Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin appears briefly at the outset of “Iditarod,” producer Thom Beers’ latest paean to manly pursuits in forbidding climes, following in the sled tracks of “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers.” Yet while seeing Palin survive an interview unscathed is something of a thrill (“It puts Alaska on the map globally!”), it’s the appetizer to this six-episode series, which provides an interesting primer on the race and its grueling particulars — although slogging through the frozen tundra for another five weeks isn’t a particularly scintillating prospect.
Admittedly, the show is educational. While the Iditarod has a certain romantic quality, its Marathon-like history is interesting — launched in 1973 to commemorate a heroic parade of dog teams that ferried life-saving medicine to epidemic-stricken Nome nearly 50 years earlier.
Today, it’s more like NASCAR of the North, pitting 96 mushers against each other in what’s described as “an 1,100-mile gantlet,” each one outfitted with 16-dog teams that, mercifully, are examined by veterinarians at checkpoints along the way.
The human winner earns a grand prize of $69,000 and a pickup truck. What the dogs get out of it isn’t spelled out.
Where the show begins to break down, alas, is in the featured mushers, who may be treated like rock stars locally but aren’t an especially interesting bunch to those of us in the lower 48. Sure, each comes with an up-close-and-personal twist — the native Eskimo who built his own sled; the 55-year-old cancer survivor taking her last stab at glory; the diabetic risking his life to participate — but almost without exception, the personalities aren’t nearly as colorful as the backstories.
Beers has nevertheless carved out a compelling niche in the increasingly stale reality TV landscape, focusing on tough-guy jobs and avocations in hostile or exotic locales. He also approaches them in a refreshingly straightforward manner, relying on the settings and stakes to yield drama without resorting to trumped-up conflict or obviously staged encounters.
“Iditarod” also offers what amounts to rather timely insight into Alaska’s frontier spirit, to the extent the stark imagery helps explain what sort of leaders the state produces. Strictly as a TV attraction, though, the series would probably play better boiled down to a couple hours on ESPN, as opposed to intercutting among eight teams in order to stretch things out for several weeks.
At this point, following one interminable campaign involving Alaska feels like more than enough.