The two leads of Klondike, Discovery’s miniseries about the 1890s Alaskan gold rush, are having a tough time. In just one episode, Bill (Richard Madden from Game of Thrones) and Byron (Augustus Prew) get creamed by an avalanche, thrown off a white-water raft, and chased by wolves. And that’s all before they encounter anti-Semitism and Sam Shepard’s crazy hair. The pair eventually finds some of those shiny nuggets, but, to paraphrase the Notorious B.I.G. 100 years later, the more money they come across, the more problems they see. It’s hard out there for an old-timey gold miner.
Klondike is the network’s first foray into scripted drama, and the three-part series’s première on Jan. 20 attracted 3.4 million viewers, the channel’s largest-ever Monday prime-time audience. Co-produced by director Ridley Scott, Klondike is a fictionalized companion to the network’s other gold mining hits, Gold Rush, Bering Sea Gold, and Jungle Gold, which feature real-life miners dredging their way through Alaska, South America, Africa, and the Pacific Ocean. (Jungle Gold’s second season was cut short after the cast and crew had to flee Ghana following an attack by an armed militia.)
Gold Rush, the most popular of the three, averages more than 3 million viewers per episode and is the No. 1 cable TV show on Friday nights. The men on Gold Rush are burly, weathered, and amusingly aggrieved. Their equipment constantly breaks down, their trucks continually get stuck in the mud, and gold is elusive. The show is slow—there’s a lot of sitting around and sweating—yet weirdly watchable. The most compelling character is Parker Schnabel, a 19-year-old Alaskan descended from a long line of miners, who heads a team in the Klondike. Schnabel used his college money to buy the huge equipment necessary to mine—an excavator and a sluice, the narrow machine that sifts the gold from the dirt and water—and he’s heading for a haul of about $1 million this season, or more than 800 ounces of gold. (Much of that money will be eaten up by labor and rental costs, but Gold Rush isn’t interested in such mundane details.) In a recent episode, Schnabel was forced to fire a crew member who forgot to turn off a spigot connected to the sluice, resulting in hours of wasted effort. “This isn’t going to work,” Schnabel, grim-faced and firm, told the other young man. Executives could learn a thing about effective management from this kid.
Finding gold is a deeply American fantasy, and Discovery is savvy to double down (quadruple down?) on it. “We’d been looking for a way to get into scripted,” says Christo Doyle, an executive producer on Klondike and Gold Rush. “It seemed like a very natural thing to piggyback off the success of Gold Rush.” Gold mining shows, Doyle adds, appeal to those who’d like to bust free from their cubicle-dwelling lives: young men who dream of traveling north but have to settle for watching it in HD. The crews work in harsh conditions for three months but generally make enough to last them the rest of the year; they live simply, focused entirely on scouring the earth for that precious metal. When they do find it—sparkly, almost glowing—it’s impossible not to feel a vicarious thrill.
In Klondike, Bill and Byron head to Alaska after graduating from Columbia, intent on living adventurously. Gold mining, Bill says, will fulfill their entrepreneurial ambition of “no boss, no time clock, just us.” (Byron isn’t so sure. “That’s some s---ass hard work,” he replies, causing me to Google “Did they use the term s---ass in 1897?” The results are pending.) These are particularly macho stories, and the ratings, which skew heavily male, reflect that. But Doyle says he hopes Discovery’s gold mining series will soon cross gender lines. I mention that I really liked a Gold Rush plotline in which a mining team in Guyana finds diamonds in its sluice. “Maybe that’s how to get more female viewers,” he says. Eureka.