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Rev. James Martin, S.J.

Rev. James Martin, S.J.

Posted: July 15, 2010 08:02 PM

They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships: The Death of Capt. Phil Harris

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"They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep" (Psalm 107).

Reality television usually contains little that is real. For some years, The Real World, the progenitor of many American reality shows, has relied on the tired format of throwing together emotionally unstable twentysomethings in predictable mixes (one African-American, one gay man, and one mentally unbalanced young woman) with predictably explosive results. And the ridiculous, hard-bodied, pumped-up and primped-within-an-inch-of-their-life denizens of Jersey Shore are clearly playing to the cameras, angling for careers beyond the "GTL" (gym, tan, laundry) lives they lead for the benefit of the television audiences. (As an aside, any self-respecting beachcomber who's been to Atlantic City and points south knows that it's either "the shore" or "the Jersey shore," never "Jersey shore." This adds to the general unreality of the show.)

So viewers can be forgiven if they ceased to look for reality and reality television.

That's why the latest season of Discovery Channel's terrific Deadliest Catch has proven so surprising. The hit series focuses on the travails of the crab fishermen of Alaska; over the last few years devoted viewers have come to know the hard-bitten crews of the vessels the Cornelia Marie, the Time Bandit, the Northwestern, the Wizard and the Kodiak as they ply the unforgiving Bering Sea during the king and opilio crab seasons. Their work is often described as the "most dangerous job in America," and you can see why as crew members with little to no sleep grapple with heavy equipment on icy decks in rolling seas.

The captains, responsible not only for the safety of the crew but for hauling a hull full of fresh crabs back to port and eking out a living for themselves and their crew, have a strict ethic: Do your job. The crews face severe hardships, frequent illness and occasional injury -- and the threat of drowning. Combined with shots of the turbulent seas, it makes for riveting television. The success of the show has spawned several knockoffs, like Ice Road Truckers and American Loggers. Still, good reality shows are few and far between.

This season, however, Deadliest Catch took an unexpected turn. One of the unlikely "stars" of the show, Capt. Phil Harris, a lavishly tattooed, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, veteran crabber with a big heart, suffered a stroke aboard the Cornelia Marie while in port. His relationships with his two complicated sons, Josh and Jake, who work aboard his ship, and over whom he expresses frustration, love, anger, annoyance and amusement, have been at the heart of the series. According to Entertainment Weekly, Harris told the producers to keep the cameras running, even as he entered the hospital. "We need a great finish to this story," he said. Though seemingly not needing or seeking any publicity, the decision was firmly in keeping with Harris's no-nonsense approach to life: if he agreed to let someone film his life, they would damn well film it. Aboard his crab boat you keep your word or you're booted off at the next port.

It has made for moving, if occasionally uncomfortable, television. So unlike other reality shows, which gin up situations to create fake tension, Deadliest Catch has found real pathos, beyond what any "reality show" could fake, beyond even what the most talented screenwriter could set down on paper.

During the show focusing on Harris's stroke and initial diagnosis, one tough crewmate, in halting but strong terms, told Jake that he needed to be at his father's side in the hospital, not on the ship. (It was a difficult moral choice: Do you attend to your father or do what you think your hardworking father would probably want you to do?)

A recent episode was profound. In between following the other boats as they plowed through the sea in a horrific storm, the producers cut to scenes of Josh and Jake arguing over the best way to care for their father; Jake telling his father that he was checking himself into rehab center after finally admitting his substance abuse problem ("I'm proud of you," said Harris); and the doctors in an Anchorage hospital laboring over the faltering Capt. Phil. This is real reality: complicated, difficult, messy.

Not long before his death in February, Phil Harris whispered an apology to Josh: "I'm sorry I wasn't a better father." His son compassionately brushed off the apology and professed his love for his tough dad. It was a vivid reminder that grace is everywhere: on the Bering Sea, in a hospital bed, and, sometimes, even on television.

James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.