But outrage requires shock, and Robertson’s views shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his empire. (While I’ve watched only a couple of episodes of Duck Dynasty, I confess to being a waterfowler and a casual fan of Robertson’s more baroque early work, a hook-and-bullet series on the Outdoor Channel called Duck Commander.)
The reality star’s rants about "gross sexual immorality" are all over the Internet. Robertson plays a stereotypically backward Deep South hillbilly. America’s outrage centered on the fact that Robertson embodied his caricature too well.
Robertson is the biggest star of the biggest boom in reality TV: hicksploitation. The genre laughs at (and sometimes with) the last group of people it’s still ostensibly OK to stereotype—white backwoodsy men. The modern iteration launched in 2011 with Animal Planet’s Hillbilly Handfishin’, about Oklahoma catfish noodlers, then MTV offered its West Virginia–based Buckwild. We have now waded deep into swamp country, with Discovery’s Swamp Loggers, the History Channel’s Swamp People, and Animal Planet’s Swamp Wars. But Duck Dynasty has dominated the category since debuting in March 2012. The season four premiere, in August 2013, netted A&E 11.8 million viewers. Last year, Duck Commander merchandise made more than $400 million. Viewers laugh, but the joke isn’t on the men in camo.
"They’re highly intelligent guys who don’t get anything pulled over on them," says Duck Dynasty executive producer Scott Gurney. "And they’re funny."
It’s also not a new trick. "The Andy Griffith Show,The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction—these were massive hits in the sixties," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "They were called hick-coms back then."
Why are the shows so popular now? It’s hard to say whether Americans like to laugh at rubes or are envious of men who can hunt all day and ignore basic hygiene. One thing is for sure—the shows are immensely profitable, in part because they’re cheaper to produce than man-versus-nature shows like Deadliest Catch. "Duck Dynasty and the rest of them have modest production values and location requirements," says Thompson.
He’d better be. In January, Animal Planet unveiled its latest show, this one about a family of Canadian trappers called Beaver Brothers. Its star is a 65-year-old trapper named Charlie Landry. "I think you’ll like him for his expertise," says producer Keith Hoffman. "Plus he talks funny."
Toward the beginning of Klondike, the Discovery Channel’s new drama about the 1897 Yukon Gold Rush, the show’s two primary stars, Abbie Cornish and Richard Madden, meet in a Dawson City saloon.
Cornish plays Belinda Mulrooney, the indomitable owner of a timber mill; Madden is Bill Haskell, a stout-hearted Vermonter who’s come west to seek his fortune. He’s about the only miner in Dawson City with a shred of decency. Mulrooney, detecting as much, orders a round. A greedy stew of miners, hookers, fiddlers, and grifters surrounds them. The local preacher, played by Sam Shepard, is notably absent. “Gold’s a whore,” Belinda warns. “You may lust after her, may even think you love her, but you don’t need her.”
If gold’s a whore, then Discovery runs a busy brothel. In recent years the first network in adventure television has offered Gold Rush, Jungle Gold, and Bering Sea Gold. This latest offering, though, is decidedly new. Klondike is Discovery’s debut scripted drama, a six-hour, three-part series that premiered on Monday and wraps up this evening.
Based off Charlotte Gray’s 2010 historical account, Gold Diggers (liberties are taken onscreen), directed by Simon Cellan Jones and co-produced by Ridley Scott, Klondike seems to be an effort to carve out a place alongside HBO and Showtime, at least for a moment. In addition to Madden and Cornish, the network invested in Tim Roth, who plays a sociopathic entrepreneur known only as The Count; Shepard, the town’s preacher and conscience; and newcomer Johnny Simmons, who serves as a young, story-collecting Jack London.
Six hours is an 800-meter race—not enough to stand up to a full-length series, and too much for a movie. A few plot lines come undone early, others drag on too long. But the acting is terrific, the writing is mostly good, and the scenery—Alberta's Spray Lakes stand in for the frozen Yukon River—is spectacular. Echoes of HBO's Deadwood are apparent from the opening credits, and although Klondike isn't nearly as tightly wound, it's certainly entertaining. The avalanches and wolves (real ones, not the CGI variety) only help.
The series follows Haskell as he and a partner, Byron Epstien (Augustus Prew) head north seeking adventure and money. They manage to escape a thunderous avalanche—Discovery moved 300 tons of snow and used nine bags of explosives to create the scene—but Epstein quickly succumbs to a rifle shot to the gut from a jealous miner below a canopy of northern lights.
