Originally published "Off the Grid but on the Radar: The Real and Ordinary in Alaskan TV Celebrity." Celebrity Studies. 9.4 (2018): 426-441.
Technology has flooded up from the Lower 48, washing over Alaska all the way to the Arctic shore and beyond. Here on the once-frontier, technology is colliding with the environment, the animals, and the old ways, outpacing its own limited illumination like a snowmobile roaring up behind a dog team in the dark (Seth Kantner 2015, p. 181).
The 1992 National Geographic special, Braving Alaska, invited television viewers into the lives of four families living and working far from ‘town,’ a euphemism for what non-Alaskan audiences might call ‘civilisation’ or ‘the grid.’ Montages of expansive vistas and exotic wildlife bracket the families’ efforts at sustainable, self-sufficient utilisation of the land’s resources commonly referred to as ‘subsistence’ living. Combined with narrator Martin Sheen’s characterisations of these ‘staunch pioneers’ and ‘rugged individualists’ seeking out rather than avoiding hardship (PBS, 1992), the presentation of subsistence practitioners’ frontier trailblazing would be familiar to viewers long steeped in the enduring mythology of the American West. It also marked the debut of a 36-year-old transplant from Appleton, Wisconsin named Heimo Korth
Aside from its narrator, Braving Alaska portrayed ordinary figures rather than stars. It did, however, grant Korth decidedly more screen time and a larger platform to communicate with viewers. Accorded treatment typical of a celebrity in the programme, Korth’s outsized presence tokenised him as the embodiment of the broader subsistence lifestyles depicted. In ‘a world untamed, wondrous, and free’ where remote living ‘tantalises the imagination and challenges the spirit’ (PBS, 1992),[i] his performance of subsistence living fused the ordinary (i.e. obtaining food and water) and the extraordinary (i.e. unconventional modes of accomplishing these tasks) to signify both the imagined wilderness of ‘Alaska’ and the subject exceptional enough to survive there.
[i] As if to further emphasise the disparities between these subjects and the presumed audience, a darkened globe juxtaposes a contiguous United States illuminated by electrical grids with an Alaska whose comparative lack of electricity is said to reflect the minimal presence of the people, places, and things constitutive of society.
Less than two decades after Braving Alaska, the televisual imaginary around the sparsely populated state has blossomed into a full-blown sub-genre. Since 2010, Alaska-based reality shows in particular have come to constitute an outsized presence in the US television landscape, with dozens of unscripted series set in the nation’s largest state. The content of these programmes varies, from truck racing and monster hunting to underwater gold mining and house hunting. As Craig Medred of the Alaska Dispatch puts it, ‘The 49th state is quickly approaching a point where it has more reality shows than salmon—and there are a lot of salmon up here’ (Medred 2014). Among the crowded slate of Alaska-based reality programming, a subset of shows such as The Last Alaskans (Animal Planet, 2015, Discovery Channel 2016- ), Life Below Zero (National Geographic Channel, 2013- ), Edge of Alaska (Discovery Channel, 2014- ), Alaskan Bush People (Discovery Channel, 2014- ), Yukon Men (Discovery Channel, 2012- ), and Alaska: The Last Frontier (Discovery Channel, 2011- ) have carved out a niche promising audiences more holistic representations of quotidian Arctic life than well-known extraction-based Alaska productions such as Deadliest Catch (Discovery Channel, 2005- ) and Gold Rush (Discovery Channel, 2010- ).[i]
[i] Gold Rush presents an interesting case because little of the show takes place in Alaska anymore. By repeatedly characterising the immense region encompassing Alaska, British Columbia, and the Yukon Territories as ‘the Klondike,’ and routinely switching between locations defined more by the name of the mining site (e.g. ‘Scribner Creek,’ ‘McKinnon Creek,’ ‘Indian River,’ ‘Eureka Creek’) or crew (e.g. ‘Hoffman Crew,’ ‘Schnabel Crew,’ ‘Beets Crew’) than its proximity to Alaska, the show performs a sleight of hand that collapses areas of Canada into a broadly imagined Arctic frontier broadcast alongside fellow Discovery Channel programmes such as Alaska: The Last Frontier, Alaskan Bush People, Bering Sea Gold (2012- ), Deadliest Catch, Edge of Alaska, The Last Alaskans, Yukon Men, and Sons of Winter (2015).
