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

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April 15 2008 6:53 PM

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.

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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.

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