Tag Archives: Discovery Channel

Discovery hits pay dirt with epic Klondike

Discovery Channel makes its first foray into dcripted drama with the miniseries 'Klondike.'

Bill Haskell (Richard Madden, right) and Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew) make their tortuous way up Alaska’s Chilkoot Pass on their way to the Canadian Yukon in ‘Klondike,’ premiering Monday on Discovery Channel.


Klondike, which premieres this Monday-Wednesday, Jan. 20-22, on Discovery Channel, signals its epic intentions right from the get-go. The opening credits for the three-part, six-hour miniseries – Discovery’s first foray into scripted drama – strongly evoke HBO’s massive fantasy series Game of Thrones, right down to composer Adrian Johnston’s propulsive music.
That makes sense, I guess, since the main character in this sprawling chronicle of the last great Gold Rush in North America is played by Richard Madden. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, the Scottish actor starred in Thrones as Robb Stark, the King of the North, before his character was written out last season (in the worst! wedding! ever!).
In Klondike, Madden portrays Bill Haskell, a recent college graduate (class of 1897) who’s persuaded by his best friend, Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew), to postpone a business career in favor of striking out across the American frontier in quest of adventure and fortune in the gold fields of the Canadian Yukon. Their journey takes them up steep, snow-covered mountain passes fraught with avalanches and down icy whitewater rapids before the pair reach the mining town of Dawson City.
Situated in the Canadian wilderness near Bonanza Creek, the current hotspot for gold-hunters, this thriving frontier town, ironically dubbed “the Paris of the North,” makes Deadwood, S.D., look like Mayberry. Riddled with corruption, bigotry and any of the seven deadly sins you’d care to name, it brings out the worst in most of its residents. As Klondike unfolds, bodies go into the ground far more frequently than gold comes out of it, and the few miners who strike precious ore immediately become the targets of such truly heinous villains as Soapy Smith (Ian Hart), who preys on the misfortunes of others, and The Count (Tim Roth), a possibly insane Brit with a working-class accent and a ready willingness to murder his adversaries in cold blood.
After their harrowing journey across country, the partnership of Bill and Byron turns out to be shockingly short-lived, leaving a cash-strapped Bill to work their claim alone as he obsessively tries to uncover the identity of a killer among the Bonanza Creek miners. As months pass, he forges alliances with Goodman (Greg Lawson), a world-weary war veteran; taciturn miner Joe Meeker (Tim Blake Nelson, giving the most endearing performance in the miniseries); and Belinda Mulrooney (Abbie Cornish), a resourceful local businesswoman.
Using Charlotte Gray’s book Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike as his primary source material, writer Paul Scheuring – who, quite unbelievably, was the guy behind that truly terrible ABC drama series Zero Hour with Anthony Edwards from last season – has crafted a teleplay that is taut and sharply focused, deftly sidestepping the soapy melodrama too many historical dramas slide into. Among his relatively minor stumbles, an 11th-hour tragedy involving a main character is telegraphed with a heavy hand, and a Dawson City parade in the final moments – which bizarrely evokes HBO’s New Orleans drama Treme – feels tacked on just to give the audience a feel-good moment after all the bleakness.
Performances are generally excellent across the board, with the charismatic Madden handling a pitch-perfect American accent while subjecting himself to all manner of challenging physical ordeals. Cornish walks a fine line in showing both Belinda’s toughness and her vulnerability and Sam Shepard is admirably unsentimental yet compassionate as Dawson City’s resident priest, Father William Henry Judge.
I also want to single out New Zealand actor Marton Csokas for his heartfelt portrayal of conscience-stricken Superintendent Sam Steele, a Mountie character stuck in a subplot that, alas, feels somewhat dragged in from another movie.
Even without its other virtues, Klondike would score several points simply based on degree of difficulty. Directed by Simon Cellan Jones, the production wasn’t filmed on soundstages, but either out in the staggering natural wonders of Calgary, Canada, or within sets especially constructed out in the middle of nowhere. Buildings look convincingly weather-beaten and costumes look worn and lived in, adding to the verisimilitude.
In sum, Klondike isn’t just a success on its own terms, but it also leaves me eager to see what other, similar forays into scripted television Discovery Channel may make in the months to come. For now, job well done.
Abbie Cornish plays Dawson City businesswoman Belinda Mulrooney in 'Klondike' on Discovery Channel.

Abbie Cornish stars as Belinda Mulrooney in ‘Klondike.’

