The highest-rated show on The History Channel, and the highest-rated show on cable last Tuesday was The Curse of Oak Island—it had more viewers than WWE Smackdown, and more viewers than The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and The Challenge combined.
That’s quite an impressive record for a show that is about a lot more digging than finding. Its stars are brothers Rick and Marty Lagina, and they’re digging in the same places that people have been digging for hundreds of years, Oak Island, where there may be booby traps, underground tunnels, and treasure in a “money pit”—or just natural formations and a former tar kiln.
Their quest has earned them a top-rated cable reality show and fame that landed them on The Late Show last week, where they were gently mocked by on Colbert. But this is fame that they didn’t seek out, and a show that actually impedes their work.
Production on The Curse of Oak Island “slows it down. The show slows down the exploration effort. They don’t interfere. That is a very real show—we’re doing what we think is the right thing to do,” not what the production wants them to do, Marty said. “But it takes a lot longer to do because of the setup of the cameras.”
But although it’s produced, of course, The Curse of Oak Island is not fake. “Everything about that show is real. There are no scripts. We said early on we would not do a scripted show.” Marty said the producers approached them. “We kind of reluctantly agreed to it. We weren’t looking for any sort of fame. We still don’t really like that. They said, Just let us follow you. Well, it’s not quite like that. Things take more time, you have to get mic’d, and all that. So it’s not them just following us, but it is real. We will not do scripts. All the discussions in the war room are what we are discussing.”
Rick agreed, though he said the production’s presence has also positively affected their work. “Some of the things we’ve done—the marginal things—we’ve expanded on those or been more aggressive on them because the show needs content. It’s not something we wouldn’t have done,” he said, but they accelerated their timeline because the show needed something to film.
“The truth is, on a personal level, we didn’t seek this show out,” Rick said. “We had already been engaged in the search process for three years or more before the show approached us. It kind of intrudes on your personal life. But the upside, again, is that we welcome the fact that people come to the island. We’ve opened up the island for tourists. It’s gratifying to know that people have bought into this mystery almost as we have. Families come, and we enjoy the interaction. And we definitely appreciate all the support.”
Marty said that the attention that comes with a top-rated cable show is “intrusive,” but quickly added, “fame is pretty fleeting. I think we can deal with it.”
And the popularity benefits more than just the History Channel. “The nicest part is that we’ve had lots of input from maybe a mother or a father who says, It’s the only show that we can watch with our kids. It’s the only show that the kids and we are interested in,” he said. “And that’s great, because there’s just not enough of that. We’re really happy about that.”
Could it be? Rick and Marty talk about their famous line
The show’s cliffhangers are legendary, if not frustrating, even for fans, who mock a certain phrase that’s often spoken on Oak Island during the digs.
“Could it be? That’s the biggest line that everybody gets a grin out,” Marty said. “Could it be?! If we were critical of the show, we would say, Geeze, guys, do you have to push that that much? But at its heart, Prometheus [the production company], they do a great job. I think the thing that appeals to people is that at its core, it’s real. It’s absolutely real. It’s two guys from northern Michigan who are really, really trying to unravel an ancient mystery. Yeah, they put the Hollywood stuff on that we don’t have anything to do with, and maybe sometimes it’s silly—I’d say for sure sometimes it’s silly.”
Rick told me that, if they had control over the editing, it might be different. “I wish we could tweak it a little bit, but we don’t. A&E and History and especially Prometheus, they’ve reached a very wide audience with an incredible 220-year-old mystery, and people have bought into it on all kinds of levels, whether it’s from a historical perspective, an archeological perspective, a treasure hunters perspective,” he said.
“And as Marty said, families are bonding over it. We get letters from teachers all the time—our two sisters are teachers. If you can, in some small way, help with a child’s learning and/or ability to be creative and imaginative and think outside the box, who wouldn’t want to participate in that?”
The brothers also get letters and e-mail messages from people who try to help. Marty told me that they “get all kinds of input—some of it crazy, some of it marginal, and a lot of things that are really good ideas.” Rick added that “the biggest help” is “new technologies have been mentioned to us,” and “some of it as actually actionable material that we can apply in the field.”
Will The Curse of Oak Island—or the search—ever end?
“There will be an end for us for sure,” Marty said. “Maybe we’ll figure it out; maybe we don’t. Maybe we find something—at this point, we’ve already found some really interesting things. We don’t know. Rick’s criteria is that he doesn’t want to leave with regrets. Well, we’ve got to discuss exactly what that means.”
Rick told me, “Very passionate, intelligent, committed individuals have come before us, including a President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, and every one of those were able to move the dial forward. Surely at the point at which we feel we’re not moving the dial forward, then out of respect to those people, it would be time to pass the torch. I think there’s something of historical significance happened there, and it would be a shame for that story not to be ferreted out and told.”
The Laginas both encourage viewers to ask questions about what they’re watching—about those stories, what’s being uncovered, or about the theories being presented. “Things move forward because of skepticism,” Rick said.
And Marty told me, “If people are saying, Oh that’s a ridiculous theory, that’s great. They’re engaged. They’re looking at it. They’re analyzing it. Picking up on what Rick said, the best part of this is getting people engaged and motivating kids.”
Rick added, “For me, as great as this show has been in telling a 220-year-old mystery, I would encourage people to do their own research. There are at least 20 books or more that tell a very rich story of this mystery, and in one-hour show, as good as the people that are involved in producing the show are, and how creative they are—there is a lot of information about Oak Island that can’t be put in an hour show. And I would encourage people, if they’re interested, to read and research some of it, because the story is far richer than what’s been told.”