"Deadliest Catch" On Wheels
It seems that they'll make a TV show out of pretty much anything. Consider trucking. Consider making a show about driving a truck for 16 hour stretches. Typically, when we're subject to a journey like that, we just want to smoke a joint and fall asleep in the backseat. We want missing time. We want nothing to do with the numbing claustrophobia of being trapped in a truck for a day.
In the wake of the critical darling "Deadliest Catch," in which the lives of King Crab fishermen are documented, a new "dangerous job" genre of reality TV has come into being. Figuring that most of us need a jolt out of our cubicle contained lives, the TV Gods have provided us with shows like "Ax Men," "Black Gold" (debuting on June 12th), and "Ice Road Truckers," which is now entering it's third season on History.
Produced by Thom Beers, the same guy responsible for "Deadliest Catch," "Ice Road Truckers" charts two months in the lives of six people who drive supplies over the frozen waters of the severe north to a variety of mining facilities. The show's condensed into two month because that's generally the length of time that the ice roads remain frozen, and thus the only time available to make these transports. As you might imagine, there are all sorts of authentic perils that face the drivers, including, well, breaking through the ice and drowning in frigid waters. This possibility is highlighted by a variety of gloomy underwater shots, as if from a drowning trucker's point of view, looking up at an impenetrable wall of ice.
Beers must consider these mortal tensions insufficient, because "Ice Road Truckers" is also infused with something of a game show vibe. The truckers, who for the most part are presented as blunt instruments with a Viking mentality, try to best one another by seeing who can complete the most runs. There's no prize, beyond bragging rights, for coming in first, but obviously, the more work you complete, the more money you get, and we see the drivers fiercely determined to assert their Alpha status over one another. Beyond that, of course, they're probably driven by the simple necessity of staving off boredom, and creating some sort of focus, other than the infinite horizon stretching before them.
Forget about whether it's boring to watch "Ice Road Truckers," and just think for a moment about how tedious it would be to do the job. Imagine being at the end of the Earth, alone in your cab for hour after hour without a hooker-friendly truck stop for thousands of miles, and nothing but the sickening sound of the ice creaking beneath you for company? And of course, if you do let your attention waver, if you skid off the ice road or your truck breaks-down, or God forbid, the ice actually breaks beneath the weight of your loaded truck, then you're as good as done. I swear, it's enough to bring on a colossal sense of existential dread.
However, the truth is that nothing ever really happens on the show. The dangers that the drivers face are, for the most part, implied rather than realized. Focusing on what could go wrong, we see a driver, shot through the predatory lens of a night vision camera, illuminated in pale green. Haunting music arches in the background and strobe lights flash, while a voice-over that has all the integrity of Troy McClure, drips with lurid portent.
This is all designed to amplify our dread, and like any decent ghost show, it makes the viewer believe that something terrible is going to happen, without ever showing you anything terrible happening. It's effective, I guess, but dishonest, and the subtle misrepresentations of "Ice Road Truckers" were evident to some of the mining companies involved in the show, too.
Some parties -- concerned that the show was making the roads look more dangerous than they actually were, the drivers more reckless and greedy than they actually were, and that the ever-present camera crews and production teams, were also, in fact, making the job more distracting and dangerous than it needed to be -- have ceased participating. As a result, each season, the show has been set on a different ice road. This season, it's located in Alaska, and we're reminded of this in all the ads, as we hear, again and again, "In the dark heart of Alaska, there is one road where hell has frozen over."
This, of course, sounds like a lame-o movie, and so it comes as no surprise that in 2008, 20th century Fox acquired the rights to "Ice Road Truckers" in order to make an action flick. I imagine that Bruce Willis will play the grizzled veteran with a complicated past. There will be a balls-out rookie with a glint in his eyes who wants to take him down, and some black guy from the south (just like this season!), who just wants to give his kid a decent chance. I also see a hulking Russian who was rumored to have knocked-out a Polar Bear with one punch, and a hot tomboy (just like this season!), who gives just as good as she gets, and takes off her top in a shower scene. Terrorists will descend on the north, attempting to destroy some gas field or nascent green technology that would free the west from dependence on Middle East oil, and only this ragtag group of ice truck drivers can save humanity. Aerosmith will do the soundtrack.
"Ice Road Truckers," which would have made an excellent and compelling documentary, fails as a long-run series because it chooses to try to distract us from what makes it most unique -- it's alien and lifeless environment. It's not what's present that makes the arctic such a forbidding and terrifying landscape, it's what's absent. The nothing that the producers think makes for dull television, is the something that actually makes the original conceit so interesting. Paradoxically, if a driver gives himself over to the numbness and monotony of his environment, and ceases to be attentive to what he's doing, then he's at his greatest peril. Instead of focusing on that complex tension, "Ice Road Truckers" relies on smoke and mirrors to suggest that what we're watching is a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, instead of one made by Werner Herzog.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he's written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.