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.