NEW YORK Watching "Tougher in Alaska," you might find yourself thinking several things:
• How the tasks (like gold mining, salmon fishing, railroading) aren't just hard, they're difficult in ways you never imagined, and being in Alaska makes them even tougher.
• How the people devoted to each pursuit are really good at it.
• How you're kind of grateful you're not them.
The last response may be inevitable for a not-so-tough couch potato watching from TV's comfy remove. "Tougher in Alaska" makes a strong case that the work it documents is taxing, risky and cold!
But the people who do it seem to love it, and to love the vast, untamed frontier embracing them in the 49th state.
Geo Beach loves it, too. He's your rough-and-tumble guide for the series (airing tonight, 11 p.m. MDT on History). And he brings been-there-done-that authority to his hosting role.
An Alaskan for a quarter-century, he has been a logger, firefighter and commercial fisherman. He's at home around construction sites and oil spills.
"That's how I paid for my writing habit," says Beach, a former New Englander who in Alaska found a rich source of material for the commentaries and essays he turns out for various publications, Web sites and public radio.
Add to his qualifications the booming voice, chrome dome and overgrown-kid gusto, and Beach was a natural to make the jump to TV to showcase the state he calls, with proud accentuation, "uh-LAHHSSSS-kuh."
This week, Beach joins power company workers as they face fearsome snow loads, high winds and subzero temperatures to keep electricity flowing through lines constantly susceptible to the unforgiving weather. Among his chores: helping to install power poles and string electrical wire by hand in the remote village of Kasigluk, where bucket trucks are unavailable.
Future episodes tackle road building, policing and waste disposal, Alaska style.
"Tougher in Alaska" joins a growing genre most easily labeled "tough TV." In this category, testosterone reigns supreme as men (and a scattering of women) clash with nature ("Man vs. Wild" on Discovery), other tough guys (Spike's "The Ultimate Fighter"), bad guys ("Dog the Bounty Hunter" on A&E), or tasks so yucky only tough guys wouldn't lose their breakfast (Discovery's "Dirty Jobs").
"Deadliest Catch," in its third hit season on Discovery, focuses on crab fishing in the Bering Sea off the Alaska coast.
Spike has more Tough TV planned, including "River Men" (toiling on the Mississippi), the bounty hunters "Tank and Cobra" and "USA vs. The World," which promises to pit "average Americans who do some of the roughest jobs in the world" against their professional counterparts from other countries.
And mark your calendar for summer 2009, when NBC plans to air "Shark Taggers."
Bottom line: Viewers will be toughing it out for some time to come.
Even so, Beach doesn't want anybody mistaking "Tougher in Alaska" as an expo for daredevilry and life-or-death bouts in the great outdoors.
"We're not kickboxing bears up here. This is not a carnival sideshow," he declares during a recent phone call from his home "at the unnumbered end of Lookout Drive," he says, "looking out over Cook Inlet and four big volcanoes over on the Ring of Fire, arcing out toward the Aleutians and over to Russia and to Asia.
"Other shows may be about jobs," he goes on. "But up here, a job is more than something you clock into at 9 and clock out of at 5. The work is part of a lifestyle, and part of a community, of a whole sense of place. That sort of holistic quality is what we show on 'Tougher in Alaska.' And we show it with a whole variety of jobs."
Beach (who prefers Geo, with its earthly associations, over his given name of George) has been busy on the 13-episode "Tougher in Alaska" for a year. At each site he and a three-person crew "got immersed with the workers," he says, "in a challenging, awesome environment, working WITH them."
To explain, he invokes the principle of Venn diagrams: One circle represents the film crew and a second circle the workers being filmed. At the start of each location shoot, he says, only he occupied the overlapping piece of each circle. Before the shoot was finished, the circles would mostly merge with common purpose, as the filmmakers got involved with the action they were filming, and the workers pitched in with production chores.
"Then, when the cameras go away and viewers click off their TV sets, these guys that I've been out with are still toughing it out in Alaska," Beach says. "And I'm still here, too."