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?