Posted: 03/09/2008


Ax Men


Cutting Through The Reality Genre

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Does the world really need another reality show?

Yes—and it’s called Ax Men.

Premiering Sunday, March 9th on the History Channel (10/9C), Ax Men defies the glossed-over (and seemingly scripted) reality shows that have become commonplace on television by offering something that few other shows in this oversaturated genre seem to have anymore: reality.

Of course it’s exciting—you’ve got guys performing one of the most dangerous jobs imaginable in conditions that disregard the normal ideals of hazardous work conditions. But above and beyond all of the heavy-duty machinery, trees crashing to the earth, and the breakneck-paced exertion, the fact of the matter is that the loggers themselves really bring this show to life. Moreover, they are believable in both action and word—this isn’t a bunch of wannabe stars trying to be discovered by being on some show. These are guys who truly work for a living… they just happen to be getting filmed while their doing it. And there’s a catch: “Everything out here can kill you.”

First and foremost, I must confess that I am not a fan of reality television. I don’t watch Big Brother. I couldn’t be bothered to sit through Wife Swap. The only reason that I’ve seen more than 20 seconds of Survivor is because I couldn’t find my remote control. In fact, I’ve come to dislike reality television on such a grand level that outside of The Deadliest Catch, I pretty much stay clear of the genre altogether in favor of watching that rerun of M*A*S*H that I’ve already seen 20 times before.

Ax Men isn’t as much of a reality show as it is a non-fiction series that follows the logging escapades of four different outfits: Pihl, JM Browning, Stump Branch, and Gustafson Logging. Each crew is as different as they are the same. Some outfits are larger than others while others make up for their numbers with more experienced workers. Two crew members will immediately hit audiences with their own brand of appeal: Dewayne Dethlefs (Pihl) and Jay Browning (JM Browning).

Thirty-year veteran timber cutter Dewayne is a seasoned veteran whose colorful language and matching outlook on life and his job truly make him an iconic persona from the get-go. All it takes is one look at this red-haired rogue calmly walking across a fallen log with a chainsaw casually balanced on his shoulder to realize that he’s doing exactly what God made him to do. “Working in the brush is a helluva lot more fun than working in the city… you can’t put me in a concrete jungle—you might as well put me in a cage.”

Jay Browning is the quintessential no-nonsense, hard-working owner who is right there in the trenches with his men—and that’s exactly how he’s built his timber empire: through hard work, self-sacrifice and from the ground up. Jay’s personal sacrifices to the logging industry include his hand, which is now fitted with a prosthetic that doesn’t seem to slow Jay down in the slightest. In fact, after the loss of his appendage, he refused to accept any workers compensation for the ordeal, claiming that handouts aren’t how he got to where is today.

The one inescapable ideal that Ax Men proves is that the entire logging industry is truly wrought with peril and danger. The old logger’s credo “Run in for your job… run out for your life,” rings true at nearly every turn as you see how one false move could literally mean the difference between life and death. The wonderful aspect of it is that despite the fact there is a seriousness and professionalism in which all of the loggers operate, there is still an air of familiarity and casualness of its own accord. For these Ax Men, logging isn’t simply a job—it truly is a lifestyle (for many of them a generational one at that), and there is a strong sense of brotherhood that can even be seen throughout the inter-crew bickering that makes for entertaining viewing. At the end of the day, they want to do the job that they were hired for, and make sure that no one gets hurt in the process: “We come to work… and we all want to go home from work.”

From the stereotypical male perspective, I must admit that the equipment used on these jobs was wonderful to learn about and see in action. Some utilize the services of a massive piece of machinery called a Yoder (best described as a crane-like apparatus that pulls timber up the side of the mountain via cables). Others use a Yarder which, unlike the Yoder, does not have a moveable arm, but is capable of pulling more weight… with less maneuverability. As if these colossal mechanical beasts weren’t awe-inspiring enough, Pihl Logging’s Yarder is actually a converted World War II Sherman Tank! I’m sure that if you asked the average person on the street how logs make their way from the side of a mountain to a landing area, they wouldn’t have the slightest idea. Ax Men shows us that, as most things that we rarely give a second thought to, there’s a lot of grueling hard work involved.

Being that I was fortunate enough to have watched this show presented as a workprint/screener—as opposed to the edited television version—I can tell you that some of the language that these guys use isn’t Sunday School-safe; the Audio Editor on this show is going to have his work cut out for him in certain scenes. But let’s be honest: if you had a 1 ton, hundred foot log shooting down the side of a mountain at 30 mph that could easily rip you in half, would your natural response be, “Gee Whiz! I’d better move darn quick!” I didn’t think so.

My brother-in-law is a logger who runs his own small outfit in Southern Indiana—it’s not as large of an operation as these guys, but it still gave me somewhat of a perspective to watch this show from for hints of realism versus Hollywood scripting. Listening to the seasoned loggers of Ax Men talk about their work; the perils; the tribulations; the good and the bad days—all of it—made me feel like I could have been sitting outside the garage in Seymour, IN, sipping a cold one and listening to my brother-in-law talk about his job. So yeah, I believe Ax Men.

I suppose that I should clarify my answer to the question of whether or not the world really needs another reality show.

Yes, we do. It just needs to be a real reality show. The problem with that formula is that rarely is the case in which you can blend excitement, compelling and gritty characters in dangerous situations all against a wondrous and ominous backdrop and have it be real.

Ax Men has managed to defy that.

 is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.

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