When Captain Phil Harris of Discovery Channel's hit series "Deadliest Catch" died in February, the network didn't know how -- or if -- it would follow the tragedy on air. The tough-as-nails fishing boat captain had insisted that producers keep filming to capture the aftermath of his stroke and what turned out to be his final days.
Discovery has now decided how to pay homage to the reality show star, a salty, tattooed chain-smoker and fan favorite, by devoting a number of upcoming episodes to him. In essence, the remainder of the current sixth season will focus on Harris, including remembrances from his crew and other cast members, a retrospective of his life's work and never-seen footage of the fisherman.
"Deadliest Catch" is in the middle of a ratings tear, with double-digit audience increases over last season. It's been winning its time period consistently since its April premiere, when it pulled in 4.6 million viewers, its biggest audience ever.
Next Tuesday, fans will see an episode that will include the stroke Harris had while offloading snow crabs with his Cornelia Marie crew, including sons Jake and Josh. (Crews from Original Productions, the company behind "Deadliest Catch" and a number of other extreme job series, had been filming at the time). Later episodes will focus on Harris' death at an Anchorage hospital and a crew celebration of his life, New Orleans-style.
The dedicated special, "Deadliest Catch: Captain Phil Harris Remembered," will air July 20.
"I wish this would never have been a story line of the series," said Clark Bunting, president and general manager of Discovery Channel and Science Channel, "but I am proud of the heart and emotion we have worked so hard to put into these very special episodes as a tribute to Phil."
It was important for the network to be sensitive to Harris' family and yet accurately capture the tragic turn of events for the docusoap, Bunting said. The result is meant to give fans "a sense of closure and a chance to grieve," he said.
Fans, already bracing for the upcoming episodes, have been blogging Wednesday about Tuesday night's show and its confrontation between Harris and his heir-apparent son, Jake, who's fallen into addiction and stolen some of his father's pain medication. "I want you out of my life," Harris yelled at his son. "You're out of my life." The blowup between the two was shocking and heartbreaking, fans wrote, because of Harris' death not long afterward.
"It was such a big reveal, and it was even more poignant because I'm watching these relationships so closely and so differently now, knowing what's happened," said David Bulhack, a longtime fan. "I'm more glued to the show than ever."
Harris, whose dangerous job and unhealthy lifestyle had obviously been catching up with him for some time, said during episodes this season that he didn't feel like he'd live to a ripe old age.
The rest of the season may be painful because everyone knows the outcome, but fans say they'll keep watching.
"How can you not keep watching?" Bulhack said. "We only have so much of Phil left, and I think I'm watching with a greater appreciation of him."
-- T.L. Stanley