Guardians at the gate

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Rahm Emanuel
And you thought your job was all-consuming.
The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, an absorbing two-part, four-hour Discovery Channel TV event premiering tonight and concluding Thursday, takes an unprecedented and insightful look at the men who have occupied what many regard as the second most powerful position in politics: White House Chief of Staff.
The person who holds this job has virtually unrestricted access to the president of the United States as his chief advisor and confidant, yet with that power comes attendant splitting headaches. In these four hours, we get quite a candid earful from all 20 living White House chiefs of staff, as well as exclusive interviews with two former presidents, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.
All the former chiefs seem to agree that perhaps the most challenging aspect of this high-profile job is its sheer relentlessness. Most of them say they usually got up no later than 5 a.m., but then, after a wall-to-wall work schedule at the White House, they would take the job home with them. Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, says he usually would leave his office around 7:30 p.m., then takes calls all the way home and during dinner with his family and even while reading bedtime stories to his children. More often than not, he then would be awakened during the night to respond to another emergency.
Donald Rumsfeld, President Gerald Ford’s first chief of staff, says he served as “a heat shield for the president,” while Leon Panetta, President Bill Clinton’s second chief of staff, says “You’ve gotta be the S.O.B. who basically tells somebody what the president can’t tell them,” adding that a chief also has to be prepared to stand up to an angry president – and in the case of some of Clinton’s famous “purple rages,” that took some real backbone.
Small wonder, then, that the average White House chief of staff lasts about a year and a half on the job (the modern record is five years).
“I was 29 years old and I felt 59,” recalls Jim Jones, President Lyndon Johnson’s second chief of staff.
While a White House chief of staff may acquire several migraines and an occasional ulcer on the job, however, he also inevitably picks up some great stories and, while there are few if any actual revelations divulged for the first time in this Discovery Channel presentation, there are still moments of drama, humor and even poignancy in revisiting key moments in modern American history from the perspective of the guy who was, often literally, sitting next to the president.
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James Baker (right) with President Ronald Reagan

In like fin

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There are no sharknadoes in the immediate forecast, but that doesn’t mean Discovery Channel’s Shark Week 2013, which begins tonight on the cable channel, isn’t packed with entertainment.
The 26th annual incarnation of this long-running ratings blockbuster includes an unprecedented 11 shark-themed episodes this year, as well as a promising new feature: Shark After Dark, a one-hour late-night talk show hosted by comic Josh Wolf and airing each night during Shark Week. Viewers can interact with the program via Twitter as Wolf welcomes guests ranging from celebrities to shark experts and even shark attack survivors.
Tonight’s schedule opens with Air Jaws: Beyond the Breach, the latest in the series that features gasp-inducing footage of Great White sharks leaping from the water in pursuit of prey, as a documentary crew goes behind the scenes to explore how the TV specials have changed our understanding of these creatures, as well as offering viewers a sneak peek at Finding Colossus, the next Air Jaws special scheduled to air during Shark Week 2014.
Next, a crew of scientists and other shark experts examines evidence recovered from a rash of shark attacks off the coast of South Africa to test one controversial theory that the massive shark responsible for these fatalities might be a 60-foot relative of the Great White that is one of the largest, most powerful predators in history. The working title for this special is Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives.
Monday night’s double bill starts with Return of Jaws, which introduces a robot submarine called Shark Cam that tracks sharks, following Great Whites as they live and hunt off the shores of Cape Cod (the setting for the Jaws feature films). That’s followed by one of my favorite new offerings in this Shark Week: Voodoo Sharks, a special that explores how Bull Sharks have moved from oceans and coastal waters into the bayous of Louisiana. These “voodoo sharks,” as local shrimp fishermen have christened the creatures, are able to live in both fresh and salt water, and they’re turning up by the hundreds in new areas where they previously never ventured. Spooked residents of the area also insist that there’s an even bigger shark lurking in the swamps. Is that just a Creole legend, or a scary new reality? Either way, this hour is creepy and atmospheric.
Tuesday brings I Escaped Jaws, which, as the title suggests, is built around first-hand accounts by shark attack survivors, and Spawn of Jaws, which uses state-of-the-art tracking technology to shed new light on the life cycle of the Great White.
On Wednesday, Top 10 Sharkdown counts off the sharks you really, really don’t want to have a close encounter with this summer, as well as the ones you’re most likely to run into, while natural history producer Jeff Kurr (Ultimate Air Jaws) returns to Shark Week to examine two fatal shark attacks near California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base in Great White Serial Killer.
Andy Casagrande and Devon Massyn host Sharkpocalypse on Thursday, which takes a look at the truly alarming trend that finds sharks moving in closer to shorelines, resulting in escalating shark attacks on humans. Later that some night, a special with the working title Alien Sharks of the Deep follows American and Japanese scientists as they descend into some of the deepest, darkest oceans on Earth in search of incredible new forms of shark.
The final new program of the week arrives Friday with The Great White Gauntlet, which travels to the coast of South Australia, where intrepid divers try to harvest a rare and precious sea snail called the abalone, worth thousands of dollars in the international market. The downside? This creature lives in a Great White feeding ground widely regarded as among the most dangerous places in the world.
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Josh Wolf