The show’s primary plot hinges on Haskell’s quest for vengeance and the romance with Mulrooney. She, meanwhile, engages in a vicious power struggle with Roth’s Count for control of the town’s timber. Roth, feral and typically brilliant, is unfortunately given short shrift in favor of Haskell, who can be cloyingly noble. Part of Deadwood’s genius was putting the bad guy up front. But when The Count takes the lead, Klondike is delicious.
“What would you like to confess,” Shepard’s preacher asks him in church.
“Arson, murder,” says The Count.
“When did you commit these acts?”
“Well, I haven’t, yet,” Roth snaps.
Eventually, greed overwhelms, the bodies pile up, and so do the platitudes. Just about everybody starts offering newfound wisdom about gold’s corrupting power.
Haskell intones, “While we seek out gold and abstractions like justice, death only seeks more.” After striking it rich he contemplates skipping town to start a farm. Mulrooney supports the idea, saying that her lover is “too damned good for the Yukon.”
But that’s not true. The real Bill Haskell, we're told, returned to the Yukon one last time, and that didn’t go well. The allure of the north is strong. Discovery knows as much—Monday’s premiere episode drew 3.4 million viewers. Whether or not the network dives headlong into scripted drama remains to be seen, but it’s probably a safe bet that the gold rush will continue.
In the sprawling genre of survival television, there is one man who has managed to earn both huge ratings and the respect of bearded guys with big knives on their belts: Les Stroud, a.k.a. Survivorman. Stroud, 52, grew up in Toronto watching Jacques Cousteau and Tarzan, then became a rock-and-roll addict with dreams of being the next Neil Young. At 25, disillusioned by the music industry, he took a survival course at a Toronto college and was hooked. He went on to train for years with elite survival instructors and honed his skills on numerous wilderness forays, including a yearlong honeymoon with his wife in the remote woods of northern Ontario, during which they lived off the land and used no metals or plastics. Early on, Stroud had the idea of creating a home-video series to teach survival skills, but it wasn’t until 2001 that he pitched a more ambitious idea to the Discovery Channel: just him, alone in the bush for a week, filming his struggles—building fires, catching game, fending off the cold.
The runaway success of Survivorman spawned a string of copycat programs, from Bear Grylls’s Man vs. Wildto this year’s over-the-top Naked and Afraid, in which a nude man and woman are stranded together in an extreme environment. But only Stroud has pulled off a literal one-man show—producing, writing, filming, directing, and starring. In 2009, he temporarily switched gears and created Beyond Survival, a series for Discovery in which he studied the wilderness skills of indigenous people around the planet, then returned in the summer of 2012 with four Survivorman specials. In December, he’ll be back with a full season, including two episodes featuring his teenage son, Logan. Here and on the following pages, Stroud shares his hard-earned wisdom about wild places, why he considers Grylls a phony, and what it takes to live through almost anything:
The first night I spent in a shelter I’d made myself, with my feet sticking out and the rain coming down and the mosquitoes buzzing, I said, “This is what I want.”
You wouldn’t watch a ski jumper on TV and then the next day, having never skied, strap on a pair and go jump. And you don’t watch Survivorman and then say, “I’m going to go out alone in the wilderness this weekend.” It took me years to learn these skills.
There’s no such thing as passive survival. Survival is proactive. You’re doing every-thing you can to deal with the situation.
You know those lemons that come up on Vegas slot machines? When I was teaching guides, we’d always say, “When you hit that third lemon, stop—get out.” Maybe the first lemon is an injury. Then the second lemon is exhaustion. Third lemon, storm’s coming. Done, go home, you’re finished.
There’s been too much emphasis over the years on “stay put, stay put.” Survival and first-aid courses all say that. Why stay put if you can walk out? People might be looking for you, but they’ll stop as soon as you get to a phone.
You do have to stop and ask some questions: How far is it to get out? Do I know the way? Am I confident I can find it, or is it a crapshoot? Do I have the strength to make it? Is anybody looking for me if I don’t?
I go out and go through the experience of survival and document it. I hate the concept of reality television. I’m a documentary filmmaker.
Initially, I think people watch out of morbid fascination. But when you see me really struggling, when you see the sweat on my face and know that I’m really going through it, then it strikes a deeper chord: If I had to, could I survive?
All these other shows are created by TV producers. Anything they can do to get higher ratings, be under budget, get it done fast—that’s what they do. It detracts from what it really takes to survive in the wilderness. Many of the things Bear Grylls and other guys do is completely bogus. Wrong skills. Dangerous skills.
Have I ever been pressured to do it differently? To fake it? Once, very heavily by one producer, and I said no.
