Judge Victor Valdivia's brief career as a logger is explained in his new book, There Are No Trees in Tucson.
The most dangerous frontier in history.
What the hell happened to the History Channel? History, as it now prefers to be called, used to be a haven for history buffs. Yes, it ran so many shows on WWII that it was widely known as the "Hitler Channel", but at least it was different from most other channels on TV.
Now, with its heavy emphasis on reality TV, History is clearly gunning for the 18-34 male demographic, instead of the "old guy who reads lots of books about generals" demographic they previously served. Ax Men: The Complete Season One is tailor-made for that audience. It's a reality series that, despite its tagline, has little if anything to do with actual history. Like its predecessor Ice Road Truckers (which was produced by the same TV crew), it's a big macho show about big macho guys doing big macho things. Ice Road Truckers, however, actually moved, both literally and figuratively. Here, all the bluster, profanities, and big loud machines can't camouflage just how little actually happens. It's the most mind-numbing show about back-breaking labor you'll ever see.
Ax Men follows four logging companies in Oregon as they struggle to make ends meet during the fall and winter of 2007. Each company has a logging crew of about five men, and each company uses specialized machines (called "yarders") to haul logs up from mountainsides, machines to load the logs onto shipping trucks (called "loaders") and big chainsaws to cut trees down. Four companies are profiled: Gustafson, Pihl, Stump Branch, and J.M. Browning.
This four-disc set contains all of the first season's 14 episodes. That right there is one of the biggest problems with Ax Men. It very quickly becomes apparent that for all the terror and adrenaline involved, logging is an extremely monotonous job. The cutter cuts down the trees, the rigger bunches them together with metal cables, and the yarder and loader operators haul them up and load them onto the trucks. That's it. It could conceivably take, at most, four or five episodes to cover all of the necessary aspects and dangers of this job. There are just not enough variations to sustain 14. By the 80,000th shot of logs being hauled up a mountainside, which should be somewhere around the third episode, you'll be begging for the sweet release of death.
It doesn't help any that the backgrounds and protagonists are pretty much interchangeable. The show's narrator and producer Thom Beers makes a big deal of stating before the footage of each crew on what site they're located. The problem is all the sites look exactly the same, even if they're miles apart. They're all mountains with lots of trees and vegetation, and this tends to make the episodes all blur into one another. Similarly, the loggers themselves are hard to distinguish. J.M Browning, owner of the company that bears his name, is notable because he's missing part of his left arm (it was chewed up by one of his machines). Leland, one of the yarder operators, also stands out because he's an unrepentant cretin who never smiles and never has a kind word for anyone. Otherwise, the loggers all fall into two types: young guys who are just breaking into the business, and older guys who train them (there are a few father and son pairs on the show as well). They all unleash a torrent of profanities, they all complain about everything, and they all talk about how much they wish they were hunting or fishing. Even within each episode, you'll be hard-pressed to remember which logger works for which crew. Ice Road Truckers, by contrast, only profiled five truckers, so it was easier to tell them apart.
To be fair to the loggers, Beers and his team seem to have gone out of their way to make Ax Men a chore to watch. Every scene is hyped up beyond belief, to where every single act a logger performs (even if it's just cutting down a tree) is accompanied by thunderous music and Beers breathlessly intoning, "If he makes a mistake now, it could be the last he ever makes!". Of course, nothing much actually happens (if it did, you can bet History wouldn't have actually aired the series, lest they be labeled exploitative), so after a while all of the buildup becomes more insufferable than exciting. Ax Men also tries to squeeze drama out of snowstorms, economic downturns, and occasional missed deadlines, but these all fall flat as well. These episodes are all setup and no payoff, as every crisis is resolved with little lasting effect. Unfortunately, each time a misfortune is averted, Beers takes the opportunity to once again intone breathlessly, "He was lucky this time, but next time, he could face a far less fortunate outcome!" Seriously, just give it a rest already. The only real catastrophe occurs towards the end of the season, when Oregon is hit by a colossal storm that causes billions of dollars worth of damage, but the series botches the storytelling here as well by dragging it out through four increasingly tedious episodes, including, for no good reason, a clip show.
The non-anamorphic fullscreen transfer and Dolby Digital stereo mix are typical TV quality. A note for consumers: the show's original theme song, Jimi Hendrix's cover of "All Along the Watchtower", has been replaced for this set by a generic rock instrumental. The only extra, "Additional Footage" (28:46), is on disc four, which consists of some unremarkable outtakes and leftovers. In other words, there's nothing too significant here. Catch some episodes of Ax Men on TV if you're curious, but even then you'll wander off sometime around the midpoint of this season and never bother to care about it again. It's too bad Beers and his crew got so ambitious, as what could have been a reasonably entertaining special or two has been prolonged far beyond the point of endurance. Ax Men: The Complete Season One is guilty of taking an interesting idea and stretching it out so far that it breaks.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
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