There are audiences to be gained, it's clear, from filming rugged folks in their natural element. Just ask Thom Beers, the docu-TV auteur who created "Deadliest Catch" and "Ice Road Truckers," big hits for the Discovery Channel and the History Channel, respectively. Both shows made unlikely stars out of their real-life subjects - men whose appeal lay chiefly in the fact that they were too busy dodging the elements to be anything but authentic.
Now, Beers turns his gritty-glamour formula into a competition, inviting 13 regular folks to sample dangerous professions for a couple of days at a time. "America's Toughest Jobs," which premieres tonight at 9 on NBC, is structured like "Survivor," but it really amounts to a dark, thick underline beneath Beers's cable hits. We're constantly reminded, as if we haven't guessed, that these jobs can make you weary and possibly dead, and that they aren't remotely easy for office dwellers.
The first two episodes are set in the heart of Beers territory, as the contestants try crab fishing on the Bering Sea and long-haul trucking on the treacherous roads of northern Alaska. In future weeks, the wannabes will sample more physically challenging work, from gold mining to oil rigging to driving monster trucks.
There's clear potential here, but Beers and his producers, so adept at making documentary-style shows, seem to have forgotten a key principle of reality TV contests: If they work, it's because of the characters, not the challenges. In its first episode, "America's Toughest Jobs" spends luxurious time on what amounts to danger-porn, with ample shots of sliding pots, flying hooks, and menacing crabs. We also hear a steady stream of warnings from the real crab boat crew members, along the lines of, "This will take your hand off in a second."
We barely see the contestants themselves unless it's from behind, as they haul crab pots with monumental effort or vomit over the side of the ship. They speak to the cameras only occasionally, largely spouting platitudes about how dull desk jobs can be. What entertaining dialogue there is, in the premiere, is provided chiefly by Amy, a Wall Street executive with Boston roots who admits that she uses her stove to store books, and comes up with such gems as "This is living life. Like, going to a Ritz-Carlton spa is not living life."
That would be an even better line if it didn't feel so practiced. Amy and her fellow competitors are all suitably eager and moderately pretty, and they all feel vaguely inauthentic from the start. "Deadliest Catch" succeeds as a privileged glimpse at unusual lives. This show amounts to yet another example of the pains people will take to appear on TV. By the end of the premiere, even the crabs are starting to look a little bored.