Risky Businesses

Are Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men as good as Deadliest Catch?

Russell Newberry on Deadliest Catch. Click image to expand.
Russell Newberry on Deadliest Catch

The Perfect Storm wasn’t just a book about terrible weather. At heart, it was about the awful risks Gloucester fishermen take every time they sail to the Grand Banks. The book became a best-seller and later a George Clooney vehicle because of its vivid detailing of those risks—weather, yes, but also getting yanked overboard by fishing gear or skewered by a swordfish.

Sebastian Junger, the author of The Perfect Storm, began writing the book as part of a larger project about people with dangerous jobs, including smoke jumpers and war correspondents. That never came to pass, but Thom Beers has picked up where Junger left off, making it his business to spotlight occupations in which the risks go way beyond carpal tunnel syndrome. Beers is the producer behind Deadliest Catch, which begins its fourth season on Discovery Channel tonight. Catch, which follows the Alaskan king crab fishing fleet in the Bering Sea, is an obvious descendant of Storm and, as entertainment, far outstrips the celluloid version of Junger’s book. The show offers close-up looks at raging, frigid seas, footage that has seldom been captured so thoroughly and adeptly on television. That men go out and perform a difficult job in those conditions almost defies belief.

Catch was Beers’ first entry in the growing genre we might as well call Jungereality: programs about dangerous jobs and the men who do them. Ice Road Truckers follows men who drive supplies over frozen lakes in the Arctic Circle, while Ax Men spotlights lumber companies in the Pacific Northwest; both air on the History Channel, and both are produced by Beers. The newest Beers show, National Geographic’s America’s Port, focuses on the stevedores and anti-terror police working the Port of Los Angeles shipyards. Dirty Jobs, also entering its fourth season on Discovery, occasionally chronicles jobs that are dirty and dangerous. And more Jungereality is on the way—NBC recently announced a deal with Beers to produce several similar programs for the network, including one that will follow divers as they attach tracking devices to sharks.

Deadliest Catch has consistently ranked highly in the coveted 25-to-54-year-old demographic—at times, higher than any cable programming save sports. Will its offshoots enjoy similar success? A closer look at the elements that have made Deadliest Catch so compelling suggests its success will not be easily repeated.

Greed Is Good

The subjects on display in Jungereality aren’t daredevils—they’re employees. But merely working for a living isn’t enough. In addition to the man-against-nature theme, the shows add an element of man-against-man (and except for a lone female “ice road trucker,” there are no women in Jungereality). The dollars earned by each worker are tracked as the season progresses. The game-show aspect of these programs can feel a bit unseemly—these guys work to feed their families, not to show up the guy working on the other side of the hill. Then again, these are high-risk, high-reward gigs, and knowing exactly how high the reward is informs the viewer.

The accounting aspect of Jungereality works particularly well on Catch—it’s astonishing to learn that a veteran deckhand can expect $20,000 to $30,000 for a few weeks of work, and it follows that the more crabs caught, the better the payoff for the crew. On the other shows, however, the chain of commerce is murkier. The ice road truckers compete to haul the most “loads,” but there is no explanation of the pay scale: what factor the weight of their loads plays in their paychecks, whether they get docked for lost time, etc. Ax Men counts the trucks full of “green gold” (although the trees are brown) that each company of loggers sends down to the mill for processing, but since the size and nature of the forest tracts the men are asked to clear-cut differ wildly, this, too, feels forced.

It’s Risky, I Tell Ya, Risky

The sinking of the crab-fishing vessel Big Valley during the first season of Deadliest Catch was proof enough that the show’s title was not hyperbole. (Five crewmen died, only two of whom were ever found.) The other Jungereality programs labor to remind the viewer that if all goes well, death will be captured on camera. America’s Port isn’t out of its first segment before Beers (who narrates all the shows except Catch) intones about the dockworkers, “When they come to work, they leave their fear of death at home.” Granted, working around multiton shipping containers is more perilous than, say, bookkeeping, but thanks to high-tech equipment like computerized loading and offloading systems, being a stevedore isn’t as tough as it was in Terry Malloy’s day.

