Credit: Michael Muller/Discovery Channel

We’re now three hours into season 7 of Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, and I’m officially missing the late Capt. Phil Harris. After last season — the final half of which was so moving it made viewers feel sorry for people who weren’t tuning in — it was hard to look at this series as just a TV show. That’s a fact I know to be true. When I joined Time Bandit captain Johnathan Hillstrand in New York last week to live blog the season premiere with his brother Andy and Northwestern captain Sig Hansen, John told me he was afraid new Cornelia Marie captain Derrick Ray would come off as a villain when really, he’s just doing what he needs to do to keep that boat afloat and the boys in line. I found myself telling John that after watching him be there for Josh and Jake Harris last year while their father fought for his life, I wrote that I’d hug him if I ever met him. He told me to do it, and I did. It didn’t feel like hugging someone I’d met five minutes earlier.

Last season hit me hard because I was then, and continue to be, losing my father, who has brain radiation-induced dementia and is finding it increasingly difficult to communicate. When I tell him I love him now, I sometimes get three hums back, and I know that’s him saying it. But all 8.5 million viewers who saw Phil worry that he hadn’t been a good enough father, and Josh ease his mind, still carry that moment with them. Of course the show can’t maintain that level of emotional impact, nor would we want it to because it means someone suffering another loss. But without Phil, the show has become just a show again — albeit it one of TV’s best — and even though we’re getting some truly stunning cinematography this season as the Bering Sea rages, I can’t help but grieve a little for that. You can tell producers are trying — how many shots of seagulls, said to be the spirits of sailors lost, did we see in this week’s episode? How much did reliving Jake Anderson hearing about his father going missing as he sat in the Northwestern wheelhouse alone at night gut you? (I’ve said it before, there is nothing more chilling than the sound of a scared, helpless adult child saying “Mom?”) Still, compared to the palpable pain and honesty we experienced last season, those moments felt a bit manufactured, even though they weren’t. To be fair, once Jake started talking about how after his father went missing he’d become the man of the house for his four sisters and their combined 12 children, and had to make sure their bills were paid, it got very real. There’s something about his soft voice and softer eyes that can cut you. All he wants to do is run his own boat, and he doesn’t see Sig leaving the Northwestern to him. During the premiere live blog, the Hillstrands said if they could steal anyone from Sig, it would be Jake for his ambition and heart. I think Sig letting Jake drive the boat to pick up the first pot of the season showed he thinks of him like a son — even if he ribbed him when he didn’t get close enough and had to turn around.

There is still plenty of drama on Deadliest Catch this season, it’s just an adjustment to have so much of it revolve around the crab count again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fascinating to watch the Cornelia Marie and Ramblin’ Rose, both fishing for the elusive blue crab, average two a pot and see the toll it takes on the crew. That was a pretty telling moment when skeptical Cornelia Marie engineer/deckhand Steve Ward told Ray, “I hope you nail ‘em.” The captain’s response: “We. We are a crew and a team. We have to hold this boat together. We have to take care of each other.” (They finally got on some crab in their third string, but it ended 10 pots in when they discovered sand fleas — “the maggots of the Bering Sea” — which devour the bait.) Over on the Ramblin’ Rose, when a buddy’s chart failed to produce crab for the fleet’s youngest skipper, cocky Elliott Neese, deckhand Faresa Iaulualo had the quote of the night: “He better get more than five. I’m gonna throw his ass overboard.” It was sound bites like that that made me miss Phil in a different way. I’m sure producers had their reasons for not showing the Time Bandit at all this episode, but I wouldn’t recommend going another episode without Andy and Johnathan’s banter. Especially when Edgar is relatively mum on the Northwestern, and the promising captain of the Seabrooke, Scott Campbell Jr., tells his younger brother deckhand, “You’re the bait master!” and doesn’t feel the need to follow it up with, “I mean, the master baiter!”

While Jr. and Sig are cruising, Capt. Keith Colburn struck out taking the Wizard to new grounds, and had no crab — which meant no sleep for days. (Andy Hillstrand told us during the premiere live blog that the longest he’s ever gone without sleep is 82 hours.) That whole fight between Keith and the crew just seemed like a result of sleep-deprivation. Clearly that wasn’t the right time for Keith to put greenhorn Paul Edgren on the stack and expect his brother, relief captain Monte Colburn (a.k.a. Mouse), to train him. And clearly the crew should’ve cut the guy some slack since he had no idea what he was doing other than worrying that he would miss a tie and get one of them killed. After Keith reamed out the crew and wouldn’t let them say a word, Mouse didn’t talk to Keith for 26 hours. The brothers giggling over Mouse’s suggestion that Keith invite the crew, which had no more than a snack break in 50 hours, to come inside for a candy bar before starting on the next string was more hilarious than the joke. It’s amazing how laughter lifts the mood, isn’t it? Keith let his crew come in for the night and you felt their exhaustion as some of them just crashed wherever they sat down. (How had Paul put it? “If you told me I could get six hours of sleep but I had to do it in the cod bin, I’d wrap up with a cod and go to sleep right now.”)

Your turn. How are you feeling about the new season of Deadliest Catch? Are you warming to the new captains, Jr. and Elliott?

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