Owing brotherly debts to Moses, Saint Nicholas, California gold rushers and ZZ Top, the competitive beard growers we meet in IFC’s new Friday night reality show, “Whisker Wars,” travel the land to enter contests to see who has the best facial hair. The winner will represent the United States in some sort of European beard showdown; the competitors are divvied up into such categories as “mustache,” “partial,” “full/natural” and “freestyle.”
The full/natural group appears to be the primary fixation of “Whisker Wars.” These are the men with lush drapes of facial hair cascading from their faces for a foot or two (or three), all but ensuring they will remain in a lower tax bracket until they trim it.
Unless, of course, they can somehow commodify their looks and personalities to cash in on what they are convinced is a national beard craze. Thanks to a few hundred thousand hipsters in the present day, bushy and scraggly beards are indeed back in fashion — especially on indie-rock musicians, actor Zach Galifianakis and certain visual artists.
But those people all have something to do in addition to having big beards — and theirs aren’t nearly as long. Thus, “Whisker Wars” seems to be an unintentional study in a pathetic gauge of self-worth, in which the beard is the means to an end.
Nowhere is this more clear than with the main antagonist of “Whisker Wars,” a national beard champ named Jack Passion. (A lot of the competitors appear to work under assumed names.) Hawking his book and souvenirs wherever he goes, the vainglorious Passion sports a wavy red beard reaching almost to his waist. In describing his beardly ambitions and business plan, it only vaguely occurs to him that he has built his life around a sham title — king of the beard dorks — and that without it, he’d have no livelihood.
Passion’s boastful diva act has attracted the ire of other beardies, especially a nest of rambunctious, hirsute hipsters in Austin, who share a dream of unseating Passion from the throne.
Meanwhile, an aging Hobbity, off-the-gridder hippie named Aarne Bielefeldt has come onto the scene from the woods of Northern California, quietly winning contest after contest. Another determined newcomer is young Myk O’Connor, a tattooed Brooklynite with the full-on Jesus look who tells onlookers, “If I could walk on water, I wouldn’t be riding the subway.”
All in good fun, I suppose, except that when you watch a few episodes of “Whisker Wars,” you pick up on a sense of menace and insecurity in the competitive beard world — beyond even the hissy fits the producers may have meant to portray.
There are instances of rigged judging and a general displeasure within the national organization of beard bylaws; the more you watch, the less manly the men of “Whisker Wars” appear as they pout and preen. This really becomes clear when, readying for competition, one of the Austin dudes puts sponge rollers in his mustache. This show is more like “Toddlers & Tiaras” than it cares to admit.
And oddly enough, beyond these few scenes of primping and grooming, very little of the show seems to be about the beards. How long did they take to grow? Why do the men keep them? What do their wives and girlfriends find sexy about so much facial hair? (Does a man like this hypocritically insist that his mate shave her legs?) What’s the kissing like? What’s sex like? I mean, if you’re going to do a show about it, then do a show about it.
Alas, that’s how it goes with much of the “subculture” programming on reality TV. There’s no time for anthropology, psychology or cultural criticism. “Whisker Wars,” it seems, is no different from those shows about extreme couponers or the woman who eats the stuffing out of sofa cushions. Bit by bit, cable channels are chronicling everyone’s “thing,” no matter how arcane. And there’s always a contest to see whose is biggest, weirdest, longest, whatever-iest.
(30 minutes) premieres Friday at 11 p.m. on IFC.