On Ax Men, almost every lumberjack gets a turn saying things like “You might get killed on the way to work, at work, or on your way home,” and the show goes out of its way to prove it. Four companies compete to bring in the most lumber on the show. Three are small firms that patch faulty equipment with elbow grease and jury-rig their operations to overcome a lack of loggers. The fourth, J.M. Browning Logging, is a large operation that employs helicopters to help haul felled trees up the slopes and expensive machinery to keep its operation chugging smoothly along. Why have such a big outfit competing with small fries? Because the titular head of the company, Jay Browning, lost an arm in an accident years ago, and each episode contains loving close-ups of his mechanical replacement—proof that Things Can Go Terribly Wrong out Here. Worst injury actually captured in the first several episodes? A wrenched back.

The Blue-Collar Bear

The breakout stars of Jungereality TV look more like candidates for a night in the drunk tank after a barroom brawl than for a chat on late-night TV. Phil Harris, captain of the Cornelia Marie on Catch, is the archetype—a husky, bearded gent with a voice deeper than the Bering Sea who suffers no fools and drops Bibles full of truth in every episode. On Ax Men, world-weary Dwayne Dethlefs teaches old-school lumber techniques in a similar basso profundo to his son, Dustin, the show’s comic relief, who can’t resist needling his old man about how time has rendered him considerably less nimble than his son. Ice Road’s resident Gruff Gus is Hugh “The Polar Bear” Rowland.

These working-class heroes are crucial to the success of Jungereality. As the History Channel’s marketing campaign is keen to point out, these are the kind of guys who made this country great, building it up through backbreaking labor. In a time when the American Way of Work is seemingly in its death throes, it’s comforting to see that spirit still intact, if only at the extreme end of the want ads. Ice Road Truckers suffers in this regard, though, because the raison d’être for the whole ice-trucking operation—keeping a diamond plant in northern Canada operating through resupply—doesn’t do much for anyone but the recently engaged. Ax Men, for its part, is simply depressing—several loggers mention halfhearted hopes of getting out of the forest and into school or a better job. Good luck: America’s Port spent much of its debut episode tracking shipments from Asia, a grim reminder of the loss of our industrial base. It’s only Catch, with its fishermen straight out of Jack London, that manages to meld thrills with nostalgia for a simpler, better time.

Who’s the New Guy?

The crusty veterans of Jungereality shows make the deadly look routine. Unfortunately, that cannot sustain the dozen or so episodes that constitute a season, so it is imperative to introduce someone likely to screw up into the mix. These callow kids (often barely 20 years old) struggle to attach cables properly or fail to keep up with the trucker convoy. Careful editing adds comic effect—on Ice Road, one rookie driver snottily insists over the CB radio that he “has no intention of winding up in a ditch, Bro.” Sure enough, in the next scene, there he is, stuck in a ditch.

On Catch, though, such mistakes aren’t funny. Greenhorns without the proper mettle immediately snap in the crucible of the unforgiving conditions, reduced to weeping in the hold or threatening to commit suicide by jumping off the boat. Therein lies perhaps the most important difference between Catch and its knockoffs. While Ax Men, America’s Port, and Ice Road Truckers are mildly interesting, what they lack is the hypnotic power and unpredictability of the ocean. Forests and frozen lakes just can’t provide the same drama as the open sea. Besides the tragedy of the Big Valley, the second season of Catch saw another vessel slammed by giant rogue wave. Boats have been caught and nearly demolished by floating ice, and crewmen have been swept overboard and rescued in the nick of time. Sebastian Junger realized his seafaring story was too potent to mix with tales of other risky work. The networks now rushing to woo Thom Beers may yet come to the same conclusion.