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Tough-guy TV

Forget talent competitions and dating shows — the most successful reality TV genre in years is all about manly men doing dangerous jobs

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When Hugh Rowland was first approached about starring on a docuseries about ice road trucking, the burly driver nicknamed ”The Polar Bear” thought it sounded about as exciting as watching a lake freeze over in his native Manitoba. ”It was silly,” recalls Rowland, 49, who’s been driving 18-wheelers for more than three decades. ”Everybody in Canada drove on ice. Who would watch that show?” Oh, only about 2.7 million people a week. Now in its sixth season, Ice Road Truckers remains one of History’s most popular series, right below the massively addictive Pawn Stars (5.7 million), about a family-run Vegas pawnshop, and the equally fascinating American Pickers (4.9 million), which follows two guys who make a living by sorting through junk and selling what they find.

What began as a special on Discovery in 1999 called The Deadliest Job in the World has exploded into an astonishingly successful genre of unscripted shows that focus on guys doing manly, often dangerous work. Ax Men. Deadliest Catch. Pawn Stars. Swamp People. Bering Sea Gold. Producers describe them as testostero-reality or tough-guy TV, but the networks that air them have a much simpler description: male-viewer magnets. ”I always felt these shows were like romances for men,” explains Nancy Dubuc, the president of History and Lifetime. ”There is a certain aspirational quality to them. Men think, ‘Hey, I might be able to go do that.’ It feels very reminiscent of their great-grandfathers.”

That’s assuming they had the cojones to drive 30,000-pound trucks over frozen lakes. What compels viewers to check out Ice Road (which follows truckers in the northern territories), Deadliest Catch (crabbers in Alaska), or Ax Men (loggers across the U.S.) is the fascination with how far men will go to earn a living, even if that means facing bodily harm — or death. ”People get hooked into the concept of danger,” says veteran reality producer Thom Beers, creator of Catch and Storage Wars, among others. ”It really hits at the base of their spine. The first thing they want to see is if the characters die. But after a couple of seasons they see that they live, and by that time they are sucked into the soap opera.”

And make no mistake, these shows feature heavy drama. Every season of Ice Road has nail-biting moments where trucks veer off the road or their brakes give out during a treacherous decline. On Bering Sea Gold, a gold miner managed to escape injury on the sea floor when he was pelted with dredging debris from the surface. ”These shows aren’t about men against men. They are men against nature,” says Beers. ”They’re like Vikings living on the edge of society.” Though sometimes the most compelling moments aren’t job-related: Fans of Deadliest Catch were devastated when Phil Harris, the chain-smoking captain of the Cornelia Marie, died after a stroke. His final episode in 2010 attracted a record 9 million viewers. (It also helped Catch win its first Emmy the following year.)

Mixed in with all of the emotion and drama is wish fulfillment, too; tough-guy TV shows offer viewers a glimpse at jobs that seem more exciting than cubicle gigs, and are potentially far more lucrative. On A&E’s Storage Wars, a quartet of men (and one girlfriend) bid on storage units in hopes of uncovering priceless bounty. On Pawn Stars, a customer brings in a Les Paul guitar and gets $90,000. And on Gold Rush, a group of down-on-their-luck men with no previous mining experience dig for gold in them thar hills. ”It’s really escapism for viewers,” says Nancy Daniels, an exec VP at Discovery. ”The common thread in all of these shows is that they’re about people living life on their own terms. They are willing to risk it all.”

But not every network is willing to gamble on such wildcats. While hits like Pawn Stars and Ice Road have helped History become the No. 1 cable network among adults 25-54 (beating ESPN and USA), broadcast networks would still rather bet on music and competition shows. ”I think there’s a mentality that those are ‘cable shows’ that have very limited appeal — ratings notwithstanding,” says one high-ranking broadcast exec. He’s right about that: Tough-guy TV appeals primarily to men, which is why Beers couldn’t get any traction on the WE tv show Twister Sisters, which featured women who take tourists to see tornadoes; it was yanked after only a few episodes. ”You have to have a certain amount of fortitude to wait for audiences to get hooked,” says Beers, who created the short-lived America’s Toughest Jobs for NBC in 2008. ”If they aren’t hitting it in the first three episodes, the [”broadcast”] networks will cancel them. The stakes are just too high. The cable nets will let them ride for at least a year.”

And they show no signs of giving them up. Though Discovery won’t pick up just any show about the working class — Daniels was aghast to hear four different pitches about furniture movers in one week — she has a taste for wilderness-based shows and will introduce Yukon Men (about a small band of hunters who live in the outer reaches of Alaska) in August, followed by a Bering Sea Gold spin-off called Frozen Gold. History, meanwhile, will debut Great Lake Warriors — about the tugboat drivers who haul cargo — on July 19 and Counting Cars (which tracks a Vegas carhound who refurbishes and sells classic rides) on Aug. 14. But even testostero-reality has its limits. Beers was once offered the chance to produce a series that follows military bomb squads — as in, a real-life version of The Hurt Locker — but he declined. ”I’m not going to trade on people’s misery,” he explains. ”I refuse to accept war as entertainment.”

Instead, Beers will continue to focus on guys like Rowland, who fully expects the cameras to trail him on the frozen roads again in January — and for years after that. ”People live vicariously through us guys who are driving,” says Rowland. ”But it’s just a normal job. We’re just normal people.”