'Jobs': Another Day At the Reality Mill

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008

Imagine producing a show called "America's Toughest Jobs" and not including "television critic." Oh, really now! The very idea. What were they thinking?

As a matter of fact, they weren't thinking very hard. The first episodes of "America's Toughest Jobs," premiering tonight on Channel 4, are just bigger-budget versions of "Deadliest Catch," a show that recently finished its fourth successful season on the Discovery Channel, and that even comes from the same producer, Thom Beers. The difference is that instead of documenting life aboard a crab-fishing boat, the new show stages a competition for a baker's dozen of novices determined to capture all the Alaskan crabs they can without shivering their timbers off.

You know the drill, established long ago by "Survivor" and turned into a genre by its kazillion imitations: Put a bunch of people in alien surroundings and alienating circumstances and see who can tough it out the longest.

In this case, they're fish out of water who get soaking wet. The 13 contestants, to be winnowed down over the weeks -- and other dangerous jobs -- to come, are piped aboard the good ship Tempo Sea out of Juneau and set about bobbing for crabs, so to speak, using 800-pound submersible cages called "pots" in the nearly unbearable Bering Sea.

The basic formula is by now so groaningly familiar, and the premise so weak and weary, that there's only the "reality" part of this docu-game, or whatever it ought to be called, to tempt one's interest, and that not much. How thrilled can you get the 11th or 25th time you see the landlubbers slip-sliding around the poop deck and trying to maneuver the big clankety cages to their launch pads? Pot overboard!

Predictably, the crabby contestants are another cross section of types, caricatures, freaks and geeks who always seem to show up for these wastes of time, with a few token attractive specimens tossed in -- not into the sea, into the mix. It's the irritating ones who make an impression and really carry the show, though; on "Toughest Jobs," a 40-year-old Wall Street executive named Amy moves rather quickly to the forefront of the whiners and carpers.

She won't help with the cooking on board the ship, she says, because at home in Boston she has shut down her stove and turned it into a bookcase. When it's time to take a bite from a raw crab as part of a good-luck ritual, she announces that one little nibble and boom, she'd go right into "anaphylactic shock." So a huge fuss must be made over that.

After one phase of the competition, Amy is captured by the camera trying to deal with the fact that one of the professional seamen told her that she was "one of the worst" to perform the assigned task -- "and I don't hear that very often in life."

Some of the sights are, indeed, impressive, and the show was shot in high definition. Anyone who set sail with the Discovery Channel version, however, has probably had enough undulating waves and crab-counting instruction. To determine which crabs are fair game, and potentially profitable, and which should be tossed back, a crew member tells the competitors to look at the poor hideous thing and ask, "Does it look like Gomer Pyle or some bucktoothed beaver?" Ah, yes, an exacting science it is.

On a future episode, the ersatz sea folk become novice truck drivers, not just along the byways and beltways of North America but on "one of the most dangerous roads on Earth," 250 miles of nightmarish treachery stretching from Fairbanks to Coldfoot, Alaska -- through country prone to avalanches, blizzards, hail and gales. And guess how much the trucks weigh? Go on, guess.

Downshifting gives an "80,000-pound truck" more power, says chirpy host Josh Temple. "Brakes alone can't stop an 80,000-pound vehicle," he warns later. Fail to downshift properly "and you've got an 80,000-pound runaway truck on your hands," he says ominously, if repetitiously. And "you're facing death in an 80,000-pound vehicle," one of the female contestants obligingly notes.

More evocative, really, is a 53-year-old sculptor's assessment: "It's like driving a house." When Josh isn't giving us the weight of the long-haul rigs, he's slipping in a plug for "the all-new Dodge Ram 1500," one of those embedded sponsors that we'll be running into more and more as the networks find new ways to increase profits.

Eager to play the roles they've already seen on dozens of other docu-games, the contestants join in the hyperbole. "This is the chance of a lifetime," says a young man named Steven. Good old Amy tops that: "This is the biggest opportunity of my lifetime -- ever," she declares. What does the winner win, after weeks of part-time bridge-building, pickle-packing and cotton-picking (or whatever)? "The combined salaries of all the jobs," explains Josh, "brought to you by the all-new Dodge Ram 1500!"

All-new, eh? If so, it's the only thing about "America's Toughest Jobs" that is.

America's Toughest Jobs (one hour) airs tonight at 9 on Channel 4.

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