That ax blade is getting a mite dull. History has released Ax Men: The Complete Season Two, a four-disc, 13-episode continuation of the "real men in danger" reality series that originally premiered back in March of 2008. Fans of that first series (and I counted myself one of them) became involved in the four-way "contest" (completely arbitrary, by the way; a fiction invented by the filmmakers) between Pacific Northwest logging companies J.M. Browning, Stump-Branch, Pihl, and Gustafson to see which company could harvest and haul off the most loads of trees during the cutting season. Well, Pihl and J.M. Browning are back this year, with newcomers S & S Aqua Logging, Rygaard Logging, and R & R Conner Aviation (based in Montana) joining the phony contest, but some serious miscasting this season, a de-emphasis on external conditions that affect the logging industry - and a bad case of déjà vu - make Ax Men: The Complete Season Two about as tasty as mouthful of sawdust.
According to the opening narration of the first episode of Ax Men: The Complete Season Two, there was enough board feet of lumber harvested last year from the Pacific Northwest to build a city the size of Philadelphia. Could that even be possible? For the last thirty years, all I've been hearing is that we're down to our last fifteen trees out there...with PETA busy nailing a spotted owl to each branch. Looking at the vast expanses of second-generation forests that are featured in Ax Men: The Complete Season Two, and listening to the loggers like Mike Pihl, who says for every one tree cut down, four are planted, logging should be around for quite some time...that is, if we get the hell out of the way and let them do their jobs. Ax Men wants to celebrate that vital industry (hey, where do you think that wood comes from when you peddle your Prius over to the lumber yard for a strip of molding?), and the men who cuss and grumble and get battered humping it up and down treacherous mountains to fell those mammoth trees. And during that first season, Ax Men did that very well, by focusing not only the actual techniques and equipment needed to execute the various dangerous logging operations, but also by providing an economic subtext to the series that grounded the characters in meaningful context. Showing the home life of a logger, and then indicating through the narration that the logging industry is threatened by economic and governmental forces, coupled with the physical realities of the job - a tough job that needs tough, no-bullshit men - and a viewer begins to understand why these guys are the way they are.
And that was certainly one of the big appeals of that first season of Ax Men: getting introduced to the rough-sawn individualists who make up one of the last of the truly "hard ass" trades left in service industry/Chinese warehouse America. Self-made businessmen like Jay Browning, a 34-year veteran of logging who guided his small company into a multi-million-dollar operation - while paying his dues to the tune of losing most of his left hand in a logging accident - or tree feller Dwayne Dethlefs, who grumbles like Popeye as he hops over felled trees, and who takes a day off - unasked for - to go buck hunting, not giving a flying f*&@ if the boss likes it or not, are the kinds of "stick-it-if-you-don't-like-it" Americans I don't see enough of on TV. However, this second season, for some unknown reason, many of the subtextual elements of the show have been eliminated in favor of flat-out melodrama (for lack of a better word), focusing rigidly on the work at hand in the forests, and the conflicts of the men in action. Gone is any discussion of the lumber industry and its economic viability, so...what's all the hub-bub about to get the logs? Times are good for lumber? Times are bad? There are a lot of loggers out there, getting jobs? Not enough? Who knows. And the home lives of the loggers and their families (unless a son works with a father on the site) have been X'd out, as well. Are these guys working to put bread on the table for mother and baby, as the doorman snidely says on Seinfeld? Are they working just to keep busy before deer hunting season? Or are they cutting logs to get up enough money for another round down at the local tavern? Again - we don't know here. All we see in this second season of Ax Men is tree-cutting and men pissing and moaning and bitching at each other - which is entertaining at first, but which quickly gets monotonous after awhile without any meaningful context (big-time offender here is Crown Prince lumberjack/irrational hothead Jesse Browning, who flies off the handle at the drop of a log, and who refuses to talk to the cameras with irritating regularity. Uh...Jesse, you can't have a reality series on film, unless someone gets filmed).
