It's kind of funny when you're looking at the popular trends in television and how fads come and go. One of the most successful genres right now, at least for the History Channel, has to be the focus on dangerous jobs in a reality-like setting. Often called the real-men-in-danger genre, some examples of shows of this nature are Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers. The most recent attempt at capturing an audience comes from History Channel and takes you deep into the woods to show you that it's okay to be a lumber jack. Ax Men premiered in March of this year, and the first season gathered fourteen episodes of logging goodness. History Channel has just released the complete first season of the show and it's time to see whether or not it's worth watching, or if an axe should be taken to it.
Ax Men follows four teams of logging crews as they work through the damp, foggy forests of the Pacific Northwest. During the fourteen episodes here you'll get to know the guys who work at J.M. Browning Logging, Stump-Branch Logging, Pihl Logging, and Gustafson Logging. The focuses on each of these teams is split fairly evenly throughout each episode, but there's little denying that it's difficult to get the names of all the players right. A couple of personalities in each crew stand out, but that's hardly enough to draw you in or get you caring about the individual worker. As it stands the logging crews serve as players to show you just how crappy their jobs can be at times.
Through series you'll see each crew work through a variety of themes of the week. Some times they are competing directly with each other, other times they are simply fighting the economy and then there're storms to deal with. Both the economy and weather play important roles in the show in the later episodes. On one hand you'll see the loggers struggle not to lose their homes and competing against each other for business. On the other you'll see some serious storms rip through Oregon, causing damage to towns and shutting down their business. Not only do the teams have to deal with all of that, but they also lose members through either injury or simply being sick of the job.
Despite all of this, the majority of the program takes the loggers out into the woods and puts a chainsaw in their hands. Armed with some high tech toys and a slight bit of desperation, these men stand against nature on a daily basis. This is where Ax Men stands out the most.
When Ax Men drops you right into the thick of the action out in the middle of a dank and unrelenting forest, you'll really get an appreciation for just how hard the job is. Massive machines and risky equipment dot the landscape, and in between the men of each logging company are battling nature. With chainsaws, axes, and high tech gear, the men climb, chop, and saw their way through tree after tree. Like any good reality series, the show is at its best when something goes wrong and the guys have to either fix it, or get out of the way. Otherwise you're going to be pulled through the personal dramas of people the show hardly focuses on during tough times. It's tragic in most cases to be sure, but the show never really develops a connection between these workers and the viewer.
For a few episodes Ax Men is enjoyable enough and it offers a nice glimpse at a profession that most viewers only know a little about. Much like Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men does a decent job of showing the profession and what kind of person it takes to do it on a daily basis. Unfortunately, unlike the other two series, it doesn't quite have the personality or variety to be a lasting experience. In addition to the lack of longevity, the show also portrays most of the men as moody and desperate depending on their situations. In most cases it's kind of a disparaging glance at their lives, but such is the case with a reality-like television series. If the show had been wrapped up in, say, four episodes, then it would have been the perfect length. However, drawn out for fourteen episodes, Ax Men becomes dry and depressing after a while. If you have enjoyed other shows in this genre then you may want to give this one a rent, but it's certainly not for everyone.
Sadly, History Channel has decided to once again present a series on DVD with a cropped widescreen aspect ratio. Ax Men suffers from this like some other shows in recent times, but otherwise the picture quality all around is pretty good. There is a nice clarity to the image and the amount of digital artifacts is kept very low. Any flaws in the show's presentation come from the ruggedness of its filming and fact that the crews were out in the harsh elements. It's a comparable look to the series' broadcast and holds up well to other History Channel series.
Likewise, the 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo presentation is efficient, yet minimalist, when you're looking at the audio quality. Driven by dialogue and the sound of trees falling left and right, Ax Men doesn't exactly have an impressive amount of material to work with. Most of the time the guys are yelling to each other over their machines, and all around there are a lot of small noises not filtered out. A 5.1 surround mix would have been nice to give you a sense of immersion out in the middle of the woods, but it was hardly necessary for this series.
Rather than provide commentary, information about the loggers, or offer a feature regarding the production of the show, the only thing you're going to get here for bonus material is a collection of additional footage. These deleted moments from the show are hardly compelling and really add nothing to the experience.
Ax Men is decent at times, it has an interesting concept, and there are plenty of moments that will make you say "oooo". Unfortunately the production all around just isn't very solid and the show feels drawn out, disorganized, and it lacks focus. If you're looking for another experience like Ice Road Truckers or Deadliest Catch, you're going to be left wanting. Ax Men is entertaining enough for a rental by those who appreciate the genre, but as a show it doesn't really stand on its own two legs. Fourteen episodes were definitely more than the series needed to get the job done, and because of that it leaves less of an impression.