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6 things reality TV gets wrong about Alaska

Photo: Markus Trienke

Alaska’s fraught relationship with reality television began with the early success of shows like Deadliest Catch and Alaska State Troopers. State officials saw an economic opportunity and a potential boon for the tourist industry, and soon, the lure of strong ratings and public subsidies brought reality producers to the state in droves, like prospectors eager to rake in their fortunes. Of nearly 20 reality shows shot in Alaska, most have centered on a few familiar themes: dangerous jobs, surviving at the edge of the wilderness, and the strange cast of characters the state supposedly draws. Despite their positive reception among outsiders, to locals, these shows are laughable at best — and at worst, they grossly misrepresent our lifestyles. With their cringe-worthy tropes, manufactured drama, and cheap camera tricks, reality shows would have you believe that Alaska is filled with kooks and that every day is a struggle for survival.

Here are 6 things reality TV gets wrong about living in Alaska.

1. One unsuccessful hunt won’t lead to starvation.

Between our abundant natural resources and the expensive food prices up north, most Alaskans embrace the subsistence lifestyle. While it’s true that hunting and fishing offer us sustenance through the winter, reality shows often take this concept to the extreme. Their stars stomp through the forest slinging hunting rifles while narrators dramatically proclaim that a family’s survival hinges on the success or failure of one hunt. But let’s be real — we’re not going to starve if we fail to bag that moose, bear, or squirrel. They might make a nice addition to our winter freezers, but we can still rely on the grocery store, food pantry, or if all else fails, the generosity of neighbors to help us out.

2. We take calculated risks, not stupid ones.

Reality shows love to highlight the inherent dangers Alaskans face to maintain their livelihoods. (Some threats are real, while others are ridiculous – but that’s a topic for another day.) Commercial fishing, mining, or working on the slope carry serious risks, which is why people who work in these fields are no-nonsense when it comes to safety precautions. While reality producers have been known to prod their stars into performing stupid stunts for cheap thrills, real Alaskans avoid unnecessary risks, because we know they come with life-threatening consequences.

3. The laws do apply — and the regulations too.

Reality shows love to boast that at the edge of the wilderness, “laws do not apply.” They paint their subjects as outlaws who make their own rules and are accountable only to their own survival. But in truth, regulations govern all major aspects of Alaskans’ lives, from where we live and set up camp to what and when we can hunt and fish. Perhaps this mentality is what has lead so many reality shows into legal trouble for everything from hunting violations to PFD fraud.

4. Not all remote-ness is created equal.

Most Alaskan reality shows are filmed in close proximity to small towns. But through optical illusions and camera tricks, shooting locations are made to appear in the middle of nowhere. For instance, people from my hometown love to gripe that the reality show shot there only pans its camera west — conveniently leaving out views of the town’s economic center, grocery stores, and restaurants. Some shows are truly set in the middle of nowhere, but often the feeling of isolation is based more on clever editing than reality.

5. We’re not all outlaws and trigger-happy rednecks.

Like all reality television, Alaskan-based shows are powered by tropes and controversial characters. Reality shows would have you believe that Alaska is inhabited by shady outlaws, wild-western types, and trigger-happy rednecks with quasi-southern accents. Not so. They also fail to portray the state’s diversity — shows cast almost exclusively white protagonists, and at least one has come under fire for its portrayal of Native Alaskans. The public may be familiar with these overblown caricatures about Alaskans, but thanks to reality shows, they get far more traction than they deserve.

6. Life is not a survivor marathon.

Life in Alaska is also depicted as a series of disasters, each of which carries life-threatening implications. Machinery breaks down and supposedly jeopardizes a family’s livelihood. They’ll starve if they don’t shoot the squirrel, and even still they might be eaten by a bear or trapped in the frozen wilderness with inadequate food, or fall victim to some other mortal peril. Reality show characters are perpetually vulnerable, and appear to live at the mercy of the elements. While living in rural Alaska carries its setbacks, it is not a survivor marathon or a constant struggle for survival. Alaskans are frugal and pragmatic enough to weather the difficulties of the frontier, even when they lack production value or dramatic fervor.