By Mandi Bierly
Updated March 23, 2011 at 10:35 PM EDT
Credit: Spike TV; Discovery Channel

Thom Beers, exec producer of Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, and Ax Men, is known for being the king of the dangerous job genre of reality TV. Without that reputation for delivering quality, guilt-free Testosterone TV (something he’ll speak about at next month’s NAB Show in Las Vegas), his latest docu-series, Spike Coal‘s, premiering March 30, may never have happened. It took Beers four years to find the right coal mine to turn his cameras on: He needed a company willing to trust that he would show what working underground is really like (that’s where his credits came in handy), and he needed the stakes to be high. “We’ve learned over the years that you can’t get into a big corporation. To make these shows really work, you gotta ache with these people. You’ve got to feel for them,” he says. He settled on Cobalt Coal, located in Big Sandy, WV, co-owned by Tom Roberts and Mike Crowder. (For Justified fans, the shared last name Crowder is “just a nice touch,” Beers says.) These two have their own money in the business, and they’re struggling to keep it afloat. “Every week, you want to be saying, ‘are they gonna make payroll?’, and it’s real. That authenticity is the key to this. We’re not scripting these shows. The whole idea is to find the right set of circumstances, which is why it took four years. Then you have to add on the special sauce, which is the spice — the characters. You gotta look and say, ‘Can these guys carry a story? Are they interesting characters?'”

Among the men we meet in the premiere: Jerry “Wildman” Edwards, the day shift section foreman (pictured); Andy Christian, West Virginia’s best operator of the continuous miner, the 40-ft. machine that cuts into the mountain; Andy’s son Andrew, who’s literally following in his father’s footsteps; and Randy Reminers, the night shift’s miner operator who’s under pressure to produce as much coal as Christian when he doesn’t have the same feel — and who has convinced his wife to let him go back into the mine even though he’s suffered three heart attacks because it’s all he knows. (Later, we’ll meet a man named Kenny, who’s one of the best miner operators around but now only works above ground. After he lost his son-in-law in a mining accident about a year ago, he promised his daughter he’d never go back in a mine.) At the end of the first episode, an ambulance is called for one miner. Is that the last time we’ll see paramedics during the season? “No,” Beers says, phoning EW this morning as he drove through the mountains of Kentucky, headed toward the mountains of West Virginia. He’s been hosting a series of screenings for coal miners and their families — about 500 people Tuesday night. “It’s fascinating, because two women at the end came to me and said, ‘You know what, my daddy was in the coal mine for 40 years. He told me about it, but I never saw it before,” he says. “All these people that actually have lived it every day have never been inside those mines.” Watch a teaser trailer below. You may want to stop and think about the cameramen filming this show, working 10-hour shifts alongside the miners, shooting on their knees and their backs.

After Coal‘s March 30 premiere, Beers has the season 7 premiere of Discovery’s Deadliest Catch to look forward to on April 12. That episode begins with a moving tribute to the late Capt. Phil Harris, whose ashes are released into the Bering Sea. “If your eyes are still dry at the end of that first two minutes, you ain’t got a heart,” Beers says. All eyes will be on Phil’s sons, Josh and Jake Harris, who return to the Cornelia Marie. Before she even leaves Dutch Harbor, Jake gets into it with Capt. Derrick Ray. “Let’s just say that it doesn’t get much better for those boys. Not only is the fishing miserable, the relationships with Derrick are miserable. It’s really tough,” he says. “But the fun part about it is, there’s a really interesting twist about episode 8, at the end of the king crab season. And you’re like, WHAT? But then there’s redemption, and all sorts of stuff. There’s highs and lows, ups and downs. It’s quite something. It’s a really great season.”

Despite a little off-season drama between the Hillstrands and Discovery that had fans contemplating a Catch without the Time Bandit and the Northwestern (Capt. Sig Hansen was willing to walk with the Hillstrands out of solidarity), the captains have returned. Jonathan Hillstrand goes against his brother Andy’s advice and plans to fish the same spot a fourth year in a row. (We love saying “Crabalanche!” when they open full pots, so we hope Jonathan gets lucky.) Fans of the brotherly dynamic on the Northwestern will be wondering whether Edgar returns as deck boss this season or followed through on his plan to spend more time on land with his family. We won’t spoil it for you, so you can react as strongly to the reveal as we did: “Isn’t it funny about Edgar? You never get enough Edgar ’cause he doesn’t give you much. But when he does [give something], he gives you a great little nugget,” Beers says. “I’m goin’ on the record with this: Sig had been asked to do Dancing With the Stars, and we were actually hopin’ he would so we could put Edgar up in the wheelhouse and let him be a skipper for a season. We would really love to see how Edgar would handle that boat. And then when Sig came back, we were going to wrap tutus around the captain’s chair and have a lot of fun with it. But unfortunately, the Discovery Channel didn’t want to see Sig in that position, I guess.” In addition to the Cornelia Marie, Time Bandit, and Northwestern, the Wizard and Kodiak also return to the show this season. Two new boats are also followed: Ramblin’ Rose, captained by laid back 28-year-old Elliot Neese, in his first full-year as a skipper, and Seabrooke, captained by 36-year-old Scott Campbell Jr., who’s already spent 10 years at the helm.

This August, Beers will launch a new docu-comedy on IFC, the seven-part series Whisker Wars, set in the world of competitive facial hair. It follows a group of men as they travel the country and world in competitions ranging from the National Beard and Mustache Championship in Oregon to the World Competition in Norway. “There’s this great rivalry between the great country of Texas and everybody else,” Beers jokes. “All of them take it extraordinarily seriously. They’re great characters, obviously. World champion Jack Passion, the great American beard grower of all time — and ‘Passion,’ what a name. Just the eccentricities of the bearding community, it’s just fascinating. I mean, there’s war, there’s tragedy, there’s love, there’s passion, it’s got everything. It’s epic,” he says. Again laughing.

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