Discovery’s ‘North America’ offers dazzling short-attention-span theater

Discovery Channel
North America, the visually scrumptious new seven-part documentary series premiering tonight on Discovery Channel, is in many respects a worthy successor to such stunning past Discovery offerings as Life, Africa and the multi-award-winning Planet Earth. Culled from footage compiled over three years by filmmakers who journeyed from the frigid tundra of Canada to tropical rainforests in Central America, the network’s first independently produced natural history series offers a dizzying survey of our “continent of extremes,” captured in state-of-the-art digital imagery that exploits a diverse range of new technology.
Tonight’s premiere opens with a very family-friendly scene as a mountain goat delivers her kid some two miles above sea level in the snowy, wind-whipped Canadian Rockies, then tries to teach the newborn how to navigate the treacherous and fragile ledges of their vertigo-inducing winter home as they pick their way down the mountainside on their way down to find food in the valley. We’ve scarcely gotten mom and kid down the slopes and across the rushing streams when — bang! — Tom Selleck’s narration whisks us away to another part of the Pacific Northwest, where ravenous grizzly bears are looking for their first big post-hibernation repast along a seashore. They watch hungrily as a pod of orcas separate a whale calf from its mother and drown it (in a not very family-friendly scene), before the spare blubber washes to the rocky shore to feed the bears, who start to dine but then, whoosh, somehow we’re in the deserts of the American West, where wild stallions are fighting for dominance in the Utah Desert.
I should explain that I’ve only seen the first of these seven episodes, but frankly, I’m still trying to crack the code. To be sure, there is absolutely never a dull moment in this first hour, but the high-energy mix of biology, history, geology, meteorology and geography that keeps coming at us relentlessly occasionally pushes the viewer to the brink of (glorious) visual overload. North America is not a series to tune into if you’re looking for a big-picture exploration of this subject matter, because it rarely takes time to breathe as it leaps — sometimes clumsily, like that little mountain goat in the opening scene — from one big moment to the next.
Taken on its own terms, however, this documentary thrill ride offers plenty of undeniable rewards, and this first hour sped by before I even knew it. Fans of nature films will find much to enjoy here, even if they may wish for more time along the way to savor some of the highlights.

A riveting return to Watergate

Discovery Channel
I’ve long considered All the President’s Men, the Oscar-winning 1976 chronicle of the Watergate affair and its fallout as reported by Washington Post writers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to be one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Even if you don’t share that opinion, however, you’re almost certain to be spellbound by All the President’s Men Revisited, a riveting two-hour special premiering tonight on Discovery Channel.
Narrated by Robert Redford, who played Woodward in the feature film and serves as executive producer on this special, this fascinating documentary assembles many of the key figures from that surreal moment in presidential history – including a very eloquent John Dean, who was President Richard Nixon’s lawyer – to offer their viewpoint on this mind-boggling two-year event, with the invaluable clarity that comes from four decades of reflection.
The Watergate affair and its implications have been parsed so repeatedly over the years that you shouldn’t tune in expecting any major new bombshells. What this new special delivers in spades, however, is context that may have you looking at some of these events in a different light. Several of the talking heads, for example, keep shaking their heads at Nixon’s absolutely staggering propensity for denial. In an archival interview, former Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater talks about going to the Oval Office not long before Nixon was forced to resign in order to give the president a badly needed reality check about the looming threat of impeachment. He found Nixon relaxed and cheerful, still convinced that he somehow would be able to make this whole mess just go away. Republican strategist Mary Matalin acknowledges that Nixon’s actions seem to suggest a man who was simply losing his grip on reality, what interviewer David Frost later would call “his dislocated relationship with truth.”
It was Redford, who watched the Watergate hearings addictively during breaks in filming The Great Gatsby, who first saw the movie potential in the story even as Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation was in progress. Studios at first were skeptical; after all, how compelling could a film about two journalists writing really be? Redford, however, instinctively recognized that, at its heart, All the President’s Men would be an edge-of-the-seat thriller.
All the President’s Men was a very violent movie,” he says. “People were out to kill each other, and the weapons were telephones, typewriters and pens.”
To convey how joined at the hip Woodward and Bernstein became during their lengthy investigation, Redford and Dustin Hoffman, who played Bernstein, memorized the dialogue of both their characters for their scenes together, so they could appear spontaneously to finish each other’s sentences. The two actors’ warm recollections of working together on the film are among the highlights of this documentary.
All the President’s Men Revisited also contains a segment speculating on how the Watergate story would unfold today in a news world driven by Twitter and other social media, as well as bloggers with no professional training. That verdict, not surprisingly, is mixed: The story probably would break faster, but it would be hard for any journalist today to afford the luxury of extensive research and investigation to build a story as painstakingly as Woodward and Bernstein did.
When Discovery Channel scheduled this special, they had no way of knowing it would air just a few days after last week’s tragic events at the Boston Marathon and the ensuing farce of major news organizations falling all over themselves in a frenzy to be the first to report any updates, even if that information turned out to be wrong. Forty years ago, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped protect the republic from a man whom some in the special call “the Imperial President,” and they did it by taking every pain to ferret out the truth. Looking at the news profession today, it’s sobering to be reminded that it’s no longer a precision motor vehicle but a clown car with the wheels coming off.