Opinion

The North Water and the case for nautical television

The new AMC+ series raises the question: Why aren’t more TV shows set on boats?

A 19th-century whaling ballad hitting the No. 1 spot on the global charts was not on anyone's Bingo card for 2021. But two weeks into the year, sea shanties and their ilk had become so pervasive that publications across the internet scrambled to find an explanation for the viral reemergence of songs that were originally composed to entertain and organize sailors some 200 years ago.

While there were all sorts of hypotheses, linking the trend to the COVID-19 pandemic, and to a natural extension of the dueting feature on TikTok, and to the infectious energy of the tunes, the most obvious explanation seemed almost too easy: that people think boats are cool, and it's just our entertainment that has been slow to catch up. Because if sea shanties, of all things, can rise to the top of the charts in 2021, then nautical TV shows — including AMC+'s whaling drama The North Water, premiering Thursday — really ought to have a fighting chance too. 

So why haven't there been more of them?

With a few notable exceptions (yes Black Sails fans, I see you), boats have made scant appearances as settings on the small screen. The S.S. Minnow might be the most famous television boat of all time, but the majority of Gilligan's Island takes place at the castaways' more terrestrial compound. The most identifiable boat series otherwise is undoubtedly Love Boat, the romantic comedy that aired between 1977 and 1986 and exemplified why boats naturally loan themselves to TV, with their exotic port of calls conducive to weekly episodes; their crewmembers making for returning characters with rotating passenger guests spots; and their inexhaustible opportunities for drama despite their relatively small physical size (as any sailor will wryly confirm). Beyond a corny sitcom that aired three decades ago, though, there are few other popular examples of boats in television outside of reality TV, like Bravo's Below Deck franchise, which follows around the abnormally attractive crew of a superyacht during its charter season.

The North Water's course, then, is sailed both literally and figuratively in uncharted waters. Based on Ian McGuire's "blood-drenched" 2016 novel of the same name and directed by Andrew Haigh (45 Years), the five-part miniseries premiering Thursday might best be described as The Terror meets Moby-Dick meets The Lost City of Z, all by way of Joseph Conrad. In the twilight days of the North Atlantic whaling boom, a guilt-stricken ex-Army physician named Patrick Sumner (Jack O'Connell) signs on as the surgeon to the Volunteer, a British ship bound for the Arctic to hunt leviathans. Onboard, however, he encounters an even more formidable beast: the ship's harpooner, Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), a bearish, brutish, and merciless hunter. Fair warning: between Drax's seal-bludgeoning and the Victorian-era medical procedures performed by Sumner, this is not a show to watch during dinner.

Though only the first half of The North Water technically takes place aboard the Volunteer, the ship scenes are the high points in the front-loaded miniseries. Even in a story as dark and sordid as this, there is a romance to the Age of Sail that immediately sucks you in with its creaking wood and gimbaled kerosene lamps. The showrunner, Haigh, gives the Volunteer space to show off, too; in the background of every shot on deck there are men busy at work, while plentiful runtime is given to moments like raising sails (and seasickness), as well as to sublime exterior shots of the ship in the North Atlantic waters. The dexterity of the camerawork on deck also gives a strong sense of the boat as a lived-in physical space, something of a rarity in the few maritime shows that have come before it that have had to make do with sound stages. The Volunteer also serves the convenient purpose of metaphor: for Sumner, who is using it as his escape from his past, its confines ironically become his cage. And as the Volunteer travels further and further from England, that self-contained world of the ship grows increasingly lawless.

After all, on a vessel as vulnerable as a ship, you don't need much to spark great drama. But throw in the added claustrophobia that comes from the discovery that a murderer is on board, Tim Hecker's superbly eerie electronic score — full of whale calls, howls, echoes, and ice creaks — and some really good knitwear, and it's hard not to imagine The North Water ultimately surpassing the cult following of 2018's The Terror. For while I'm an avowed fan of AMC's other Arctic tall ship show, the limitations of The Terror's CGI budget sometimes hamstrung its effect. The North Water, by contrast, is shot almost entirely on location above the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, with the network bragging that, at 81 degrees north and in real pack ice, it is "the furthest point north it is believed a drama series has ever filmed before." From the frosted-over decks to the weak blush of an Arctic sunset against the masts, that dedication to authenticity pays off in cinematic spades.

But therein lies the drawbacks to nautical TV shows, too, though. A realistic drama requires cramming actors, crew, and bulky equipment onto a ship, which can be a logistical nightmare depending on the vessel's size. While you can make do with fixed sets and bottle episodes for a time, CGI sailing ships can start to look cheesy or become downright ridiculous (see Game of Thrones). Even if there is plenty of seaworthy material laying around to adapt — fans have been clamoring for a Master and Commander TV show for years — actually securing the budget to do a boat show properly is a much trickier problem. But without the money to indulge in production design or exterior shots — the two things that make a boat a boat being the unique quarters and where they'll get you to — then you might as well set the show in a hotel.

Until the heads of original content at other networks get the memo that boat TV really is worth the trouble, though, fans will have to make do with the smattering of rare shows that have already taken the plunge. Watchers of The North Water, anyway, will be rewarded at the end of nearly every episode with the singing of a sea shanty over the credits. Someone must've heard that they're all the rage.

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