Discovery stakes a claim on scripted programming with the epic miniseries “Klondike,” and if the lavish production doesn’t quite strike gold, it comes close enough to encourage further exploration. Boasting a first-rate cast, an increasingly engrossing narrative and frequently awe-inspiring visuals, the six-hour saga transports viewers back to the tail end of 19th-century life with a requisite dose of contemporary edge. Given current trends in cable event programming, Discovery could be looking at a ratings bonanza — provided audiences aren’t so fed up with cold weather that watching characters that risk freezing to death to find their fortune is an instant turn-off.
If anything, the recent polar vortex headlines should give viewers a deeper connection to the bone-chilling conditions faced by adventurous pals Bill Haskell (Richard Madden, recovering nicely from the “Game of Thrones” Red Wedding) and Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew) as they head out in search of gold in the Yukon wilderness circa 1897. The mini’s first hour details their harrowing trek, opening in the midst of a perilous avalanche and flashing back to swiftly explain how recent college grad Bill and street-smart Byron went from New York to Colorado Springs to Southern Alaska and beyond.
After facing down both raging rapids and hungry wolves in sequences that play like adrenalized versions of classic Discovery docus, the guys finally settle in Dawson City, a lawless town that serves as home base for countless prospectors, outcasts and shady characters. That’s where the cast expands to include the colorful likes of Sam Shepard as plainspoken do-gooder Father Judge, on a mission to bring religion and morality to the area; and Tim Roth as the Count, a purported English aristocrat attempting to disguise his desperation with an air of wealth and class.
Even more important, especially for Bill, is Dawson’s most beguiling resident: beautiful businesswoman Belinda Mulrooney (Abbie Cornish), who wields the kind of financial savvy and power the Count only pretends to hold. Immediately drawn to Bill’s innocent nature but holding herself at a distance, Belinda begins as an enigma but develops into the story’s richest and most surprising character, and Cornish is spectacular in the role.
While “Klondike” does play a bit like “Deadwood Lite” at times, it’s best to avoid comparisons with the late great HBO drama and take the miniseries on its own terms as sturdy epic storytelling populated by a memorable collection of characters. That impressive roster also includes Tim Blake Nelson as trustworthy bartender Meeker, Ian Hart as oily con man Soapy Smith, Johnny Simmons as wide-eyed aspiring author Jack London (yes, that Jack London), Conor Leslie as seductive prostitute Sabine (charged with supplying some basic-cable-friendly brief nudity) and a standout Marton Csokas as the Superintendent, who lands the unenviable task of trying to bring law and order to Dawson.
After a key player is killed off in night one, the ensuing whodunit provides a foundation for the bulk of the series. Writers Paul T. Scheuring, Rachel Abramowitz and Josh Goldin (working from Charlotte Gray’s historical novel “Gold Diggers”) do a strong job weaving together multiple story strands and flavorful dialogue to showcase various aspects of frontier life. One notable exception: a subplot featuring a local indigenous tribe drawn into the murder investigation is underdeveloped to the point of tokenism.
Additionally, the use of multiple voiceover narrators feels like a mistake. It’s not always easy to tell who’s speaking and risks muddying the point of view, seeing as Madden does a fine job without unnecessary exposition.
But those are rather minor stumbles, and veteran TV helmer Simon Cellan Jones (“Generation Kill,” “Treme”) directs with a steady hand, managing both the vast scope of the great outdoors and more intimate character drama with equal aptitude. Director of photography Mike Eley channels a cinematic feel on the smallscreen, aided by remarkable location work in Alberta, Canada; and production designer Ken Rempel and costume designer Joanne Hansen go to town bringing Dawson City to life.
As the series wraps with definitive endings for all the characters, it appears Discovery won’t be making a return trip for “Klondike 2: The Legend of Haskell’s Gold” — even if ratings go through the roof. Nevertheless, the attention and care the network has shown its first scripted effort bodes well for future endeavors.