved to death near Denali National Park. This is real, not reality.
On Alaska reality TV, cut to a commercial, and somehow everyone is always fine when the show returns. Producers don’t want to assume liability for someone being seriously injured or actually dying on set. They employ safety officers to make sure that doesn’t happen. “Ultimate Survival” is even rumored to use stunt doubles for some of its trickier shoots. Although the Season 2 trailer for “Bering Sea Gold” featured mourners and implied that a character had died while underwater, mining for gold, it turned out that 26-year-old John Bunce had, sadly, committed suicide. Suicide is a serious issue in Alaska, which has one of the highest suicide rates of any state. The reasons are complicated and unfortunately don’t make for good TV.
MTV’s “Slednecks” appears ready to follow the same formula as many of the shows that have come before it: tracking a cohort of the Alaska population naturally inclined to engage in risky activities in some of the wilder parts of the state. The show borrows its title from Alaska slang for someone who spends a lot of time on a snow machine and doesn’t care about much else. The term used to be considered pejorative — something greenies mumbled under their breath about those people on powerful, noisy machines shattering the great white silence. But young snow machiners have embraced it, marketing outdoor gear under the Slednecks brand and posting videos of their stunts at Slednecks.com. You can go there to watch them launch themselves off mountaintops into big, big air.
Alaskans are likely to find MTV’s version of Slednecks as unreal as most of the rest of the crop of reality shows. Then again, nothing would make the state happier than a hit show promoting the joys of snow. It would be a big boost to Alaska’s economy if some of the many tourists who overrun the state each summer came north in the winter to enjoy Seward’s Icebox.
Medred is a reporter for Alaska Dispatch.