Wednesday’s two-hour premiere of “Tough as Nails” is a little too fluent in the same language. “Every day, millions of Americans roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty to make an honest day’s living,” says creator and host Phil Keoghan at the beginning of the show, heralding its 12 contestants as prime examples of “people who really keep this country going.”
Today’s politics being what they are, it’s hard not to hear a reverse implication: that those of us who are not covered in sweat and grime by the end of the day are somehow making a dishonest living. We might not even be real Americans. (Does this sweatstain metric also apply to the executive suite at networks? Does it apply to New Zealand-born TV hosts? Is “Tough as Nails,” like “Undercover Boss” before it, an exercise in subconscious remorse about one’s bloated paycheck?)
The tone of the show, at best, patronizes the nation’s blue-collar workforce by overpraising it without addressing ongoing issues of wages and rights; at worst, it’s a glancing blow to all those Americans who work just as hard indoors, and have been working even harder since March, when pandemic isolation efforts required them to toil remotely at home while managing the full-time care and education of children.
Keoghan and CBS have had plenty of weeks to look around, take note of the nation’s current mood and rewrite a lot of these vacuous voice-overs by recognizing the wide range of the American work ethic. Instead, Keoghan can’t stop piling on the class signifiers: These good folk, he says, are “sweating on factory floors instead of gym floors, and wearing work boots instead of workout shoes.” Rather than seem tough, it seems insecure.
“Tough as Nails” never fully relaxes that stance, as some of its contestants begin to parrot the narrative style, including a 35-year-old Bronx scaffold builder named Luis Yuli: “I hate to be sitting down behind a cubicle and doing paperwork. I was not born for that.”
If Yuli got the idea that he ever needed to justify his career choice, it’s probably because our culture and our politics are coated in mixed messages about character and livelihood, made worse by an ever-widening income gap and the erosion of workers’ rights.
The contestants — six women and six men who range in age from 27 to 62 — also include a drywaller, a welder, a farmer, a Marine Corps veteran, an airline ticketing agent, a sheriff’s deputy, a forester, a firefighter, a fisherman, an ironworker and a roofer. The only thing that makes the show worth watching (other than seeing some of the women outperform the men) is the contestants’ general good attitude about the work they do and the work that others do.
“Tough as Nails” has almost nothing new to add to the genre overall. We could just as easily be watching these nice people bake cakes or assemble Legos or any of the other activities TV likes to turn into contests. And this show pales next to Keoghan’s other show, “The Amazing Race,” a completed season of which has been sitting around for months while CBS dithers about when to air it. America, I ask you: What would be more entertaining right now in the dead of a deadly summer — a show in which people frantically lay brick and shovel coal, or the dreamy escapism of another frantic, jet-hopping race around the pre-pandemic world?
Sadly, CBS chose the bricklaying. After an initial relay race demonstrating their agility and stamina (they are each asked to move 24 heavy bags of powdered mortar mix from one end of an obstacle to another using a wheelbarrow), the contestants are split into two teams (“Dirty Hands” and “The Savage Crew”) to compete for individual victories. Keoghan brings out a hokey elimination totem — a giant time clock where the losing contestants must punch out each week.
In the show’s only nod to the nobility of seeing a job through to completion, however, those who are eliminated don’t leave the show. They continue to work with their team, even though they’re no longer eligible for the big prize: $200,000 and a shiny new Ford pickup truck with a price tag that starts around $35,000.
That means one of these true-blue Americans will also be getting an eye-opening introduction to the joys of life in a suddenly higher tax bracket. Once they get over the sticker shock, they’ll need to hire one of those lesser Americans who sit in front of a computer all day to help them sort it all out.
Tough as Nails (two hours) premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on CBS.