By Hank Stuever
The Washington Post
Climbing aboard the premium drama train, Discovery sticks to one of its favorite reality TV subjects for its first scripted miniseries -- hunting for gold in the Yukon -- and comes back with some promising flecks if not quite a mother lode.
Klondike, a three-night epic on Discovery Channel, is based on the true tales of some of the men and women who were caught up in the Dawson City gold rush of the late 1890s. (It uses Canadian historian Charlotte Gray's 2010 book Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike as source material.)
Richard Madden, who played Robb Stark (R.I.P.) in Game of Thrones, stars as Bill Haskell, an adventure-seeking college graduate who, with his pal Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew), goes west to see what entrepreneurial fortunes await. During a chance encounter in Denver, a stranger in a bar pays their tab with a fat gold nugget, and that's all it takes: The young men buy into the hype and head for the far, far northwest.
Klondike is not going to win awards for its lackluster screenplay and penchant for melodrama, but it does have some of the plucky energy you'd enjoy at one of those faux-saloon dinner theaters, where the gradations between good and bad hardly exist. It comes across almost like a musical without any songs, and before long, you're swept up in its crisp visuals and steady pace. (I had the pleasure of a six-hour binge, uninterrupted by commercials; Klondike might become a more arduous journey when spread out over three nights.)
Surviving a steep mountain pass and an avalanche, Bill and his buddy arrive in lawless Dawson City, a place high on speculative wealth and rife with con men, criminals and prostitutes -- oh, and Jack London (Johnny Simmons) too. The Call of the Wild author would become famous writing about the Klondike rush and the characters who sought fortunes there.
The Mounties ride into town to bring some order, with little success. A newly arrived priest, Father Judge (Sam Shepard), hopes to build a church and spread some charism but instead winds up conducting funerals and tending sickbeds during a fever epidemic. The town villain is called the Count (Tim Roth, who is all but twirling his mustache here), who intimidates and steals from anyone who seems to be getting a leg up. The Count's main adversary is the strong-willed hotel and saloon owner Belinda Mulrooney (Abbie Cornish), who helps Bill establish a small claim and lends him her best employee/bartender, Meeker (Tim Blake Nelson), to help him dig.
You can't really tell a story of the Yukon gold rush without portraying the inordinate amount of suffering that went on. Klondike starts out strong in aiming for an accurate 19th-century period report but gradually lapses in detail. As bad as life gets, the characters still look a little cleaner and healthier than the old photographs depict -- the Indians appear to have recently visited the Wasilla Wal-Mart; the winters are harsh but not harsh enough; the starvation is too painless. While Nelson's character makes malnourished dashes for the outhouse, Madden's smile remains beatifically pearly.
Still, it's a strong cast delivering an honest effort. Madden is born to play stoutheartedly stubborn heroes; Nelson's role grows as the series progresses and makes good use of his understated talents. Klondike has a solid spirit and a moral underpinning; pretty soon, Bill and the few who survive in Dawson City grapple with the plain-as-day lessons at the bottom of their muddy gold pans.
This makes for an interesting contrast to Discovery's increasingly desperate seekers of the 21st century, as seen on its hit reality shows Gold Rush and Bering Sea Gold. I find I can still get suckered into watching an hour or two as these marginalized American he-men try to thwart middle-class extinction by locating the magical honey hole. Mostly they wind up yelling at one another and maxing out on their credit cards. As Klondike makes magnificently clear, these dreams have always died hard.