August 1, 2008

‘L.A. Hard Hats’ and the Rise of the Manly Man Shows

American viewers plug in to American workers doing dangerous American jobs.

Standing atop this luxury apartment building overlooking the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, it's easy to see why someone would want to make a reality TV show here _ in 2004.

There was a time when viewers couldn't get enough of watching contestants sit around penthouse cribs whining about each other. But that's changed. Audiences want action now. They want danger. They have what Thom Beers, the hottest producer in reality TV, calls "a hunger for authenticity."

That explains the emergence of the manly man show. Hit reality series like "Ice Road Truckers,""Dirty Jobs" and "Deadliest Catch" have fueled a wave of shows about dangerous jobs and the oddball characters, almost all male, who perform them.

And that's why I've come to the construction site of this 23-story luxury residence known as Evo South.

Wearing the mandatory hard hat and orange vest, I've spent the past few minutes dodging heavy equipment and walking through unfinished condos while my guide, Dan Jackson, yelled over the power saws.

"This will be the most fireproof building in Los Angeles," Jackson tells me, pointing out the sprinklers that will be placed every three feet throughout Evo South.

Jackson and his crews spent two years here, filming the construction for a new show on the National Geographic Channel called "L.A. Hard Hats" (9 p.m. Sunday).

To learn how "L.A. Hard Hats" got made is to learn a lot about where the reality TV business stands at this moment. And you can't get a better guide than Jackson, whose resume is a history of reality TV going back to the days when re-creating crimes was the hot trend.

From "Rescue 911" and "America's Most Wanted" he went on to make documentaries on military academies, the Harley-Davidson company and the science of plane-crash investigation. In 2007 he was shooting a WEtv series, "Twister Sisters," with two female storm chasers and wound up in Greensburg, Kan., on the night an EF-5 tornado leveled the town.

Back in L.A., I get some more info about the building. Evo South was designed for LEED certification in energy efficiency and a buyer of a certain income bracket. A brochure describes Evo South's 311 units as "individually created and tediously refined by architect Craig Norman."

Before anything could be "refined," however, 3,500 tons of reinforced steel, or rebar, had to be forged and framed, 94 million pounds of concrete had to be poured and 170,000 feet of plumbing installed, followed by wood flooring, finished metal, sculpted glass, appliances and utilities.

It was this dirty and often treacherous work that appealed to National Geographic Channel. Like every other cable channel on the planet, Nat Geo wanted to be in business with Jackson's employer, Original Productions.

Founded in 1999 by Thom Beers, Original was originally known for its "Motorcycle Mania" specials. The host, a then-unknown mechanic named Jesse James, had a creative streak: In one memorable scene he built a gas tank by hand out of aluminum. Their next collaboration, "Monster Garage," would make James a star and put Original on the map.

One of Beers' next creations was a two-part special on Alaskan crab fishing for Discovery channel. The ratings prompted Discovery to order a series from him _ "Deadliest Catch." It became a monster hit, and Original was off and running.

So far Beers has produced "Ice Road" for History, "Deadliest" for Discovery, "Black Gold" for truTV, "Twister Sisters" for WEtv and "America's Port" for Nat Geo, to name a few. Soon it will make the jump to network TV, with "America's Toughest Jobs" for NBC.

"All I'm doing is putting people through the paces of something they already do," Beers said in an interview. "I just happen to have access to a lot of unique and dangerous jobs."

The people who work for Beers, like Jackson, are experts at distilling the drama out of everyday labor. Fans know Hugh Rowland, the burly bearded driver seen on "Ice Road Truckers," by his nickname of "The Polar Bear," and Phil Harris, the crab fisherman featured in "Deadliest Catch," by his numerous job-inflicted injuries.

The premiere of "L.A. Hard Hats" is about the "rodbusters" who fashion and install hundreds of miles of steel used in the building. That's followed by an episode about "mud men" _ not "Mad Men" _ who pour concrete over the rebar to give Evo South its basic structure. Future hours of "L.A. Hard Hats" will feature plumbers, electricians and the men who install the glass facade, or "curtain wall," on Evo South's exterior.

"L.A. Hard Hats" was done on a cable budget, which meant filming had to be sporadic over the two-year life of the building project. This led to challenges Jackson didn't encounter on, say, "Deadliest Catch," where his crews were "stuck on a boat with six people."

On a typical hard-hat shoot, "we'd show up one day, meet the people, try to suss out who would be interesting," Jackson says. When his crew returned two weeks later, those workers would often be gone, assigned to other projects. "So in a sense, we were starting over each time we showed up," he says.

The TV crews also struggled building trust with the crews. Participation is crucial to the success of shows like "L.A. Hard Hats," and for whatever reason, Jackson's people weren't getting it.

"A lot of the construction workers wanted nothing to do with us," Jackson says. "They figured all we would air is if they made a mistake." Eventually, though, "they kind of got that we were about telling the stories of their struggle. That we were not just making 'America's Funniest Home Videos,' but trying to capture how they did and what they did on a bad day."

A few key people resisted wearing wireless microphones. Other times a worker would go home, tell his wife there was a TV crew filming him, "and the next day he'd be a lot more willing to wear a mic," Jackson says.

I'm introduced to two of the "stars" of Episode 5, Paul Truax and Rick Morse, who worked on the curtain wall.

"Their episode is one of the funnier ones," Jackson says. "For some reasons, different trades have different personalities."

Indeed, immediately upon spotting Jackson, Truax calls out, "I've got a bone to pick with you!" Loudly but good-naturedly, he gripes about having to pay extra to get the National Geographic Channel.

And another thing: "First I was in the commercial, then all of a sudden I'm not," he says. "But that rotten Jake" _ referring to Jake Franklin Jr., another worker seen in the episode _ "he's on it every time!"

"That's showbiz, buddy," Jackson kids him back. "Now you know what it's like being a celebrity."



The sweet smell of success is emanating from cable channels: show after show about sweaty, hard-working guys doing guys' work.

_ "Black Gold" (10 p.m. Wednesdays, truTV) Ripped young men drill for oil in west Texas.

_ "Deadliest Catch" (airs twice weekdays on Discovery) Crab fishing is hard work, though it probably won't kill you.

_ "Ice Road Truckers" (9 p.m. Sundays, History) Drivers with more facial hair than sense pull tons of cargo over frozen water.

_ "L.A. Hard Hats" (9 p.m. Sundays, National Geographic) Construction workers toil on a condo high-rise they could never afford.

_ "Verminators" (10 p.m. Mondays, Discovery) Pest killers spread mass death in unsuspecting suburban homes.

_ "Ax Men" (on iTunes) Loggers build each other up while tearing Mother Nature down in the forests of Oregon.

_ "Sandhogs" (History, September) Someone's gotta drill those tunnels 100 feet below NYC.


Aaron Barnhart: [email protected]


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