Appellate Judge James A. Stewart isn't an ax man, but he does try to avoid falling logs.
"The dog days of summer in the Pacific Northwest. More than a million acres of no man's land…"
The title is a misnomer, since getting logs out of the woods or the swamp seems to be more of a task than actually cutting down trees, but Ax Men sounds a lot better and more concise than Guys Trying to Get Logs Out Without Getting Conked on the Head. Whatever it's called, Ax Men follows three logging crews in the Pacific Northwest—Rygaard, Browning, and Pihl—as they try to outdo their rivals and get logs out without getting conked on the head.
Ax Men: The Complete Season Three also heads to Louisiana, Montana, and Florida to give viewers a more complete look at the logging industry, or at least find some interesting characters.
Facts of the Case
Ax Men: The Complete Season Three features thirteen episodes on four discs:
• "Deeper into the Swamp"
• "Diving for Dollars"
• "Boiling Point"
• "Chopping Block"
• "Crash and Burn"
• "Curse of Kalina"
• "Eleventh Hour"
• "King of the Mountain"
I hadn't seen Ax Men before this assignment, but I found it a lot like Ice Road Truckers, another History series from Thom Beers. They're similar in the way they follow people working in dangerous conditions; they're also similar in the way the narration gets too loud and urgent, the way the show plays up a load count that doesn't really seem all that important, the way the film crew loves shouting matches, and the way the show repeats footage of near-misses, augmented by graphics of the awful things that could have happened. On Ice Road Truckers, the daily lives of the truckers tend to take over, letting viewers forget the gimmicks; on Ax Men, the weak spots show.
The main problem with Ax Men seems to be that there are too many people to keep track of, doing too many jobs. I lost count of the people featured in the intro—more than thirty, I think. I got to recognize many of them as the season progressed and eventually started to get a handle on what they're trying to do, aside from avoiding falling logs, but as a reviewer, I was keeping a scorecard.
That said, it appears that Thom Beers and company have figured out the show's weaknesses. Going afield to Montana, Louisiana, and Florida and getting away from the load count in the Northwest provides the show's most interesting moments in this season. It also introduces the season's most interesting figure: Shelby "Swamp Man" Stanga. The Louisiana native heads out into the swamp to find underwater logs, going by feel in brackish, alligator-infested water. He's persistent and fairly cheerful in the face of storms, injuries, and boat troubles, and he's brash enough to make viewers take notice. Shelby's style makes the job worth watching; there's no need to play up arguments or risks in his segments (although I wonder what—or if—the film crew was thinking when they just followed an injured Shelby as he snuck out of the hospital). The greenhorns on the various crews, along with the hapless father-and-son team of Jimmy and James Smith, also get a good chunk of screen time, which helps the series.
The film crews get into the action occasionally, as when Shelby inadvertently leaves a TV boat stuck in the swamp overnight. This segment has a spooky Blair Witch Project look that's more amusing than frightening, and it ends happily.
The graphics and narration got on my nerves at times, but they come across well. There's the occasional line that's hard to catch, but there's generally subtitling with these.
Extras are plentiful here, with more than 65 minutes of extra footage. Shelby gets a lot of time here, including a rundown of all his scars; other topics include the loggers' greenhorn days, a timber felling demonstration, a TV crew member climbing a tree, and what happens to the logs when they get to the mill. It's an informative and interesting extras package that fans of Ax Men will like.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My first impression of Ax Men wasn't very good, but as the series went along, it got better. I was still annoyed with the Rygaard crew, which seemed to be doing the most cursing and shouting, but I managed to get into the rest of the show.
Fans will note that one logging crew just sort of disappears in the middle of the season.
If you've never seen it, should you give Ax Men a try? If you're already a fan of Ice Road Truckers, you could like it, and the introduction of Shelby Stanga makes this batch as good a place as any to start. If you're not already into the working-against-harsh-conditions genre, I'd skip it.
If you're already a fan of Ax Men, this set does offer a good selection of bonus material, more than enough to give you an excuse to pick it up.
History acquits itself well with extras on this DVD set.
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