The concept of Discovery's crab fishing show is inherently morbid—watch a job so dangerous people are killed. That's always been the sly, perverse promise. And now death has come to the show and we feel horrible.
Yesterday gruff but lovable Phil Harris, 53, the captain of the Alaskan fishing boat the Cornelia Marie, died of complications from a stroke he suffered last month while his crew was unloading crab. Since Deadliest Catch films in the winter and follows the Cornelia Marie's commercial activity, camera crews were likely there to catch it on film. Harris was one of the handful of colorful bosses that the show follows around the Bering Sea as they hunt for pots full of crusty red shells. He was a hot-headed, loud-mouthed chain smoker who was as quick to laugh at his crew — his surrogate family — as he was to yell at them for fucking up something simple on the job. His crew was also a real family. His two feuding sons, Jake and Josh (to his right in the photo), were deckhands on the vessel, and he often had to step in and firmly but lovingly decide their petty squabbles.
But none of this is the reason why we watched the show in the first place, but it was what kept us entertained week after week. It's just like NASCAR. Fans learn all about the cars and drivers and watch them circling around the track again and again in a hopeless repetition, saying the love the sport, but what they're really waiting for is the crash. It is the same with Deadliest Catch, where each episode is deceptively routine — the ships go out, place their bait, and either celebrate when they catch crab or mourn when they don't — but when something goes amiss it goes horribly spectacularly amiss.
The conditions on the boats are brutal. The weather is freezing, it is almost always dark, and the rain and show pelt the workers whose shifts regularly last more than 24 hours. Add storms and complex equipment to the cold and fatigue and it is a recipe for disaster. Yes, that is why we watch. To see people do a job so horrible most of us wrapping ourselves in a cardigan in our cubicles could never imagine it. It is so bad people die! That is what we are promised and that is what the show's producers kept hinting for us to return for: one day the statistics say a deckhand would make an easy mistake and get mangled by a deck machine, a boat woulc catch a rogue wave and fling a fisher overboard, or a novice greenhorn would fall into the crab tank and as the freezing salty water weights down his body, the captive crab claw at his garments, trapping him in a frigid, final embrace. This is the Faces of Death suggestion of the show's intro. And each season, tragedy and rescues would happen to someone else: vessels trapped on the rocks rescued by Coast Guard helicopters. But it never happened to one of the five ships the show regularly charts and that the audience has come to know very well.
But this isn't how it was supposed to happen. Long-time viewers weren't surprised by Harris' illness at the end of January that eventually lead to his death. In season four he had to return home when he started coughing up blood on the ship. Doctors ordered he skip the rest of the fishing season, and he returned for last year's fifth season, a little worse for wear but still smoking and cursing a blue streak. And now Phil is dead and we are sad. While waiting for some horrible death to come for some red shirt minor cast member, it was one of our favorites who died instead. Phil was like your awesome great uncle that you knew well but only saw at family holidays and you don't think about him all that much, but now that he's gone, the holidays will never be the same again. We'll actually miss him.
Discovery promised us something akin to the modern gladiator ring, where macho men fight nature and each other and occasionally we get to see a grizzly death. It delivered, but what we got instead was an insightful human drama about the people who toil on the ends of the earth and the struggles they go through to keep a family—surrogate or otherwise—together. Now that death has come for the Deadliest Catch, we are seized with a strange emotion. It's not morbid fascination, it's actual mourning.