In Discovery Channel’s “Klondike,” freezing temperatures aren’t the only bitter elements facing the characters.
If you’re still carping about our frigid January weather, put yourselves in the boots of the American dreamers who battled avalanches, rapids, wolves, con men, typhus and frostbite in the Yukon near the start of the 20th century, all on the slim chance they’d strike gold.
The chances for Discovery Channel to hit the jackpot with “Klondike,” its first scripted project, are much rosier. Historical miniseries have been game-changers for such networks as the History Channel (“Hatfields & McCoys”) and Reelz (“The Kennedys”). The story is an ideal companion piece to Discovery’s reality series “Gold Rush,” often the most popular show on all of Friday-night TV among men ages 18-49.
“Discovery is about man’s relationship to nature, and sometimes that’s a beautiful relationship and sometimes that’s an agonizing relationship,” said Delores Gavin, the network’s executive vice president of production and development.
In the case of “Klondike,” that relationship is mostly agonizing.
Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones”) plays a recent college grad who, with his best friend, heads north to seek his fortune in Dawson City, a lawless town that makes HBO’s “Deadwood” look like Palm Springs.
There, the two discover a way of life so scrappy that men will battle to near-death over a couple slabs of wood while the 1-percenters show utter disregard for the shivering masses. It doesn’t take much of a leap to draw parallels to our modern-day economic gap.
“I see this just as another piece of American madness,” said Sam Shepard, who plays a kindhearted priest trying to bring God to a godless society. “It’s another chunk of the insanity that we carry around with us, regardless of whether we’re involved in technology or if we’re involved in trapping beavers.”
To capture the raw tone of the era, director Simon Cellan Jones eschewed computer-generated effects and had his actors get their feet wet — sometimes literally. A pivotal scene had Madden falling out of a raft and barreling down freezing-cold rapids.
“I just kind of convinced myself that it was a studio and we could just turn the rapids off if it got dangerous,” said Madden, last seen being stabbed through the heart on “Game of Thrones,” where he played Robb Stark.
Other scenes during the 56-day shoot near Calgary, Alberta, forced actors to perform in 30-below temperatures at 9,000 feet above sea level, a combination that sometimes made it difficult to talk.
Abbie Cornish, who plays a Dawson City power player tougher than most of the male prospectors, believes the bitter circumstances enhanced the work of the cast, which also includes Oscar nominee Tim Roth as the eight-hour story’s most dastardly black hat.
“There was something very elemental, very challenging, and very dramatic about the landscape and about the weather that told us very quickly what these characters would have felt like,” said the Australian actress, best known to U.S. audiences for her starring role in “Sucker Punch.” “It was kind of nice to have something physical come in and really take over.”
Even if “Klondike” hits pay dirt, don’t expect a second season. The miniseries wraps up with a coda that makes it almost impossible to revisit the major characters, although a spinoff with a young Jack London, who makes a fleeting appearance, is enticing.
But it does sound like Discovery is dedicated to more scripted series, even if it only means a couple of projects a year.
“We have to see how people respond to ‘Klondike,’ ” Gavin said. “Then we want to be lean and mean in how we move forward.”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431