Reality television is a term thrown around a little too loosely nowadays. As long as a camera is rolling, and some person is willing to do something deemed interesting, then you have the recipe for TV success. The truth is that the majority of reality television is engaging, entertaining and even educational, but the “real” part is secondary.
Discovery Channel’s Yukon Men, which airs Friday nights at 10 p.m., is the real deal of reality television. This brutal, often difficult-to-watch series looks unflinchingly at a community in Tanana, Alaksa — a community simultaneously surrounded by vivid life and constant danger. Several of the decisions made by the folks in this small town are questionable, perhaps even wrong. The power of the disclaimer that runs before each episode is evident: The series, quite simply, details a rugged lifestyle where hunting and trapping is necessary to survive.
I’ve never been to Alaska. I’ve never endured sustained temperatures in the negative degrees. I’ve never looked in the freezer and watched the caribou meat dwindle to a few remaining pieces. This makes me different than these men, all of whom seem like good people with the community’s best interests at heart. This push-pull of respect for their lifestyle and revulsion over so much spilled blood is what makes Yukon Men must-see television.
Watching these two father-son teams is eye-opening. Subsistence living is the polar opposite (pun intended) of what most people in the United States experience on a daily basis. But in Tanana, there doesn’t appear to be any franchises like Domino’s or McDonald’s. There doesn’t appear to be any Cheesecake Factories or readily accessible brand names like GAP, Abercrombie & Fitch and Gucci. Instead, there’s a community of a few hundred people, tucked up against the North Pole, living on a river that overflows its banks and causes both life and death on a seasonal basis.
In the span of a few episodes, the new Discovery show has displayed a caribou hunt, wolf hunt, geese hunting, trapping of animals for fur, an unfortunate death of a loved one on the river, a community facing no water, families facing no food or money, and a ton of snow and icy water. This is ruggedness to its core. There may be some “playing to the camera” in other shows, but that doesn’t appear to be the case with Yukon Men.
But even though the series shows how the people of Tanana are different from so many other towns, it’s the similarities that leave a lasting impression. Even in the cold wilderness of Alaska there are fathers willing to teach theirs sons a few lessons about life. There’s good people relying on the help of one another. There’s the need to mourn the dead. There are chores for the young, responsibilities for the adults, and natural beauty for as far as the eye can see (this last one may be unique to Alaska).
Yukon Men may turn off many viewers, and there are several scenes that are downright cringeworthy. Watching a beautiful lynx get stuck in a trap and then face the end of its life, all to make some money off its fur, just doesn’t seem right. But, again, this is reality television. We’re supposed to appreciate some things, question others, and ultimately be glad that such unfiltered access is still available on the airwaves. But as Stan Zuray says in the show, the trapping and hunting is not a sporting event. It’s all about food. It’s all about survival.
It may be hard to love, but Yukon Men is the best new reality show of the year. Why? Because it’s actual reality television. If the cameras weren’t rolling, these men would still be combating nature and fine-tuning their survivalist traditions in the middle of the beautiful nowhere.
By John Soltes / Publisher / [email protected]