Apparently, 19th-century naval reenactments aren't sexy enough for prime time. Since spring 2007, when the Discovery Channel poached Digging for the Truth star Josh Bernstein, the History Channel has been striking back at the number-one adventure network. First came last year's surprise hit Ice Road Truckers. This year brought two more self-consciously macho reality shows, Ax Men and Tougher in Alaska. Should Discovery—whose new Bernstein series debuts in August—be worried? Here's how History's new shows stack up.
Six black and brown bears are huddled around Charlie Vandergaw when a sow attacks another bear that's too close to her cubs. As the pair does a roaring two-step, Vandergaw turns, food bucket still in hand, and calmly tells the cameraman to stay back. For a guy who's spent 20 years bonding with bruins in a remote cabin some 50 miles northwest of Anchorage, this is just another brawl. But it's the kind of footage that makes The Man Who Lives with Bears—a 2008 British documentary that will air, in edited form, on ABC's 20/20 in June—horrifyingly captivating. Vandergaw spends half of each year in the wilds, letting bears roam his cabin and eat in his kitchen—drawing inevitable comparisons with Timothy Treadwell, of the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man. But if Treadwell, ...
SUNDAYS, 10 P.M. EASTERN
THE PLOT: Hard-boiled loggers in northwest Oregon race to fell as much timber as possible. THE PROTAGONIST: Jay Browning, a one-handed crew boss, and his foul-mouthed son, Jesse THE QUOTE: " 'Lumberjack' is a shitty name that people from the East Coast give us that don't respect what we do." —Jesse Browning THE ECO-FALLOUT: They're cutting trees but sparing old-growth forests (for the most part). Timber! THE VERDICT: The setting is spectacular and the characters have rough-hewn charm to spare, but the storytelling lags.
Ice Road Truckers
SUNDAYS, 9 P.M. EASTERN
THE PLOT: Hard-boiled truck drivers race across a frozen Arctic river to deliver supplies to diamond mines and gas-hydrate exploration sites before the ice melts. THE PROTAGONIST: Hugh "the Polar Bear" Rowland, a 25-year ice-road veteran THE QUOTE: "Talk is cheap. Whiskey costs money." —Rowland THE ECO-FALLOUT: In season two, truckers assist workers looking for methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more harmful than CO2. THE VERDICT: Awkwardly addictive. You find yourself rooting for truckers, De Beers, and gas exploration in sensitive areas.
Tougher in Alaska
THURSDAYS, 10 P.M. EASTERN
THE PLOT: Hard-boiled host Geo Beach, ex–commercial fisherman and firefighter, races to profile as many brawny Alaskans (gold miners, oil workers, loggers) as possible. THE PROTAGONIST: See above. THE QUOTE: "100 years later, Alaskans still ain't cured. They're still out doing crazy things for gold."—Beach THE ECO-FALLOUT: What's worse than diamond exploration? Hard-rock gold mining, which involves blowing up the insides of mountains. THE VERDICT: TBD. But early returns indicate that the blustery Beach overshadows some of his intriguing subjects.