Can a five-hour Alaskan train ride be compelling Thanksgiving viewing?


The ever-widening range of TV offerings can sometimes seem to leave no stone unturned. There are transgender prisoners and Southern U.S. zombies in scripted television; there are all manner of competing professionals — and, if you’re inclined to presidential-election coverage, undead of a different sort — in nonscripted.

But few such rocks are as far flung as Destination America’s “Railroad Alaska: Real-Time Train Ride,” a program that couldn’t be more literally named if it tried.

For five hours beginning Thanksgiving Day, viewers can look out from a train making its way through the remotest parts of Alaska. The special will offer largely front-facing views of the icy hinterland, as though the viewer is perched on top of the locomotive, with the occasional side or other angle thrown in.


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For hour after hour, the train will do nothing more than simply chug along, catching scenery of some of the country’s least-populated areas. There will be no dialogue. There will be moose.

“What we are trying for is the single-most-boring show ever on TV,” said Henry Schleiff, group president for a series of Discovery Channels that includes Destination America. He is being tongue in cheek — maybe.

There is bold television and there is derivative television. Then there is something like “Real-Time Train Ride,” which doesn’t seem t fit any category.

What sounds like a gimmick — what point is there in a mindless train ride with no shaping details? -- may come with a conceptual underpinning. In the world of so much distraction and stimulation, where even a gripping novel can make one antsy for the hot interactivity of a cellphone, there may be something healthy about unplugging.

Think of it, producers say, as TV’s equivalent of the slow-food movement.

“If there’s an underlying element of serious thought to the experiment.” Schleiff said, “it’s that we’re so inundated with messages, there are so many ways of being reached, the noise is so omnipresent, that the aesthetic of silence could be a very different experience and arguably even pleasurable.”

Added executive producer Caroline Perez: ‘It’s the clash of the modern world with the old-fashioned romance of the train.”

Schleiff wants to use the snooze caboose to promote the network’s regular “Railroad Alaska” series, a more conventional extreme-outdoors show (about offgrid workers in Alaska), that began its third season last week — but also, one gets the sense, simply because he can. The network aired a live exorcism last month, and has been trying to shake up the more familiar precincts of nonscripted cable with some unusual programming, or at least a juicy publicity stunt.

Long one of TV’s cheeky mavericks, Schleiff hopes that “Railroad Alaska: Real-Time Train Ride” could become a kind of Turkey Day companion to the yule log — a warm and comforting holiday tradition known as much for what it doesn’t try to do as it was does.

Actually, he’s not setting his sights that high. “The yule log is probably a little more exciting, no?”

“Real-Time Train Ride,” it should be noted, was not as easy to shoot as burning wood; after all, trains move quickly, and generally without troubleshooting people sitting atop them. The camera had to be set up to do its thing without humans.

Originally producers thought they could piggyback on the regular “Railroad Alaska” production. But they soon realize that relying on the show’s regular cameras wouldn’t work because those could only hold about 30 minutes of footage at a time, not five hours.

Meanwhile, the camera lens would sometimes get covered with snow, forcing some clever cuts to other angles until the snow would fall or be cleaned off. The train does occasionally pulls in to a station to pick up freight or the occasional passenger (the railroad holds both), but producers said they took pains not to splice anything together; the ride as you see it is how it happened. (The route is on the Talkeetna to Denali/Healy line, for those up on their far northwestern geography.)

Then there was the question of where to put the cameras in the first place. Producers decided to make the front-eye view the primary angle — a decision that any child who has ever stood next to a motorman looking out the front of a train can appreciate — as well as some side views.

“We did try to spare you the reverse angle,” Perez said. “We don’t want anyone to need any kind of Pepto-Bismol to watch.”

Incidentally, Americans did not come up with the idea. For the past number of years, stations in Norway has been experimenting with the slow-TV movement, tracking train and ship voyages to the apparent delight of its viewers.

But the form is now receiving a Yank spin. That the special is being aired toward the end of Thanksgiving Day is not an accident, a post-feast time when the network hopes that people will want to slow down and take a break from parade of football and, well, parades, or at least look for an excuse to get away from family members. (Executives say they imagine some people will tune in for 10 minutes, some for an hour, and some may leave it running as soothing background for its entire run, a kind of visual equivalent of whale sounds.)

And though there is a kind of passive quality to the show — there’s only so much a televised train ride will stir in viewers — there’s also an oddly lean-in quality. The train is moving fast and the objects are in the background; if you don’t pay attention, they will literally go right by. “If you look away, you might miss the single moose,” Perez said.

Destination America executives might suggest that the spotting of various animate objects could even be adapted for a drinking game.

Meanwhile, Schleiff, ever the innovator, is already scheming ahead. “We’re thinking that next year, for the sequel, you could watch the return trip.”