As the recent emergence of Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin has taught us, Americans have a fascination with our supposed good ol’ days. All it takes is a woman from the way north (it might as well be Manitoba) coming down to the mainland and promising a return to apple pies, man-woman marriages, and overt racism (didn’t see many black faces on the convention floor in St. Paul), and a portion of the country gets sloppy with effusive praise.
Shows like Deadliest Catch play to that same sense of nostalgia in that it provides for us — the typical sedentary American who makes a living eating Cheetos and pushing papers in a cubicle with pictures of cats hanging from clotheslines — a view into the life of hardscrabble Americans in the 19th century, who had to work insanely hard to make a buck to put shoes and clothes on their kids. These shows take place in far away lands (like Alaska! Oregon!) and they actually feature “real” Americans living and working the same lives that their forefathers did.
Ax Men is the latest in a stretch of similar shows from Thom Beers (he helped get Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers off the ground) and follows the travails of four logging companies in the Oregonian forest as they cope with tumbling lumber prices (due to the housing collapse), working a job that will probably kill them (getting hit by logs, cutting off a limb, falling machinery, alcoholism due to the stress), and making ends meet as companies and individuals.
Like Deadliest Catch, Ax Men works best when it’s pitted as man vs. Mother Nature. The loggers (they inform you, right in the first episode, that “lumberjack” is like a racial epithet) constantly have to fight bad weather, falling trees, mudslides, and steep inclines in order to cut down trees by the truckload. The workers themselves — brawny types with no qualms about speaking their minds — are rather entertaining as they crack jokes (my favorite was a father logger saying to his son climbing a thirty-foot tree: “You look like a monkey fucking a jug”), detail their drinking exploits, and try to have a good time while working harder than any one person should have to.
But one annoying carry-over from Deadliest Catch, the episode ending score board, is just as present and unnecessary on Ax Men. At the end of every episode, the narrator (Beers himself) runs down how much timber each company has fallen, and reports which team is “winning”. It’s disconcerting that Beers and his fellow producers think that viewers can’t be fully captivated with the day-to-day struggles of the loggers, so they have to manufacture competition. The loggers aren’t competing with each other; they’re competing against the planet, the realities of their hard lives, and crumbling lumber prices. I’m sure worrying that they’re down seven truckloads to another company is the least of their concerns.
Nothing really bad ever happens up in the forests, and that’s when Beers and company do the loggers a great disservice. Since Beers has to describe the dangers of certain aspects of the job without them actually happening, the producers use animations showing machinery and logs hitting little animated loggers in the head and killing them. The danger is pretty evident in the job without the cutesy and grim animations — what with the arcane equipment, the horrific creaks and groans of trees, the fact that one of the logging company owners has a metal claw as a hand — that they seem like anti-comic relief during segments of men working jobs that could take their lives at any moment.
Just when the season’s first ten episodes start feeling familiar (“company takes tough job, has tough time, job is really tough” seems to be the general theme), Beers and crew were granted a gold mine: when they were filming last winter, Oregon was hit by one of the worst floods in recorded history. The town where most of the loggers live (Vernonia, Oregon) was literally underwater, and roads to the logging areas had canyons in the middle of them. Three of the last four episodes (minus the completely unnecessary re-cap episode) cover the storm, its aftermath, and the crashed lives of some of the logging families. It’s the kind of natural tragedy that’s built for these kinds of shows, and the show’s producers do a marvelous job conveying the dismay of the community and the hardships the flood caused.
It’s kind of dubious for Ax Men to be released on DVD (it’s collected here in a four disc set with paltry extras), since it begs for extended marathon viewing on a rainy Sunday morning (where it would have to compete directly with Deadliest Catch). You won’t leave the show envious of the titular ax men, but at least you can appreciate the fact that you don’t risk losing your hand in that cubicle of yours.