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There’s a reason that some of the most compelling unscripted series hook viewers – because the people in them are not only real, they’re not directly of an archetype seen countless times on television.
One man who has been able to tap into that trend successfully on numerous occasions is Thom Beers (Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men), who now turns to coal miners in West Virginia.
Coal, on the Spike channel, would normally have seemed like a cynical attempt to cash in on the dangers of the job in a post Chilean-miners world. But a tsunami, earthquake and radiation fears make cable’s last bit of fetish coverage seem years ago.
Which is probably good for Coal, because it immediately stands on its own as a worthy subject, not just a way to capitalize on a trend. The men who go into the coal mines in West Virginia are originals with the kind of amazing stories and backgrounds, vocal patterns and lifestyles that conjure a documentarian’s dream. Of course, Coal is billed as a docu-reality series and will undoubtedly, in future episodes, fall into some familiar patterns (human behavior and editing being what they are).
But there’s no chance of this becoming some cheesy reality show. These miners, their faces blackened, their dialects and drawls necessitating subtitles, first seem to have crawled right out of central casting. Coal mining has been passed down in their families for generations; most of the men haven’t been involved in higher education, their teeth are bad, they drink hard and swear a lot and their world view is Appalachian to the core.
Part of that is the allure of the show, but the miners will soon show a broader side, as most people do when you get past the preconceptions. What makes Coal so riveting is trying to get at why anyone would go into the side of a dark, dangerous mountain with a maximum ceiling height of 44 inches, but often more like 36 inches? And that “ceiling” is mountain of rock, dirt and coal you’re tunneling through with extremely dangerous equipment and propping up with steel while praying it doesn’t collapse.
The answer to why is mostly financial. Or that it’s all they know. And jobs are scarce in West Virginia. This makes coal miners a breed unto themselves and perfect to follow. The first hour of Coal is both riveting for the storyline (the coal mine itself could go bankrupt if they don’t get enough coal out) and the dangerous lives these guys lead. You learn what a “continuous miner” machine is (in short, extremely dangerous and unbelievably hard to control); what roof bolters do (save your sorry ass) and what it’s like to work 10 hours in the dark, on your knees with any number of ways to die.
Beers and his crew are old hands at this and they wring the drama out of Coal very quickly and compellingly. They get beyond the danger into the emotional territory and that’s where the gold is. If you can get these miners to open up about their fears and dreams, etc., then you’ve accomplished something. An actor can’t duplicate what these men are about – so Coal is a glimpse into a life as obscure as something from the other side of the world.