The short review: In a field glutted with big budget event-based mini-series, Klondike shows that sometimes all that glitters is gold, even if it happens to be surrounded by murder, betrayal, and ravenous packs of wolves.
The long review: With the massive success of big budget, gritty adventure series like Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Da Vinci’s Demons, networks are scrambling to find the next combination of sex, violence, and rich history that will turn a scripted series into ratings gold. As the ratings gold rush heats up, increasingly, these scripted series are no longer the purview of premium channels like HBO, Showtime and Starz; rather, networks like History, A&E, and now Discovery are getting into the game too, which is great news for those of us who used to watch those channels for more than just Ice Road Swamp Log Dynasty Wars and other nonsense being paraded around under the guise of reality television.
Last night marked Discovery’s first foray into scripted series territory with the premiere of Klondike, an epic six-episode, three-part mini-series, executive produced by Ridley Scott, that follows two young men who journey to the North West in order to make their fortune during the great Yukon Gold Rush of the late 1890s. With a cast anchored by Richard Madden (Robb Stark!), Augustus Prew, Abbie Cornish, and Sam Shepard, and dazzling production design, the series has staked its claim as one of the best new shows to hit the airwaves.
Clocking in at nearly two hours, it can be difficult to view Klondike as a TV show when you’re scanning through your DVR late at night; in truth, it feels more like a movie or a sprawling visual novel unfolding over the course of three nights, but such is the plight of the mini-series. Like the trek to the Yukon itself, Klondike is an arduous journey that takes us across bleak, unforgiving landscapes and shoves us into uncomfortably close contact with some of the least scrupulous, most conniving band of brigands and ne’er-do-wells this side of Westeros. And like the trek to the Yukon itself – for some people at least – your patience is rewarded with a compelling, exceedingly charismatic, and tremendously enjoyable coming-of-age story that pulls no punches.
My youth spent playing The Yukon Trail served me well watching last night’s series premiere, as I watched Bill Haskell (Madden) and Byron Epstein make their way to the great, dangerous, promised land of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. My inner child delighted as I saw them encounter familiar characters like Jack London and Soapy Smith and go through the same processes as the game: gearing up, making the treacherous trek over Chilkoot, riding a ramshackle boat over roiling rapids, and finally landing in the lawless frontier burg of Dawson City. My inner child quickly learned it would have to cower behind my inner adult as avalanches left innocent men, women, and children dead, and scam artists lurked around every corner. And, at the end of the two hour ordeal, both of my inner selves couldn’t wait to see more.
One of the premiere’s greatest triumphs is that it doesn’t let itself get bogged down in any one place for too long. Haskell and Epstein are constantly on the move, soldiering on to the next destination on their journey, a wise move that keeps the action moving and prevents the audience from growing too restless. It looks like it must have been a hellacious experience to shoot the damn thing, as we see our heroes pelted by rain, covered in grit and grime, and nearly drowned by whitewater rapids, but suffering for art has paid off in spades for the Klondike crew, because the show looks phenomenal. Clearly, Discovery didn’t want to cheap out on its first scripted series – or “docudrama,” or whatever they’re calling it – and their money was well spent.
Other series like the forthcoming Black Sails are slow to start and suffer from attempting to throw too many characters at the viewer without giving them a chance to figure out for whom they’re supposed to root. Klondike, on the other hand, makes sure we know that this is the story of Bill Haskell and Byron Epstein, two young, fresh-faced men who are determined to make their fortune on the frontiers of the wild West even if it kills them. Sure they’re both unnaturally handsome, but it’s their hardscrabble determination, the intense bonds of friendship and brotherhood between them, and their magnetic attraction to misadventures that makes you want to see their journey through to the likely bitter end. And judging by the content of the first episode, it’s going to be awfully bitter (in the best way possible).
Klondike airs on the Discovery Channel from January 20th – January 22nd. Did you see the episode? Chime in and let us know whether you thought it was a boom or a bust!