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On Deadliest Catch & Voyeurism - A Recovering Physicist's Apology

About On Deadliest Catch & Voyeurism

Previous Entry On Deadliest Catch & Voyeurism Jul. 13th, 2010 @ 12:11 am Next Entry
One of my favorite, and I believe most engaging, shows on TV right now is Deadliest Catch on the Discover Channel.  The show chronicles 4-6 crabbing vessels as they venture out into the Bering Sea and fish.  The job is one of the deadliest in America.  Every season people die doing this job.  Part of the original appeal of the show was that the job was so dangerous and every episode some horrible things nearly or actually happen.  People have been swept off of deck (and recovered), had fingers broken, but no one that the show directly follows has died.

As the seasons progressed, and you get over your initial shock of just how brutal and dangerous going out and fishing is; you begin to grow attached to the human beings that do the work.  They are not characters or the abstract "bad asses" that you originally thought.  You learn of Keith's battle to quit chewing tobacco with his daughter's frequent pep talk phone calls and hand made anti-chewing propaganda posters in his wheel house.  You see Edgar and Scotty's struggles to be good fathers despite being absent most of the year.  You see the interpersonal triumphs and fall outs.  You grow to love these people not as characters on a TV show, but as human beings.  I know reality TV is all the buzz, but somehow this feels more real.  It captures humanity at its most tired, desperate, and joyous.  Deadliest Catch is a picture into amazing people, and also what it means to be human.  And, although surrounded by death, no one has ever died on the show.  This season that changed. 

One of the captains, Phil Harris, passes due to complications of a stroke he suffered while offloading his boat.  Because he passed with the camera crew on the ship, the cameras followed him to the hospital, through his partial recover, and (tonight) his passing.  I have found watching this season--knowing as I do that he will die (the crabbing season actually takes place in January--difficult.  At times, I have found the show too painful to watch, at times it felt to voyeuristic.  Now that I can name all the men that work on the Cornelia Marie, I suddenly do not feel that I have the right to watch them in this their grimmest of times.  Somehow knowing them (as much as one can know another through the medium) I feel I owe them their privacy.  I feel I owe them the distance and separation that the show does not afford them.  Part of the reason is that the show follows them only when they are on the boat, we only hear from the crew what is happening back at dock, or when they are not fishing, so the show is about their life at work.  It is not, it seems, about their life as a whole.  So when the cameras left the Cornelia Marie and traveled to Anchorage to Phil's hospital room, somehow it felt wrong.  It felt like I--and I do mean "I" here, as lived vicariously through the lens--was following him; was breaking the covenant that I only watch him while he works.  I only know him through his work.  It felt like I was invading a world that I was not supposed to see, his private space and the life of his family.

I struggle with the difference between documenting events and engaging in voyeurism.  I have always felt Deadliest Catch (and the Discovery Channel in general) has balanced those roles.  When there was a death in Jake's family, the crew did not film the phone call the young deckhand received.  We heard him wailing through a wall, but he was given, to some degree, a moment of distance from the lenses--as much privacy as any ship can provide.  I don't know if I will watch tonight's episode, or watch it all the way through.  I liked Phil.  I can say that honestly.  Which seems odd to say about someone I've never actually met, but I liked him.  I am deeply saddened that he passed.  I am saddened whenever I hear that someone has died, of course, but that is kind of an abstract pain.  A kind of sadness that a fellow human is gone, this is different.  I am sad because someone I feel as if I knew is gone.  Perhaps I knew him, perhaps I didn't, but I feel as if I did, and, in this case, that is all that matters.  And it is because of that feeling of familiarity that I now am not sure if I can or even should watch Phil's final episode, because, in the end, it isn't Phil's final episode.  It is the final moments of his life.  He's not going to come back in the surprise twist at the end of the season.  The show remains about actual humanity and actual human beings, and, unlike being voted off the island or not getting a rose, Phil's last episode is about the last moments of his life rather than his last moments in front of the camera before returning to a world where the cameras do not follow.

So I return to my misgivings, do I have the right to see that?
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From:superpastelgirl
Date:July 13th, 2010 08:24 pm (UTC)
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I totally understand, and I guess I feel like no one (including you) has the right to see this. This is sort of the opposite problem that I have with most reality TV: that it isn't really reality, it's just an unrealistic scenario involving real people. It's glorifying entertainment by calling it reality. This is trivializing reality by calling it entertainment. It should be a personal moment with his family, not a TV show, and there's no way it can be both. Observer effect is too large to ignore in these cases.
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From:biggrumpy
Date:July 15th, 2010 06:25 pm (UTC)
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I ended up watching the After the Catch to see what happened there. It was really well done, so I watched the episode of Deadliest Catch. I was really surprised at how well they handled the issue. The majority of the episode was about the fleet, and not about Phil. The episode is entitled "Redemption" and it actually was about that. Prior to being hospitalized one of Phil's son's, Jake, admitted he had a drug problem. Phil told him that he had to get treatment. One of the things that happens in the episode is that Jake leaves for a rehab facility. His father is lucid and understands his decision, telling him that he loves him and is proud of him. It was wonderful to know that Phil did not die not knowing if his son would get help. The episode focused on the broken bonds that are created from doing the job and being family, and the redemption of bringing those bonds back together--not just with Phil's boat and family but the other boats as well. It wasn't really about Phil's death, but rather the unity of an often dysfunctional family (when the show even put the lenses on the Harris family at all). The episode ends with Josh calling Jake telling him that they lost their father. So, much of their grief and pain is still hidden and separate from the world.

Still, I'm not sure if I had the right to watch the show. Even though, as David points out below and was confirmed on the After the Catch show, Phil wanted the cameras running. Yet, there is something to be said that the show was focused on the coherence and reunion of a family on the brink of collapse.

I need to give it time to think it over.
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From:willwrite4books
Date:July 14th, 2010 02:59 am (UTC)
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Your post compelled me to look into the show, as it sounds interesting. Perhaps this excerpt from E! concerning tonight's episode will help (I hate to even use E! as a source considering I agree with the content of your post regarding reality TV, but there it is):

"Before anyone cries exploitation, know that it was the skipper himself who requested that the cameras keep rolling inside his hospital room. According to son Josh, who talked about his dad on The Tonight Show Monday, Harris knew that his struggle was going to make for 'good TV.'"
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From:biggrumpy
Date:July 15th, 2010 06:12 pm (UTC)
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The show now has an after show called, conveniently enough, "After the Catch" which takes place several months after the actual crabbing season. The main people gather and just kind of shoot the breeze. It is cool to see them in a more "real" setting, since most of the show you see them overworked, exhausted, and very heavily caffeinated. It's cool to seem them as normal people too.

This episode they had a camera man on that was stationed on Phil's boat. When Phil had his first medical troubles two-three seasons ago it was this camera guy that really watched over him and helped get him through it until they could get to port and medical help. The camera guy was also the one who went to the hospital this time when Phil had his stroke. Phil wrote on a piece of paper after the initial surgery that he wanted him to continue filming so that "the story had an ending". The camera guy (sorry I don't know his name) said that was really a big deal because Phil didn't understand at first that they weren't making "home movies" that the documentary was looking to tell a story and a story needs a beginning, middle, and end. So for Phil so want him to film meant a lot to him.

I also think there was an element of redemption in Phil's choice. A lot of the time on the show he is yelling at his kids because, as their captain, he has to be hard on them and doubly so because he's their father. I think that always kind of bugged him based on the After the Catch segments, that many of the moments that are externalized on film are him angry or his kids pushing his buttons. I think he also wanted his children to know that he loved them and for that to be forever remembered on film.
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