My son, Logan, started asking to do a Survivorman episode with me when he was 12—way too young. When he was 15, I said, “OK, let’s do this.” Honestly, I’ve been doing Survivorman for over 11 years. I’m tired of being alone out there.Realllllly tired of being alone out there.
You should trust your guide but never rely on them. Before you start the trip, go to them and say, “Can I see a map with the route?” You look at it and maybe you see there’s a road three miles to the west the whole journey. If anything happens, now you know that. A good guide will be happy you asked. They like it when someone takes an interest in his own safety.
In survival situations, go with what you know. If you can turn around and go back the way you came and reach safety, even if it’s 50 miles back, why are you pushing on into the unknown?
We always want to follow the path of least resistance. That’s what we do as humans. It looks good to go downhill. It feels easier. You have to fight this and use your head. The easiest way can be the most dangerous.
Nature is nature. Christopher McCandless was an extremely charming individual, and he charmed his way through a lot of situations. But Alaska didn’t give a shit how charming he was. It’s Alaska.
Everyone who does wilderness adventure of any kind should take a survival course and a wilderness first-aid course. They enhance your experience, and you’ll have greater confidence.
I can see getting to that place where you say, “I’m done. I’m not going to make it.” Hey, I’ve had my moments.
People brag about such-and-such city having “the worst drivers,” but I’m going to reverse field here and compliment the many, many motorists of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who are actually pretty good drivers. They have to be. Otherwise, given the amount of traffic and the speed at which it’s moving, you’d see 100-car pileups every hour or so.
The Duke City is an offbeat metropolis that seems like it was laid out by a drag racer on blue meth. Experientially, much of the city is defined by a vast grid of wide, high-speed boulevards, each of which is lined on both sides with shopping centers and old-school strip malls. It’s hard to describe how many shopping places there are in Albuquerque. It’s hard even to imagine it, not unlike contemplating the distance between galaxies in an expanding universe.
One of ABQ’s defining racetracks—Montgomery Boulevard, which runs east-west in the city’s spiffy-scruffy northeast quadrant—is roughly six miles long, with stores jamming both sides. So that’s 12 miles of pure commercial overload right there. From east to west and from north to south, there are many more boulevards just like it, roaring zoomways with evocative names like Menaul, Candelaria, San Mateo, Juan Tabo, Eubank, and Lomas. I have no idea what the total length would be if you placed all these storefronts side by side in a line, but I’m convinced it would extend for hundreds of miles, perhaps enough to span the entire width of New Mexico.
Where are the houses? In the big checkerboard spaces between the boulevards. Walter White’s modest casa is tucked away inside one of these squares, and I was surprised to learn that the White family lived just a few blocks from a big Marshall’s on Montgomery Boulevard (where I’ve made some of my most important white-socks purchases over the years) and A Taste of Italy(a pizza slice-and-sandwich place on Juan Tabo that is my go-to favorite for meatball subs). Walter easily could have walked to either establishment. He threw that away for a life of crime?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like many fans of Breaking Bad, I wanted to see, in person, some of the iconic locations used in the series, so I decided to create my own driving tour. There are of course professional outfits that will take you around to look at Breaking Bad sites for a price, but where’s the adventure in that? I know Albuquerque very well: my wife, Susan, and I love its homely strangeness and friendly people and have been there dozens of times to shop, eat, and goof around. There are various fan hubs online (like this one) that can help you figure out for yourself where to find the best Breaking Bad locations. I know how to use a map and a turn signal and how to stomp frantically on my brakes and make semi-legal U-turns while screaming with frustration inside my car. Miles of bad road beckoned. And so, the day before the season finale, on an achingly bright autumn Saturday, away we went.
I arranged our tour to take us in a northeast-to-southwest meander that included most of the urban spots important to any fan. (I plan to put together a separate Desert Tour later.) Some of the bleakest black comedy in Breaking Bad happens in northeast Albuquerque, an area north of Interstate 40 and east of I-25 that sprawls upwards into the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, the rocky bulwark that rises dramatically on the city’s eastern edge. The homes of Walter White and his DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, are here, as are the offices of supershyster lawyer Saul “Better Call Saul” Goodman.
Susan and I started at Saul’s office, which sits in the un-aptly named Paradise Square shopping center at 9800 Montgomery. Because Albuquerque has an oversupply of commercial property, a lot of it winds up either empty or in a state of existential despair, which is what happened here. Saul’s old digs are now home to a skeezy booze-and-rock venue called Hooligan’s Tavern. (“Warning,” warns their website. “Not for the Faint-hearted. Please consult your doctor before entering Hooligans!”)
