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.