Radar: "We'll be holding the finals of the cockroach race time trials. You going?"
Hawkeye: "Nah. People who go to those things only want to see a cockroach crash."
- from M*A*S*H (1975)
The same could be said of Ice Road Truckers and its new-to-Blu-ray spin-off, IRT - Deadliest Roads (Season One)* (2010), an outrageous, harrowing, and vertigo-inducing reality series pitting North American truckers against India's precarious mountain roads and free-for-all traffic pandemonium. Like similar reality shows airing on A&E's various cable networks, wildly manipulative editing lends a P.T. Barnum air not really necessary in this case. High-definition pictures speak 1,080 words and it's clear from the first few seconds of the first episode that no one in their right mind would venture onto these Himalayan death traps. How the program's drivers cope (or not) with the physical and psychological challenges, accentuated by language barriers and cultural differences, makes for fascinating viewing - Wages of Fear for real.
This NewVideo release features all ten 45-minute episodes plus bonus footage on three discs. The shows look and sound great, and for the spectacular north India scenery alone they're worth a look.
As if the ice roads of Alaska and Canada's Northwest Territories weren't dangerous enough, Ice Road Truckers - Season Four was immediately followed by IRT - Deadliest Roads, a ten-episode miniseries following regulars Rick Yemm (from seasons 1 & 2), Alex Debogorski (seasons 1-4), and Lisa Kelly (seasons 3-4) to India's ancient mountain roads, some dating back to 206 B.C., where there's a new casualty every 4.5 minutes.
The insanity starts unexpectedly far from the mountain roads, in Delhi's urban sprawl, where traffic blithely operates under every-man-for-himself rules of the road, where small cars, scooters, and especially green tourists buses - whose drivers get more money the faster they deliver their passengers - routinely pass on blind corners, play "chicken" with oncoming traffic, and think nothing of cutting off unsteady trucks hauling dangerous loads.
This unnerves good-natured veteran driver Debogorski - he gets into two traffic collisions before even reaching the outskirts of Delhi and promptly hightails it back to Canada. (Those familiar with Debogorski from past seasons understand immediately: His laid-back, humanist persona is a bad match for India's cutthroat roads where the ability to be selectively, instantly assertive (if not outright aggressive) is essential to one's survival. Alabama trucker Dave Redmond is brought in to replace him on episode two.
From Delhi, the remaining truckers carry supplies to Shimla, up to a hydroelectric dam construction site, and later through the Rohtang Pass and to the remote village of Keylong. These roads, the NH21 and NH22, are divided into sections appropriately nicknamed "Freefall Freeway," "Breakaway Bend" and, my favorite, a mountain called "Pile of Corpses."
The dangers are endless. For starters they must acclimate themselves to driving on the "wrong side" of the road, with the truck's steering wheel and gear shift also flip-flopped, in Tata trucks with flimsy wooden frames that would never be permitted on America's highways. The crumbling cliff roads barely accommodate one vehicle but choke with two-way traffic. About 98% drive like madmen gratingly honking their horns all the while. That's to say nothing of the farm animals, schoolchildren, and falling boulders around every corner, and that's while their trucks are usually hugging cliffs with but a few inches between them and a 1,000-plus-foot drop straight down.
The reactions to all this is priceless and oddly informative. As someone who made the transition learning to drive on the left (with steering on the right) in urban Japan, with its obscenely narrow roads, crazy cabbies, and other numerous hazards, I recognized some of the same driving culture shock and felt a lot of empathy toward the program's drivers. None ever quite gets over the appalling disregard for basic safety exhibited by many of India's drivers, who take chances like over-confident high school kids out joy-riding.
And yet for all their borderline road rage Rick, Lisa, and Dave come off well, bemused by the whirlwind of unfamiliar sights and sounds around them yet willing to go with the flow. Each is assigned an Indian "spotter" to guide them through the most perilous passages, and to act as a kind of buffer when conflicts arise with other drivers. The relationships they form with these native truckers is often hilarious - Dave and his spotter, Sanjeev, barely understand each other - and occasionally touching, as when Rick's cystic fibrosis-stricken daughter is hospitalized back home, and he discusses the meaning of family with his spotter, Boyo, who reveals that his own wife succumbed to cancer not long before. Similarly, all respond well to unfamiliar traditions like roadside truck blessings and Rick especially is extremely kind to the people he meets along the way.
Video & Audio
The bright colors of the gaudily decorated Tata trucks and the incredibly beautiful if dangerous roads make this a highly desirable Blu-ray even if it is in 1080i format. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo is up to contemporary television standards and does what it's supposed to do. English subtitles are helpfully included.
As with similar reality titles the only extra is a healthy dose of "additional footage" from the cutting room floor, in this case in standard definition and running just under a half-hour.
A fun series that surprises with its cross-cultural relationships as much as its scenery and suspenseful driving, IRT - Deadliest Roads is enormous fun and Highly Recommended.
* The "IRT" stands for "Ice Road Truckers," of course, but as there's very little ice in this series of shows and no ice road at all the name change kind of makes sense.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.