Quills & Queues: By Vickie Aldous
Americans have been tagging along via their TV sets with the men who carry out some of the nation's most adventurous but dangerous jobs. Film crews capture the hardship of crab fishing with "Deadliest Catch," ride along with truckers using frozen lakes as highways in "Ice Road Truckers" and relay the action of loggers' lives right here in Oregon with "Ax Men."
The emphasis is always on the dangers of the job. On nearly every episode, "Ice Road Truckers" shows a simulated scene of a truck breaking through the ice and plunging into the icy depths, a reminder of what could happen in a worst-case scenario. Close-up cameras record the faces of fishermen and loggers as they talk about friends who have died on the job. Every mishap, no matter how minor, is played up as a close call with tragedy.
It's hard to escape the feeling that the film crews and producers of these television shows are like vultures, circling around, waiting to see if someone will die.
But whether the cameras are rolling or not, these men would still be out there doing these jobs to support themselves and their families.
Airing on The History Channel, "Ax Men" and "Ice Road Truckers" have educational elements. They remind of us a time when far more people did dangerous jobs and daily life was filled with uncertainty. The Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" plays the same role, even if, like the other two shows, it spends too much time focused on petty arguments among the workers.
A new show on NBC, "America's Toughest Jobs," takes the formula honed by the cable channels and adds a twist. It takes 13 average men and women — including a Wall Street executive, a teacher, a personal trainer and a recent college graduate — and throws them into a new and dangerous job each week.
The person who does the best and doesn't get eliminated will win the combined annual salaries of all the jobs. So far, the contestants have tackled crab fishing, driving big rigs and monster trucks, gold mining and oil drilling. The next episode airs at 8 p.m. tonight, advertised with this titillating blurb: "Lives are at risk when the remaining eight learn to be professional bullfighters."
I talked to my dad, who was a logger for more than 30 years, about these types of reality shows. He had his leg broken in seven places by a tree. One of his co-workers was crushed when a skidder tipped over. Another died when a small tree pierced through his eye and into his brain. My dad said "Ax Men" exaggerates the danger and focuses too much on the workers fighting with each other. As for "America's Toughest Jobs," he said it's a lawsuit waiting to happen, with no way to way to guarantee the safety of the contestants.
"People are out there doing things they really shouldn't be doing," he said.
Ashland resident John Little spends part of each year fishing for salmon and halibut off the coast of Alaska. He said he usually only thinks about the danger before the season begins. Little had a different take on these job-related reality shows than my dad.
"I've always liked adventuresome work. I think it's good for the average person to see. But they've also sensationalized it," Little said, noting that he's had young people tell him they want to go be fishermen after watching "Deadliest Catch."
There's no doubt the shows reach that part in all of us that craves adventure and yearns for something beyond a desk job. As one contestant on "America's Toughest Jobs" put it in an interview after being booted off, "I don't know if I can go back to being a pharmaceutical sales rep."
Yet the question remains: Will the cameras keep rolling if someone gets maimed or killed?
And will we watch?