This substantive niche of Alaska-based reality fare, which I call ‘subsistence TV’ and will explore in this essay, echoes Braving Alaska by shadowing subjects living and labouring off the electrical—and ostensibly social—grid in landscapes depicted as remote, austere, and unforgiving. Like much of Alaska-based reality TV, these subsistence programmes trade on the state’s longstanding role in US popular culture as ‘a space to dream over’ (Campbell 2011, p. 1): a speculative site subjected to centuries-long fantasies of exploration, conservation and resource extraction. In the two decades between his debut in Braving Alaska and his starring role in The Last Alaskans, Heimo Korth has remained a focal point in prominent Alaska-related cultural productions (i.e. The Final Frontiersman, Heimo’s Arctic Refuge) to the extent that he has acquired sobriquets like ‘the final frontiersman’ (Campbell 2004) and ‘the celebrated godfather of the frontier’ (Discovery Communications n.d.).
At first blush, the socio-semiotic bonds between Korth, Alaska, and subsistence seem to present a textbook case of reality TV celebrity. By promising private access to subjects’ lives and cohering their subsistence lifestyles into avatars of self-optimisation and self-sufficiency, The Last Alaskans joins other subsistence programmes in offering a conventional reality TV endorsement of neoliberal fame. Korth and other putative pioneers pursuing subsistence on the small screen achieve legibility through their ingenuity (amid limited means) in securing essentials for surviving the environmental extremes of the Alaskan interior. Deprived of the most fundamental elements of the social safety net (i.e. roads, stores, running water, a power grid), everyday tasks of securing water and food acquire added meaning by highlighting both the absence of society and the herculean efforts of Korth and fellow homesteaders to thrive in the void without compromising their self-sufficiency. Accentuated by their selective and strategic use of modern tools (e.g. gas-powered snowmobiles, GPS devices) and the technologies that document their travails for television audiences, these characters’ endurance of severe Alaskan winters seems to sell subsistence living and self-governing neoliberal subjectivity to viewers in the most extreme terms possible.
Closer inspection, however, reveals something more complicated at work in the dynamics between celebrity and reality TV as they manifest in subsistence television and a figure like Heimo Korth. This is most evident in the ambivalence demonstrated by Korth—and subsistence television, more generally—toward the very mass-media infrastructure buttressing celebrity. Cast members in other Alaska-based reality programmes such as Parker Schnabel and Todd Hoffman of Gold Rush, and Sig Hansen of Deadliest Catch achieve and maintain their celebrity status through active participation in the networks widely assumed to be necessary to cultivating reality TV-based fame (including extensive interviews, social media participation, event appearances, and endorsements). While Gold Rush and Deadliest Catch launch characters into the convergent ecosystem of cross-platform multimedia celebrity, subsistence programmes like The Last Alaskans and their personalities, like Korth, thrive in large part through performing a deliberate distancing from such networked living, both geographically and socially. Seclusion not only lends veracity to the off-the-grid labour of subsistence residents. It also questions the extent to which celebrity and celebrity studies should continue to presume that the mass-mediated grid is essential to modern fame.
This essay focuses on The Last Alaskans, representations of Heimo Korth, and the discourse surrounding both to draw out implications of subsistence television and Korth’s disconnected celebrity for Alaska-based reality fare specifically, and the relations between fame and reality TV generally. I consider how ‘off-grid’ fame opens up new lines of inquiry into the relations between celebrity and reality TV by virtue of their narrative, aesthetic, and discursive contrasts with the networked ecosystem of participatory media-based self-branding that undergirds contemporary celebrity, especially among reality programming. In performing the reluctant celebrity, I argue that Korth’s demonstrated preference for navigating the circuitry of remote Arctic trails and rivers, rather than the mediated networks assumed to be integral to modern celebrity, complicates conventional wisdom regarding the scope of reality TV’s possibilities as it relates to fame, labour, and identity as they intersect in unconventional spaces.