Whale Wars delivers amazing TV again, illustrating real life better than most reality TV

Defying the general trajectory of reality TV shows, Whale Wars has been getting better and better as a TV series as it ages. From its heart-stopping tension–there’s a cliffhanger for nearly every commercial break–to the bewildering bumbling of the Sea Shepherds, it’s been a tremendous season, and the series unquestionably remains one of the best shows on TV.

The third season concludes tonight on Animal Planet with a two-hour finale that starts at 9 p.m. ET, and will feature more drama as Pete Bethune boards a Japanese whaling vessel to confront its captain about destroying his ship, the Ady Gil. Although the outcome of both Paul’s efforts and, earlier this season, the Ady Gil’s destruction, were well-reported and thus are not surprising when they happen on screen, the power of the TV show is that it can show us exactly what happened and bring us into those moments.

When the Ady Gil was destroyed, its nose sheared off by a Japanese ship that turned into it while it was not even moving in the water, the crew was on the deck of the tiny vessel, and was engulfed in a wave. We saw that from both the perspective of a camera on-board the Japanese ship; from the crews aboard the Bob Barker, which was nearby; and from the Ady Gil itself. In fact, the only person who sustained injuries–broken ribs, according to news reports; “minor injuries,” according to Animal Planet’s statement–was the camera operator for the show, Simeon Houtman, who appeared on camera at one point. Yes, the crew literally risks their lives to bring us this show. (For more on that, see my interview with a Whale Wars camera operator.)

Watching the collision from all three perspectives, it was amazing that someone didn’t die. But it doesn’t take near-death collisions to make Whale Wars engaging. This season, we’ve seen Japanese vessels literally circling a Sea Shepherd boat; watched as the Sea Shepherds splattered the bullshit word “research” on the side of a ship with red paint; followed along as the helicopter had mechanical problems and almost was destroyed by water cannons and the Sea Shepherd crew’s inability to communicate; and watched a crew member threaten physical violence if he wasn’t returned home immediately.

All of this works not just because it’s so real and was happening before professional camera crews ever showed up, but because the producers, Lizard Trading Company, does such an excellent job of condensing real life into entertainment. This is no Real Housewives where the producers arrange a lunch for people who actually dislike each other to perform for the cameras and and scream at one another.

Here are two clips that illustrate the series at its best. And if for some reason you have not yet watched, start at the beginning: season one is on DVD, as is season two, and you can catch up with season three on demand. You won’t be sorry.

Here are two clips that illustrate Whale Wars at its best: a dramatic confrontation, and then the impact of incompetence followed by some conflict:

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.