And I still don't understand why the producers insist on upping the fakery for the nonexistent "contest" between the teams (in the opening episode, they have the teams gather to discuss the contest...which they don't, because there is no contest). Why include load tallies after each episode, if the final episode doesn't feature a contest finale, where the winner and losers gather, and someone gets a prize or even some bragging rights in front of the chagrined losers? None of this happens. It's an arbitrary framing structure that simply isn't needed (and which comes off, ultimately, as slightly desperate this season when you see how thin the series truly is after only two outings). The biggest drawback this season, though, is the miscasting of the spectacularly unsympathetic Jimmy Smith of the S & S Aqua Logging company, a more grating character on a reality series I haven't encountered since that Omarosa broad on The Apprentice. The other new teams are interesting (we're never given any explanation as to why previous teams Stump-Branch and Gustafson aren't here for this go-around). Rygaard Logging is headed up by cantankerous Craig Rygaard. He's a hard-ass, too, but at least he's fair. When greenhorn Brad turns out to be a whiner, Craig still tries to talk some sense into the college boy...but it's no use. Conner Aviation is initially exciting because it seems like such an expensive way to timber logs: flying them out via helicopter. But eventually these scenes take on a sameness, as well, and since we never even see any actual tree-felling here - just the copter flying - the Conner sequences seem somewhat removed from the guys in the brush.
Jimmy Smith's S & S Aqua Logging company is another matter altogether. Harvesting decades-old logs that have become "deadheads" on the river (lying on the river bottom, sometimes protruding out of the water as hazards), Smith can earn up to $200 per board foot for the cured, mineral-stained wood (it does look terrific as mantelpieces and paneling), with each log worth upwards of $10,000 per. Unfortunately, at least as he's portrayed here by the Ax Men producers, Jimmy Smith comes across as a screaming maniac who's verbally abusive to his son, James, to the point where it's sickening to watch him. Yelling incomprehensibly as he rages at the engineering realities of pulling these massive logs out of the water with inferior equipment (like his sad little barge with the two-stroke engine) and seemingly even less know-how, James his son cringes in self-conscious embarrassment while we wonder why the hell we're watching this guy flip out on TV. Finally, after only the first or second episode of enduring this constant haranguing, I was at the point where I desperately wanted him to fail (such was his unpleasantness) which didn't seem impossible at all considering his seeming limited proficiency at engineering these logs' rescue...and his continuous bad luck. Hey, I'm no formally-trained engineer, but even I knew it was hopeless when he kept pulling that massive log deeper and deeper into the side of that muddy river bank, making the situation worse by the second. His son knew, too, but Jimmy wasn't listening. He was screaming. Doing a little research on Jimmy and his operation, I read where he might have gotten into trouble with the law, harvesting those logs without a permit (I have no way of knowing if this is indeed true, so take it with a grain of salt). The state of Washington may say those logs are vital parts of the ecosystem, and that Jimmy's operation is theft, pure and simple, but I'm guessing some G-man saw those dollar signs and wondered why the state hadn't gotten in on that gravy train from the start. If any of this after-story is true, then I feel sorry for James, because he's the one who's going to have to hear his old man froth at the mouth about it. Why the producers felt Jimmy was a good addition to Ax Men I can not tell you, but his inclusion here turns a mediocre, repetitive season into a water-logged nightmare.
What the hell is wrong with History? It's DVD, guys. You can release your shows anamorphically. The flat, 1.78:1 letterboxed image for Ax Men: The Complete Season Two looks okay the smaller you go on a monitor, but on your big flatscreen, those overhead shots of the trees blur into a digital mess. Colors are strong, and the image is clean, but seriously, by this point, you're still releasing flat letterboxed series on disc?
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo track is perfectly fine, but unexciting, particularly considering the possibilities of hearing those giant trees cracking and splitting and crashing to the ground in 5.1. And again, close-captions are advertised as available, but as is often the case with History releases, I couldn't get them to come up on any of my equipment.
There's 30 minutes worth of additional footage - much of it sequences we've already seen in the episodes before they were edited for broadcast. History has always been lacking in their extras, as well.
Timber! Another series falls into the sophomore-slump chipper. Ax Men: The Complete Season Two chops out the context that gave the first season heft and meaning, and just goes with trees toppling and loggers snipping at each other like little girls - and that's insulting to the girls. Nothing new here as far as the logging (the helicopter stuff is cool at first, but eventually it wears thin, as well, while the "aqua logging" is hilariously embarrassing), and the inclusion of the Jimmy Smith character is disastrous. A rental for hard-core fans of the series only; everyone else can safely skip Ax Men: The Complete Season Two.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.