TV series spotlights tough jobs and workers in Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, April 29, 2008

KENAI - Deadly cold and miles from nowhere is an apt description of many of Alaska's blue-collar occupations, and it is often said surviving and prospering where the climate gives no quarter demands toughness.

A new 13-part television series called "Tougher In Alaska" attempts to examine that quality, focusing on men and women who live and labor in some of the region's harshest conditions, not only enduring but loving it, too.

Produced for History, the new brand name of The History Channel, by Moore Huntley Productions, "Tougher" premiers May 8.

To many Alaskans, its host will be familiar - print and broadcast journalist Geo Beach of Homer. During 25 years in Alaska, Beach has worked in some of the profiled jobs, including logging, firefighting and commercial fishing. Beach takes a participatory approach in each of the episodes, in some drawing on a wealth of experience, in others suffering the rude rewards of a raw rookie.

A series purporting to explore how tough one needs to be to thrive in Alaska requires a host who looks the part. At 6 feet, 3 inches tall and Telly Savalas bald, Beach fits the bill. He is an imposing physical platform from which booms a voice every bit as commanding as his commentary is deliberative.

At first glance, the series title might be seen as a bit presumptuous. No doubt among the millions of people working hard jobs under difficult conditions elsewhere in the world, there'd be many willing to stack their "tough" jobs up against anything filmed in the series.

"The name of the show is 'Tougher In Alaska,' not 'Toughest in Alaska,"' Beach points out.

"Tougher" isn't designed to label hard working Americans living Outside as wimps or foster any sense of competition. It does attempt to convey with vivid images painted on a harsh canvas the sweeping scope and frequent severity of the climatic conditions under which blue-collar Alaskans labor and from which they may be entitled to draw a certain pride in the toughness of their nature.

It also recognizes that Alaska is a kind of metaphor for many Americans where elements of a dangerous frontier can still be found, Beach said.

Though several do, not every episode is devoted to a single occupation. A few cover multiple jobs or focus on life in a region, Beach said. In every case, however, the central figures are blue-collar workers.

"I never liked the idea that there is somebody out there who's better than a blue-collar worker. I just never believed that," Beach said. "I've considered it an opportunity and a privilege to do those jobs."

Beach didn't chase his position as the show's host. In fact, friends first alerted him to the fact the production company was searching for someone with a journalism background, a little acting experience, and blue-collar bona fides.

After contacting Moore Huntley, Beach was asked to supply a casting reel, which he didn't have. Outside at the time, his brother-in-law shot a home movie of him on a pier in northern California. Later, a local film producer made a second film of Beach interviewing people at Homer Harbor.

Not in the least interested in involving himself with some Hollywood producer's dream of Alaska, Beach said he vetted the producers even as they were considering him.

"I saw the entire 50-page pitch looking for the classic errors that Outside media make, what I call 'igloos and penguins' journalism," he said. Beach said he found no misapprehensions about Alaska among the crewmembers. "Had I run into that, I simply wouldn't have been involved," he said.

Instead, he discovered talented and capable people as committed to portraying the truth about the lives of the workers they would film as he was. Beach was hired and shooting on the series began in early 2007. David Huntley, who Beach said qualified as tough, had already produced widely popular specials on Alaska including "Alaska: Big America" and "Alaska: Dangerous Territory."

Beach was careful to differentiate "Tougher" from another variety of popular television programming.

"This is not, not, not 'reality television,"' Beach insisted. "There is no cash prize, no race or competition. Nothing is done for the camera. It is nonfiction, documentary journalism. It is real stories about real Alaskans."

The subject matter and the environment are such that nothing need be contrived. There was no posing, no scripted shots, he said.

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