Attracted by the outrageous cover art (right), with its jackknifed vehicle dangling perilously over a cliff edge, like something out of an old Republic serial, I decided to take a chance on the Ice Road Truckers - The Complete Season Three, a reality series currently airing on The History Channel. I was expecting something incredibly schlocky but possibly entertaining, and in Blu-ray format expected its Northern Alaska setting to be visually spectacular.
As it turned out, Ice Road Truckers is all of those things, as well as informative and interesting, tense and exciting, and packed with colorful characters, making obvious why 20th Century-Fox would go so far as to acquire movie rights to the series, in 2008 announcing plans to develop it into a scripted feature film.
This New Video release (why not A&E?) offers the third season's thirteen 46-minute episodes on three single-sided discs. The high-def presentation (with DTS-HD Master Audio) is very impressive, though extras are limited to deleted scenes/additional footage.
Suggested by Edith Iglauer's book Denison's Ice Road, the series began as a one-off episode of another show, Suicide Missions, and later aired again on yet another program, Modern Marvels. Producer (and the show's announcer) Thom Beers developed the concept into a regular series, which debuted in 2006 and quickly became the History Channel's most-watched show.
The first two seasons followed truckers in the Canadian hinterlands, but for Season Three (2009) the action was moved to Alaska's deadly Dalton Highway, with its cast hauling supplies from a base in Fairbanks nearly 500 miles north to the remote Prudhoe Bay oil fields and, sometimes, across the frozen, cracked ice of the Arctic Ocean to an off-shore oil rig. The company contracted to deliver the supplies, Carlisle Transportation, must move 6,000 loads before the ice melts and the off-shore rig becomes inaccessible.
To call the route a highway at all is debatable. It's basically a cleared, unpaved path, which, ironically, is deliberately paved with a glassy layer of ice every winter so trucks can get through. They haul unbelievably wide and heavy loads along its ice rink-smooth roadway, cling to the sides of steep mountains, ride its roller-coaster-steep grades and twist around pretzel-like curves toward a wind-swept tundra so blinding with snow that visibility often is reduced to zero.
Some have criticized the show's occasional use of CGI special effects showing what could happen: trucks breaking through the ice and sinking like a stone in the icy water, shooting headlong off a cliff side, etc. Though admittedly effective as a kind of punctuation, all this CGI really isn't necessary because the everyday hazards of the road are frightening enough. For instance, I was intrigued by one trucker's comments during a white out about how drivers must force themselves to look past the snow appearing in their headlight beams and concentrate on the road below. The snow, he explains, produces a hypnotic effect that persuades drivers to drive their rigs right off the road. While he's explaining this, the editing shows us the very thing he's talking about, and indeed the wind-swept snow really does invite a hard turn in its direction.
Even without the danger, this is no easy life. Adding traction to enormous tires with snow chains weighing 65-150 lbs. in temperatures averaging 30-degrees below zero is no picnic. During one haul a driver complains that, because of the weather conditions, it took him eight hours to drive just 50 miles.
Ice Road Truckers wisely builds the show around a half-dozen colorful characters. Two are series veterans, Hugh and Alex, legends in their native Canada but who struggle working for the extremely safety-conscious (at least on the show) hauling company. Alex, an amusing eccentric with a Doug & Bob McKenzie-like appeal, has problems with his rig's new and complex gearshift. Bigger-than-life Hugh, the self-proclaimed "Polar Bear," is something of an egomaniac, and his loose cannon antics get him into trouble with the company early and often.
New to the show are George and Tim (who work as a team), Jack, and Lisa. Fifty-nine-year-old veteran George intends on retiring at the end of the season, but not before passing along his knowledge and experience onto Tim, the son of another longtime driver and friend. Jack is Hugh's opposite, cool and cautious, somewhat reticent and not at all self-promoting but highly respected for his abilities as a "heavy hauler."
With her good looks, 28-year-old, 120-lb. Lisa makes is quite a contrast to her male counterparts, who are frequently enormous, grimy and/or missing a lot of their teeth. Obviously brought in for sex appeal, the former freestyle motocross champion nevertheless proves her mettle, quickly earning the respect of the other drivers with her knowledge and ability, and her finesse hauling oversized loads.
Like most other reality shows, Ice Road Truckers relies on quick-cutting and hyperbole that works overtime to generate a kind of visceral excitement, but which in this case isn't really necessary. The spectacularly beautiful and dangerous visuals speak for themselves. It's instantly obvious how grueling the Dalton Highway is, and that the show's characters complete their runs at all, even with the constant delays and setbacks, leaves the viewer impressed. The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico aside, Ice Road Truckers neither promotes its oil rig destination nor does it suggest that the company exploits its contracted drivers who literally put their lives on the line for their $100,000-$150,000/year paychecks.
Video & Audio
Filmed in 1080i high-definition video (with what looks like some shot-on-film stock shots of avalanches and the like), Ice Road Truckers is almost tailor-made for big, high-definition screens, with its huge trucks and their loads barreling (or crawling) up, down, and across vast mountain ranges and valleys that dwarf them. Visually the show is spectacular, and for a modestly budgeted reality series really comes off well. The DTS-HD 2.0 master audio is loud and varied, up to contemporary reality series standards. Optional English subtitles are included.
The only supplement is about 30 minutes worth of deleted scenes, all of which are interesting though quite reasonably edited from the series.
Though expecting (and to some degree getting) something pretty cheesy, Ice Road Truckers' cast and their bravery, foolhardiness, skill, determination and colorful personalities won me over as much as the incredible, treacherous job they do. It's a very entertaining series that comes Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.