Dir. Simon Cellan Jones, 2014
Discovery Channel’s first scripted historical drama, Klondike, premieres Monday, January 20. The miniseries comprises three episodes totalling six hours, and will unfold over three consecutive evenings, from Monday January 20 to Wednesday January 22.
There’s already a lot of buzz about the show, mainly revolving around its lead actor, Richard Madden, who is perhaps best known as his Game of Thrones character, Robb Stark—Twitter is full of King of the North jokes and fangirl professions of undying love to the dashing Scotsman in anticipation of Klondike’s premiere. Even the few tweets that aren’t about Madden reveal a generally positive vibe surrounding the miniseries.
Such a positive vibe is certainly warranted given how exceptionally good Klondike looks on paper. The series boasts a bevy of charismatic, strong actors, including Abbie Cornish (Limitless, Sucker Punch), Sam Shepard (Black Hawk Down, Swordfish), Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs, Lie to Me), Ian Hart (Nothing Personal, Luck) and Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Though?, Lincoln), to say nothing of the big names on the production side, including executive producer Ridley Scott (Ridley Scott!) and director Simon Cellan Jones (Generation Kill, Treme). If its cast and crew aren’t indication enough, Klondike’s breathtaking sets—shot on location in Alberta, Canada—and strong marketing—primarily, the loaded interactive show website at Discovery.com*—suggest what I can only imagine is an enormous budget.
Of course, money does not equal quality. While the series is well-acted and visually stunning, its script suffers at times from laughably clichéd dialogue and drama. The first episode, in which best friends Bill Haskell (Richard Madden) and Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew) decide to go to the Klondike with ‘nothing in their pockets but hope,’ is particularly painful. If you manage to survive the trek through the first episode, however, it does get easier. While many viewers—particularly Discovery regulars—might be put off by the series’ weakness for simple, soapy melodrama, they will likely be equally enthralled by Klondike’s wonderfully crafted, atmospheric sets and costumes, as well as its breathtaking wide shots of mountain-fringed snowy vistas. At times the bleak, blue-tinged images of hopeful hordes traipsing through snow are remarkably reminiscent of the photographs one might find in a history book on the Gold Rush.
I am in no position to substantiate claims that Klondike is very well-researched, but I can at least confirm that on a visual level it feels authentic and may even evoke a feeling in the viewer somewhat like that experienced during a school trip to a heritage museum. While the series is based on several real-life people, including Jack London (Johnny Simmons), Belinda Mulrooney (Abbie Cornish), Father Judge (Sam Shepard), and Soapy Smith (Tim Blake Nelson), it closes with an admission that its stories are only loosely based on the lives of such people.
In the age of “reality TV” I realize that most people are at least familiar with the idea that any photographic image is incapable of truly replicating reality. No matter how pure the intentions of the person behind the camera, any image captured to film is constructed by the author’s choices, which include framing and subject, among other things. A potential problem that Discovery may face with Klondike is that they are expected to tell a historically accurate story, and while Klondike is based in history, it is very clearly a fictional drama. Discovery makes no bones about this in its online marketing materials (which again I must say are truly entertaining and informative), but viewers unfamiliar with the series’ full production history might expect more from it; as a result, they might be disappointed to discover that they’ve spent six hours watching a fictional melodrama.
I expect that Klondike will find its ideal audience in viewers who enjoy historical dramas but are not sticklers for historical accuracy and fine details. Laid-back history hobbyists who enjoy antiques and atmosphere will likely quite enjoy what the show has to offer. And of course, Richard Madden fans will appreciate the ample screen time devoted to their favourite King of the North.
*Editor’s note, March 6 2014: Sadly the website appears to have been taken down. The one that rose in its place still contains some fun extras, but it is not as exciting or informative as the initial site.
This review was originally written for Thick Magazine and is reposted here with their generous permission.