A blue-collar, foul-mouthed crew of roughnecks heads to work at their dangerous job. It’s just another day, until something goes terribly wrong. Will they all survive? Will they still make money? It’s hairy for a while, and someone might quit, get fired, or receive a minor injury or death scare. But, in the end, they survive another day and keep on working.
Think you have the show title? Problem is, it could be any of a number of series about dangerous jobs, the latest hot trend in reality TV.
It all began in April 2005 with Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch,” which follows king crab fishermen on Alaska's Bering Sea. Turns out the high-stakes, high-pay crab-fishing industry was ready-made for this formula: Six boat crews race against time to make as much money as they can before the clock or the crab runs out. It’s dangerous work, as crews must battle huge waves and tricky equipment.
“Deadliest Catch” was such a critical and fan favorite that it birthed three copycat shows from the same producers.
History Channel’s “Ice Road Truckers,” which premiered in June 2007, was the first “Deadliest Catch” copycat. Now in its third season, it has the deadly job formula down: Truckers drive across frozen Canadian lakes and, in subsequent seasons, the Arctic Ocean, hauling equipment and supplies to towns so remote they’re only reachable by automobile when the lakes and ocean freeze. There’s usually a weather or mechanical obstacle in every episode, setting some or all of the crews behind. By episode’s end, though, the truckers always keep on trucking.
The latest addition to the genre is “Black Gold,” which premiered June 19 on truTV. It follows several Texas oil crews as they drill for crude. The formula is pretty much the standard: Crews face obstacles in their race to reach oil; there are injuries and dangers, but they always keep on going. One element they’ve added this time around is the after-work lives of some of the guys. In the first episode, cameras followed one of the oil crews to the bar, where the roughnecks proceeded to get drunk, try to pick up women in parking lots, and even cry (literally) about their jobs. There are repercussions at work, of course, when the entire crew except for the newest member is fired.
Some similarities feel forced
The shows follow very different professions, but similarities abound. Some naturally flow out of the subject matter, but others feel forced. The producers seem to be working overtime to set up a spirit of competition within each show. They’re presented for viewers as if these crews are competing for a limited amount of money or resources.
It’s clear why it was set up this way for “Deadliest Catch,” which features a short fishing season and limited crabs for the taking. But it makes less sense when you’re watching four logging crews at different job sites and the narrator is telling you they’re racing to finish their jobs before the other crews. “Ice Road Truckers,” for one, has wisely started to take the focus away from the competition. These jobs are obviously dramatic enough without having to resort to faux-rivalries.
Each show has a rock (or country-rock) theme song, with similar opening credits. “Deadliest Catch” started it off with Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive” playing over footage of their dangerous occupation, with crew leaders and their boat’s names displayed. “Ice Road Truckers” followed suit with Aerosmith’s “Living on the Edge” and the same type of introductions. “Ax Men” used Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” as it introduced the four crews. “Black Gold” went country with a song from Trace Adkins (a former oil roughneck himself).
These song choices are quite deliberate: They're trying to make the show's "characters" into a new version of hard-living, do-as-they-please rock stars. It might seem like a stretch to compare an aging logger or trucker to a rock star, but watch the show and then take a look at the Rolling Stones. Their ways of life are sort of eerily similar: They've chosen careers that allow them to live the lives they enjoy without being tied down by normal social mores. And their bodies show the wear and tear of the rough-and-tumble life they've chosen. The show's producers were clearly a step ahead of us on figuring out that death-defying, blue-collar work is the new rock 'n' roll lifestyle.
Of course, each show features a cast of colorful characters. There's always a story line or two evolving around greenhorns and rookies: They're picked on (in "Black Gold," they call the new guy "Peanut" because he's short) and hazed (in the first season of "Deadliest Catch," they duct-tape the greenhorn to a post). Gnarly veterans are also part of the mix, some with missing thumbs ("Black Gold") or hands ("Ax Men").
The personalities can make or break these shows from an entertainment perspective. "Ice Road Truckers" tends to get repetitive because it features a lot of hauling and movement without much of the explosive tempers, firings, fighting, and backbiting in the other three shows. The fairly isolated life of a trucker can only be so interesting for so long (although 20th Century Fox might beg to differ, since the studio is turning the show into a big-screen action film). "Deadliest Catch," on the other hand, has Northwestern captain Sig Hansen, who's been the most consistent presence on the show over its four seasons and whose story lines haven't begun to get tiresome. He runs a family operation that treats its employees well, but won't put up with lying, lack of work ethic, or laziness.
In fact, “Deadliest Catch” is the most successful of this genre so far and if you’ve tuned in, it’s obvious why: Crab fishing is truly the deadliest of the professions featured. The stakes feel higher, the danger closer. More deaths and near-deaths probably have appeared on “Catch” than on the rest of the shows combined. And, as for sheer terror, it doesn’t get any better (or worse?) than watching guys facing a sea full of waves big enough to swallow them whole, boat and all. That’s the kind of drama you can’t script or re-create with a million other copycat series, no matter how good they might be.
DeAnn Welker is a writer in Portland, Ore.