There's a reality TV show about Alaska I need you to watch or record on Sunday.
OK, I know. Another show about Alaska? No thank you! I understand; that's exactly what I said when I first heard about it. But when I finally watched, I was so surprised that I'm still surprised I loved it so much. Stick with me and I'll tell you why it's worth your time.
Yes, more than two dozen reality shows–that's when I stopped counting–have been filmed in Alaska, from exceptional series such as “Deadliest Catch” to phony trash like “Alaskan Bush People.” Both are on the Discovery Channel, showing the range of possibility even one one channel.
Many other networks, from National Geographic to Animal Planet, have gotten into the Alaska game. There are competitions, such as “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” and shows that just follow people living their lives, such as “Life Below Zero,” which concluded its most recent season with its star being severely injured. Sarah Palin even had her own Alaska-set show produced by Mark Burnett, the man behind “The Voice” and “Survivor.”
Television producers and networks are drawn by the state's gorgeous natural landscape, dynamic residents, and generous tax incentives that can pay more than a third of a production's budget. But still, there are too many now for me to find them interesting. They blend together, and the saturation has made even the good ones fade from my attention. When it debuted seven weeks ago, Animal Planet's “The Last Alaskans” seemed like just another show, at least on paper. This one follows four families living in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But one look at the footage and the editing proves that it's different.
Just watch this clip:
That's stunning, isn't it? As the camera lingers on the white, frigid landscape, framing the people who live there? Or what about when the camera lifts up through the frozen, snow-covered trees — thanks to a drone, not a disruptive helicopter, which also shows us the stunning view from overhead? Or just listens as the family tells us what's happening in their lives?
It's electrifying but subtle, full of life yet almost as frozen as the landscape.
Why is “The Last Alaskans” so different than all the other shows before it? Why is it truly worthy your time? Because the network and producers decided to do the opposite of what most reality TV shows do. It's not just different than other Alaska-set shows, but it bucks the general trend in reality television to save money and time and bow to network pressure by coaching cast members, dumbing things down, and force-feeding viewers.
On “The Last Alaskans,” there is no narration. The music is ethereal and quiet. The show is so quiet it might be the quietest reality show on television. The pace is slow and doesn't over-dramatize; life there is dramatic enough on its own. In short, it perfectly captures life for these families, who live in remote cabins.
Audiences noticed, thankfully, as did critics. (Here's my full review.) Thanks to that reception, the series has been renewed for a second season even before its first season ends.
The finale airs Sunday night, but Animal Planet will marathon the entire first season starting at 1 p.m. ET and concluding after the season finale, which ends at 9:03 p.m. ET. Give it a shot and tell me what you think!
I hope those nine hours will surprise you like they surprised me. They prove that both Alaska-set reality television–and reality TV in general–can be beautiful, thoughtful, serene, and absolutely engaging. And I hope they set an example for other shows ahead. Not that we need more Alaska shows like this, no. But that by focusing on reality, unscripted television can produce great art.