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.