[3 October 2010]
When History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers debuted four years ago, the appeal was obvious. It featured truck drivers in extreme North America, in the middle of winter, driving on “roads” plowed over frozen lakes. It seems like History’s answer to Discovery’s popular Deadliest Catch, and the ratings for the series are similarly high. In fact, both shows share a production team headed by Thom Beers, who has become the go-to guy for non-fiction programming featuring (mostly) men working tough jobs under difficult conditions.
Despite its high ratings, though, Ice Road Truckers is a show with some fundamental problems, mainly that it’s often flat-out boring. Once the novelty of trucks driving over ice wore off, it became clear that a cameraman riding along in a truck cab for hours on end isn’t very compelling. The show has filmed in three different locations in its four seasons, presumably in search of a stretch of road that will produce exciting television. While Alaska’s Dalton Highway has provided a bit more action over the past two seasons, the series has been resorting to narrative techniques to generate interest. Breathless narration from Beers exaggerates everything from how close trucks get to each other on the road to the importance of tire chains to routine run-ins with supervisors or law enforcement.
So I am frankly surprised to report that the spinoff, IRT: Deadliest Roads, is both interesting and exciting. Three of the regular drivers have headed to India for two months to drive in the Himalayas during spring and early summer. It’s clear from the start that Alex Debogorski, Lisa Kelly, and Rick Yemm have no idea what they are getting into with this job. At a trucking company in Delhi, each driver is assigned a truck and a spotter, who helps with everything from navigating city streets to guiding the trucks along narrow mountain roads. The trucks themselves are underpowered and unprotected, with less than 50% of the horsepower of North American trucks and simple wooden frames. Driving on the left side of the road with a steering wheel on the right side of the cab provide two more challenges for the veteran truckers. Oh, and the temperatures at ground level soar to well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a far cry from the below zero temperatures they know best.
The three truckers are assigned to deliver cement to in-progress dam projects high in the Himalayas. Their first problem is just getting out of Delhi, with its busy streets and careless pedestrians and drivers. Each driver has a different problem, with Rick’s stress level especially soaring on the treacherous mountain roads up to the town of Shimla. His truck’s weak engine forces him to crawl up the roads at 20 miles per hour. All the while, cars and buses speed around to pass him, heading into oncoming traffic. The shots of all this dangerous driving make it clear that it really is as bad as Rick thinks. We haven’t seen him since Season Two of Ice Road Truckers, as he was left behind in Canada when the show moved to Alaska. During those seasons, he often came across as a mixture of whiny and overconfident, a petulant man who was difficult to like. In India, outside of his comfort zone, his frustration and fear are completely understandable.
The second day of driving brings new challenges. The road gets more perilous heading through “The Cutouts,” areas where a narrow strip was literally blasted out of the side of mountains and clearance is difficult for taller vehicles. Buses whiz by, coming amazingly close to crashing into the trucks. A bridge, over a thousand feet high, is barely able to support the weight of the trucks. The spotters have to get out and direct the drivers to crawl across it, looking for the patches where the aging steel is strong enough to hold.
Deadliest Roads creates a palpable sense of white-knuckle fear that’s mostly absent from the original Ice Road Truckers. Despite being experienced drivers, the North Americans face numerous obstacles in India, including the language barrier. While this isn’t good news for the drivers themselves, it makes for very good television.
On Ice Road Truckers, the drama is based in the stories of each season’s designated rookies, though even their concerns are dissipated about halfway into the season. When Deadliest Roads begins with an ominous voiceover saying that only one driver will make it through to the end of the two-month contract, one might wonder about how the show will manage with an ever-dwindling supply of stars.