The world’s deadliest TV genre

As yet another ‘world’s toughest job’ show, Oil Riggers feels like a substandard rip-off with a Texan accent.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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Some say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Personally I think it is the lowest form of plagiarism. And what with television in the grip of what surely is one of its most rampant eras of unoriginality, imitation can often be a signifier of a lack of creative thinking, exposing the fact that TV makers now resort to the familiar, to the tried-and-tested.

Consider the talent show, which was epitomised by the gentle humiliation festival Opportunity Knocks broadcast at various points from the 1950s to the 1980s and its blunter, crueller rival New Faces, which ran from 1972 to 1978, before being resuscitated between 1986 and 1988.

Unfortunately for those keen to watch members of the public making tits of themselves, the 1990s were lean times. By the early 2000s, however, the talent show had returned in the more hideous, vacuous fame-seeking form of Pop Idol, which has spawned American Idol, X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. Then there’s Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing on Ice, shows that do not feature talentless nobodies yearning to become famous, but, conversely and ironically, talented and well-known celebrities assuming the pose of inept members of the general public, being put out of their depth in unassuming surroundings.

Then there has emerged the documentary genre of men doing very dangerous jobs that none of us appreciated were that dangerous. This began in earnest in 2005 with the superlative Deadliest Catch, a series depicting the hazardous, heroic and often touching tales of Alaskan crab fishermen in the north Pacific Ocean (1). We all knew being a policeman, soldier or firefighter was dangerous, but Deadliest Catch was a revelatory triumph because it had never occurred to most of us that fishing was so risky. Noticing its popularity across 150 countries, the BBC produced Trawlermen in 2008, which – presumably as a riposte to our American cousins – showed that catching fish in the North Sea was just as perilous as trying to do so in the Bering Sea.

This theme now continues with Oil Riggers (entitled Black Gold in the US), which made its UK debut airing on Five last night. And, my word, I honestly have never seen a programme so derivative, so wantonly imitative of that which inspired it.

Oil Riggers concerns the lives and exploits of those on the oil rigs of west Texas, in which – and you’ve probably guessed it – ‘teams of men work long hours in tough conditions to carry out one of the most dangerous jobs in the world’ (2). Oil Riggers might as well have been called Deadliest Catch On Land.

Right from the outset the parallels were shocking. We were introduced to the cast of characters, such as Gerald and Wayne who were two of the chiefs on the three featured oil rigs, Longhorn, Viking and Big Dog, in precisely the same manner in which the likes of Sig and Phil of the vessels ‘Cornelia Marie’ and ‘Northwestern’ appeared at the introduction to episodes of Deadliest Catch. Cue similar heavy metal riffs, a declaration that this job had its ‘risks and rewards’, mentions of the ‘lethal machinery at every twist and turn’ and a reminder of how many lives have been lost in the oil industry.

Why do these men take such risks? Well it’s because of the potentially huge cash rewards. ‘That’s money that is!’ beamed one of the workers at the oil rigs, having toiled so unhappily for days amidst the dirt and the lethal machinery, in much the same way the fishermen in Deadliest Catch, having been subjected to freezing conditions and 12ft high waves, looked at the camera with glee and whoops of delight as they pulled up a heaving pot of crabs. And like the fishermen who were at the mercy of the weather, we learnt last night that these oil riggers also fear the elements, in this case the storms for which the American south and mid-west is notorious.

Both Oil Riggers and Deadliest Catch appeal to what some might disparagingly call macho posturing, and others, less disparagingly, refer to as heroism, endeavour and risk-taking. In other words, they are shows that appeal to dads who might otherwise be watching programmes about shark-hunting or the Omaha landings on D-Day on the Discovery channel.

I suspect that the advertisers know this, for the commercial breaks during Wednesday night’s airing of Oil Riggers featured adverts for vodka, Ronseal, car insurance, DIY stores, laptop computers and the latest AC/DC album. This was indeed bloke TV. And the strange one-upmanship evident in these programmes, with each industry trying to boast that more of their men lose their lives in their line of work, suggests that it is not bloke TV at its healthiest.

But unfortunately, one empathises less with the cast of Oil Riggers than with that of Deadliest Catch. First of all the riggers spoke in a Texan drawl that reminds the viewer of you-know-who, the one who, whether justified or not, the world perceived to have an unhealthy love affair with oil. The west coast intonations of the more eccentric crews in Deadliest Catch leant them far greater sympathy, as did the fact that they were independent fishermen who invested their own dollars, whereas Oil Riggers featured the unloveable presence of corporate millionaire oil barons who were ultimately in charge of the operations. I’m sorry if that sounds puerile. Being a pro-capitalist, I have no rational opposition to what oil barons do, it’s just that, as people, they do always seem to be revolting creeps.

Maybe I’m missing the point. After all, Oil Riggers is made by the same company that brought us Deadliest Catch in the first place: Original Productions. So it might be regarded as an unofficial sequel. But I doubt it. Original Productions has also brought us Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men (about logging, which it describes as ‘one of the most dangerous jobs in history’), Shark U (‘the study of the ocean’s deadliest predator: the shark’) and the self-explanatory America’s Toughest Jobs (3). Maybe it is healthy to salute the courage of the men who undertake such jobs. But the makers of such programmes show far less bravery when it comes to thinking of a new format. Is every job in the world really so deadly?

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) How to escape a society that is all at sea, by Patrick West, 7 December 2007

(2) Oil Riggers, Radio Times, 9 April 2009

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Topics Culture


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