PASADENA, Calif. -- Discovery Channel joins the growing ranks of cable networks offering original scripted programming with its miniseries "Klondike" (9 p.m. Jan. 20, 21 and 22).
The three-part, six-hour program is based on Charlotte Gray's 2010 book "Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike," a nonfiction account of the last gold rush in 1897. (A disclaimer on the miniseries states that some of the fictional characters, dialogue and events are inspired by real-life counterparts.)
This miniseries is essentially a Western with a murder mystery and romance as its prime components. "Klondike" follows recent college grad Bill Haskell (Richard Madden, who played Robb Stark on HBO's "Game of Thrones") and his best friend, Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew), as they travel to Dawson City in Canada's Yukon Territory to try to strike it rich at a Klondike gold claim.
Tragedy follows and soon Haskell is out for justice. Along the way he falls for an independent woman, Belinda Mulrooney (Abbie Cornish, "Seven Psychopaths"), befriends a priest (Sam Shepard, "The Right Stuff") and future novelist Jack London (Johnny Simmons, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower").
"Klondike," filmed in Calgary, Canada, offers beautiful scenery and vistas. Its story is relatively familiar as pioneer tales go -- there's nothing as soapy or politically intertwined as seen in AMC's "Hell on Wheels" or FX's "Justified" -- but it is a fairly entertaining yarn.
"Klondike" writer/executive producer Paul Scheuring ("Prison Break") said he created a character who dies early -- Haskell and Mulrooney are based on real people -- because he didn't think viewers would buy into the show if Haskell was only in the Klondike to get rich.
"I created that to serve the larger narrative so one thing that keeps Ben Haskell in the Klondike is he has unfinished business in terms of the mystery of [the murder]," Mr. Scheuring said during a press conference at the first day of the Television Critics Association winter 2014 press tour.
Dolores Gavin, a Discovery development executive, said the network's success with Alaska-set reality series, including "Gold Rush," played a role in making "Klondike" its first scripted project.
"Discovery is about man's relationship to nature, which is sometimes beautiful and sometime agonizing but the relationship in the end is always a meaningful one," she said.
Ms. Gavin also acknowledged that the success of History's "Hatfields & McCoys" miniseries in 2012 helped motivate the desire to get into scripted content. No future projects have been announced and there are no plans for a "Klondike" sequel.
"We had a natural beginning and end. You need to know when to say goodbye and let's find more stories," she said.
Ms. Gavin doesn't rule out a weekly, scripted series if that makes sense with a particular story topic or setting but she said Discovery has no weekly series in development.
Syfy returns to darker, less escapist fare with "Helix," debuting tonight at 10 with two back-to-back episodes. It's executive produced by Ron Moore of Syfy's "Battlestar Galactica" reboot but plays more like a somewhat tiresome cross between "The Walking Dead" and "The Thing."
While it's great to see Syfy attempting more grounded storytelling, "Helix" seems like it might make a better movie than an ongoing TV series that strings viewers along with a never-ending mystery.
Set at a private company's Arctic research station, the premiere episode uses the creepy convention of playing upbeat music ("Do You Know the Way to San Jose?") over tense, horrifying scenes as a virus of some sort infects the Arctic Biosystems researchers, including Peter Farragut (Neil Napier), brother of CDC scientist Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell, "The Killing"), who is sent with a team to the Arctic to figure out what's going on.
That team includes Alan's requisite ex-wife, Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky), who had an affair with Peter, and a new, young scientist, Dr. Sara Jordan (Jordan Hayes), who seems to revere Alan. There's also a military man, Maj. Sergio Balleseros (Mark Ghanime), and an odd duck scientist, Dr. Doreen Boyle (Catherine Lemieux), who steals every scene she's in despite a fluctuating Southern accent.
"This is going to be the most fracked up family reunion ever," Boyle says en route to the Arctic, a nod to the show's "Battlestar" pedigree.
Once there, the team encounters secrecy and lies from Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada) and revelations begin to drip out about characters' murky agendas. (It's also quickly discovered that the illness, whatever it is, is not airborne, allowing the characters to shed their protective gear, the better to tell one character from another.)