Also “on tap” in the square: a tattoo parlor and more bars, one of which is called The Dirty Bourbon. On the plus side: May Hong Vietnamese restaurant (first seen in Season 2 of Breaking Bad) is still in business. And on a huge billboard across the street, there’s an ad seeking victims of “Motorcycle Bicycle & Truck accidents.” It reads: “Hurt? Call Bert. 322-Bert.” I like to think Bert did this in the Spirit of Saul.
Next stop was the home of Hank and Marie Schrader, who tried to do right but were thwarted by wrong.At least I think it was their home, because something went awry here. The Schraders lived in a fancy-pants neighborhood in the Sandia foothills called Glenwood Hills, an area that (rare for Albuquerque) exists Outside the Grid. After you pass the intersection of Montgomery and Tramway, you see a sign informing you that you’re entering a finer realm, and just like that things go from being all asphalt-and-storefront to being all curvy streets, scenic views, and well-landscaped homes.
From the moment we entered the hills, I was tailed by a helmeted man on a buzzing little motorbike. Was he a private security guard hired to swat away fans like us? No. He was a friendly local named Gavin who takes friends on informal Breaking Bad tours, riding his bike and leading them and their cars around to locations. Today he was “improving his route” while shooting selfies in front of key spots.
The address I found online for Hank’s house (4915 Cumbre Del Sur Court NE) turned out to be wrong, but Gavin pointed me to what he was sure was the correct house. And yet ... I think I must have heard him wrong, because the snapshot I took does not match the Hank house that I’ve seen so many times on the show. I’ll get that problem sorted out eventually, but this much I can assure you: I was on the right street, and wherever the correct house is, it’s big, its exterior is brown, and Hank once made Schraderbrau in its garage.
Nothing went wrong in our search for the Walter White home(3828 Piermont Drive NE), which was thrilling to see, even without a gravity-aided pizza sliding down its sloping garage roof.
Right after I parked and got out, Gavin buzzed into view again, never removing his helmet as he spoke to me, sharing insider lore about his experiences guiding the route. The White home is occupied by real-life non-actor people, he said, and the woman of the house is understanding about the fact that fans are constantly driving by and taking snapshots—on occasion, she has even come out and spoken to Gavin. Gavin figures that interest in the house will last long after the show stops airing. I agree—several vehicles rolled by while we talked—but I also have to wonder about something. No offense to the house, but it’s the kind of place you might raze simply to stop the fan hassles. If that happens, I hope it can be reassembled at the Smithsonian, like Julia Child’s kitchen.
Other key spots in this part of the city are the auto-and-money-laundering A1A Car Wash(which is an Octopus car wash at 9516 Snow Heights Circle NE) and Taco Sal (9621 Menaul NE),where Marie and Walt’s wife, Skyler, handed out fliers when Walt briefly went “missing” during Season 2. The car wash was everything I hoped it would be—it’s huge, and it sits on a big, bleak savannah of pavement, just like in the show—while Taco Sal was ... well, the sign out front is great, a classic Route 66-style invitation to come in and chow down. But the tacos I ate were bland, a far cry from the spicy, rage-flavored carne burritos made by Tuco-the-psychotic-drug-dealer in Episode 9.
For me, the finest experience in the Northeast Cluster was the John B. Robert Dam(Juan Tabo and Osuna), the concrete structure where fugitive characters go to get picked up by Ed the Disappearer, the vacuum-cleaner repairmen who, for a price, helps criminals start a new life. As seen in Breaking Bad, it’s hard to tell what the dam really is—it looks like a defensive installation built for the Maginot Line. But, up close, it’s obviously part of Albuquerque’s flood-control system: on the back side of the structure, you see a wide arroyo coming down from the Sandias. The dam is spooky; its upright concrete slabs suggest a graveyard. On one of the slabs, some imaginative citizen-artist has mounted an old, broken vacuum cleaner, a symbol of Ed’s inability to cannister-vac Walter into a happier place.
CENTRAL & SOUTHWEST CLUSTERS
In Albuquerque, Central Avenue = Route 66, and it’s worth any tourist’s time to creep down its many blocks at a stop-and-go pace. There are some excellent dumpy hotels on Central, along with the country’s most depressing state fairgrounds. Near Nob Hill and the University of New Mexico campus, you’ll find a shopping strip with good restaurants and a lot of fun, funky stores. You’ll also find several notable Breaking Bad sites, including the Denny’swhere Walt eats breakfast on his mysterious 52nd birthday.
But I wanted to spend as much time as possible at the doomed love shackof Jesse Pinkman and Jane Margolis(corner of Terrace Street and Lead SE).