"Helix" gets its moody atmosphere right but the ongoing plot seems tiresome without offering much momentum besides the deaths of anonymous Arctic Biosystems researchers. Instead of marauding zombies, infected researchers are the enemy in "Helix" and they go about their task of infecting and attacking others with gusto.
Perhaps in time "Helix" will develop into something more substantial but in its first two hours it sets up a lot of questions without providing answers or a compelling reason for viewers to stick with it.
'Kill' premiere date set
A&E's set and filmed-in-Pittsburgh drama series "Those Who Kill" has a premiere date: 10 p.m. March 3.
Read more about the Chloe Sevigny-starring crime drama in Saturday's Post-Gazette.
Pittsburghers at TCA
Day one and there were already several stories out of the Television Critics Association winter press tour with local connections, including Alicia Kozakiewicz, who was the victim of an Internet luring in 2002 when she was abducted and held captive for several days in another state. She'll return for an episode in the second season of Investigation Discovery's "Deadline: Crime With Tamron Hall," which returns in the spring.
Former Western Pennsylvania resident John Ligato, a 1972 graduate of Slippery Rock University, will be featured in an episode of "Against the Odds," a series about real-life bands of brothers in war who detail their experiences. Mr. Ligato was a Marine who fought in the Vietnam War.
"Against the Odds" will air on the American Heroes Channel, the renamed Military Channel, when the network relaunches March 3. The channel will focus on heroes in and out of uniform, including military, first responders and others who "inspire all of us as Americans," per a Discovery network executive.
I'll have more on these programs when they air.
HBO sneak previews
HBO showed TV critics the pilots of two new 2014 series Wednesday night: "The Leftovers," from "Lost" executive producer Damon Lindelof and based on the novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta, about those left behind after an unexplained rapture-style event; and "Silicon Valley," a comedy about tech nerds from Mike Judge ("King of the Hill," "Beavis and Butt-head") that's reminiscent of Amazon.com's "Betas" but funnier.
Critics were asked not to review the pilots -- neither was a final edit -- but both offered intriguing debut episodes that made me eager to see more.
A year after changing its name from "The Insider" to "omg! Insider," the syndicated entertainment news magazine has reverted to its original title. ... TVGN (formerly TV Guide Network) will air every episode to date of The CW's "The Originals" (starting at 2 p.m. Saturday) and "Reign" (2 p.m. Jan. 18). ... Drake will host and be musical guest on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" on Jan. 18; Jonah Hill hosts Jan. 25 with U.K. band Bastille as musical guest. ... Sitcom spinoff fans take note: "Joanie Loves Chachi: The Complete Series" is out on DVD Feb. 4. ... Ratings report: PBS's "Downton Abbey" returned in fine fettle, drawing an average 10.2 million viewers to its premiere Sunday, the highest-rated drama premiere in PBS history; CBS's "Intelligence" got off to a good ratings start Tuesday (16.6 million viewers) while ABC's "Killer Women" was dead on arrival (3.9 million viewers). ... On Tuesday Hulu.com will debut the original Danish version of "The Bridge" that inspired the FX series that premiered last summer. ... Live TV events are all the rage and the latest is National Geographic Channel's "Live From Space," a two-hour special airing in March from the International Space Station and starring its resident astronauts. ... OWN has ordered a fourth Tyler Perry series, "Single Moms Club," a one-hour drama to air in the fall. ... Steeltown Entertainment will bring Monroeville native Don Roy King, director of "Saturday Night Live," to Pittsburgh for a speaking engagement at 7 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Frick Fine Arts Building at the University of Pittsburgh. Admission is $15 ($5 for students) and tickets are available online through steeltown.org.
Tuned In online
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Shameless," SOAPnet and "Steve Harvey." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Enlisted," "Duck Dynasty," "Episodes" and "Justified." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's podcast includes conversation about "Downton Abbey," "Dance Moms" and new TV series premiering this month. Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.
Read more coverage from the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Tuned In Journal at post-gazette.com/tv.
A portion of this column originally appeared online in the Tuned In Journal blog. Post-Gazette TV writer Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour. Follow RobOwenTV at Twitter or Facebook. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.