The real building is much dingier-looking than what you see in the show, which depicts the place after it’s undergone a full renovation, overseen by Jane’s helicopter-parent of a dad. My photo of this spot is not so great—the sun got in my eyes!—but to me this was the second-most-resonant stop on the tour. To paraphrase The Onion: Jesse and Jane worked very hard to turn this meth house into a meth home, but it was not meant to be.
Next stop was the creepy Crossroads Motel(1001 Central Avenue SE), where so many awful things happened: Jesse’s marathon of alibi sex with Wendy the Meth Whore; Uncle Hank forcing Wendy to display her receding gums to Walt Jr. as an object lesson in Where Drugs Can Lead. Definitely worth a stop. A warning, though: the parking lot is smaller than it looks on TV, and there was a woman in the lobby who seemed unhappy that I and other non-paying tourists were crowding it. I’m worried that, soon, the only way to tour this place will be to pay for a room.
On this trip, pressed for time, we had to skip Twisters(4257 Isleta Boulevard SW), the stand-in for Los Pollos Hermanos, the fast-food chicken franchise that defines many episodes of Breaking Bad. But the Southwest quadrant featured plenty of other riches. At 1st, 2nd, and Atlantic Streets SW, you’ll find Combo’s Corner, where a member of Jesse Pinkman’s meth-selling posse was gunned down by a kid on a bike.
We wrapped up a fulfilling day with stops at the home of Jesse’s parents (11th and Roma NW) and Jesse’s aunt’s house(16th and Los Alamos SW), where so, so, so many grisly things happened. You’d never know it by looking at this place. The house is beautiful, and it sits in the middle of a high-end, out-of-the-way Albuquerque neighborhood called Huning Castle.Jesse’s house looks a lot better than it does in Breaking Bad, so there’s no chance it will ever get knocked down. We were there in late afternoon, but I think the best time to see it would be early morning—when you have a better chance of seeing old ladies power walking by, sprinklers running, or a dazed guy named Krazy 8 staggering down the middle of the street.
SET GOALS. Set goals for your friends and relatives to achieve. Check up on them to make sure they are meeting those goals.
IN CHOOSING YOUR MISSION IN LIFE, DO WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY. Let’s say you enjoy lying on the couch, watching TV, not thinking about anything. Or maybe lying on the beach, wondering what’s on TV. Chances are, that’s where your greatest happiness will be.
NOTICE THE LITTLE THINGS that are constantly biting you.
IMAGINE YOURSELF ACHIEVING YOUR DREAM. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to surf but for some reason never have. Imagine yourself riding on top of a big wave. Feels good, doesn’t it?
BE PREPARED TO CHANGE PLANS. Maybe you decide to go skydiving, but at the last minute you decide not to jump and grip onto the railing with all your might, so that your fingers can’t be pried apart. Have the courage to do that.
GIVE KIDS A HANDS-ON APPROACH TO NATURE, but not the way Uncle Lou did.
CULTIVATE A SENSE OF HUMOR. Suppose your friend Don gets his arm bitten off by a shark. As a joke, show up at his hospital bed and say, “Hey, Don, look what I found on the beach,” and pull out a mannequin arm.
LEARN TO THINK ON YOUR FEET. If a ranger asks you if you have a fishing license, calmly reel in your line, then turn and run.
GET THROWN IN PRISON IN A THIRD-WORLD COUNTRY.It will be a good story to tell your children and grandchildren as they grow up within the prison walls with you and their prostitute mother.
PUSH YOURSELF. If you get attacked by a bear and survive, see if you can’t get attacked by another bear, because then maybe you could get the nickname Two Bears.
DON’T TRY TO OUTSWIM AN ATTACKING BEAVER. Go limp and float over the lip of the beaver dam, downstream through the rapids, to safety.
DON’T PLAY DEAD WITH RACCOONS. It only makes them mad.
TRAVEL TO BALI AND MACHU PICCHU AND NEPAL, because, oh, no one’s ever done that before. In other words, be sarcastic.
KNOW YOUR LIMITS. If a cross-country race is too strenuous, take a short-cut to the finish line.
KEEP YOUR BONES HEALTHY, BUT DON’T WORRY ABOUT YOUR MUSCLES. Let’s face it, you’re going to be a skeleton a lot longer than flesh and blood.
LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. Just kidding. Who could do that?
AT LEAST ONCE, FLY FIRST CLASS TO AN EXPENSIVE LODGE. And try not to embarrass yourself.
RETIRE TO A FOREIGN COUNTRY. Create a whole new identity for yourself and, if you can afford it, a whole new set of fingerprints.
NEVER FORGET THAT HAPPINESS IS SOMETHING YOU HAVE TO WORK AT, every hour of every single day, until you die.