Skip to main content

Let us now consider the Canadian way of doing macho TV.

As the wide world knows, the celebration of men doing manly things to earn a living has become a significant subgenre of reality TV. People love these shows. Ax Men – guys chopping down trees, some of them showing off the serious injuries they have received. Swamp People – about men who hunt alligators for a living. And in a swamp! Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch – featuring rugged men doing the most dangerous fishing imaginable in outrageously difficult conditions.

Male viewers watch with awe, knowing they've done nothing more dangerous at work than send a snarky e-mail and attend meetings where they wielded not an ax but the phrase "going forward" with dexterity. Lady viewers admire the manliness and probably wonder if it's true, as subtly suggested on such shows, that these guys generally prefer the company of other men.

All these shows, one imagines, could be aired with a soundtrack comprised entirely of songs by BTO: Takin' Care of Business, Let It Ride, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, Hey You and Roll On Down the Highway. Manly rock for manly jobs. Hoser rock for hosers at work. But, you know, what's a hoser anyway? Is a hoser macho? Riddle me that.

Highway Thru Hell (Discovery, 10 p.m.) is the latest entry into the field. Discovery says, "Highway Thru Hell is what happens when tough guys meet tough conditions. Mangled metal and jangled nerves – and the elite team of men who can conquer both."

Yikes, talk about tough manly men doing dangerous work.

And yet, there's something different about Highway Thru Hell. It's way Canadian. It's something that makes us consider the definitions of "hoser" and "manliness."

The show is about what unfolds on the Coquihalla Highway – "100 treacherous kilometres cutting through the heart of British Columbia's Cascade mountains" – a truck driver's nightmare when huge cargoes worth millions must travel north. It is obviously inspired by Ice Road Truckers, about truck drivers tackling the most inhospitable of roads in the most inclement weather.

Now, you'd think Ice Road Truckers is one of the defining male-strength shows – doing hazardous, stressful work while fighting the wrath of nature. Not so, according to some people.

When Ice Road Truckers arrived on TV in Britain, it was assessed, in the Guardian, along with a batch of other manly men shows. It was found wanting. "Only Ice Road Truckers fails. Covering the lives of a few Canadian truckers who drive across roads made of ice, its central promise is 'this road could eat you, any minute, grrrr.' But that never really happens, apart from in fairly weak CG reconstructions. So they're left with a soap opera, in which a man cries when his oil pan cracks, and everyone picks on the guy who decided to stop working the big rigs because he didn't want to die."

It failed the macho test for that reviewer. I fear the same would happen with Highway Thru Hell.

See, the show is not really about the brave truck drivers doing dangerous driving on a deadly highway in horrible conditions. Oh, they're there for sure, but the main focus is on the men of the Jamie Davis Heavy Rescue crew. The guys who show up when there's been a big accident and the driver, truck and cargo need to be saved. This show is about the caregivers, the saviours, the safety net that protects the guys doing the really perilous work.

That's the way-Canadian part. It's not the heavy-duty macho guy thing that's celebrated. It's the helpers and the job of helping.

And, by the way, the Guardian was both wrong about Ice Road Truckers, and right. The review noted correctly that the manliness being featured is not in the same category as Ax Men or Deadliest Catch. But it's wrong to dismiss the show. For a start, it has often featured women drivers. One of them, Lisa Kelly, has a cult following for her comeliness and truck-driving skills. More important, mind you, is the tone of Ice Road Truckers.

It dwells on the perils of existence, on the attraction of a job that presents death close by, on the human will to survive and the human impulse to test the limits of that will to survive. It's philosophical as all get out. Thanks to that emphasis on survival against the elements, and the meaning of that, it's totally Canadian. It is, like Highway Thru Hell, thoughtful and less interested in mindlessly celebrating macho jobs.

Highway Thru Hell is entertaining, absorbing and educational. Yes, it's about "when tough guys meet tough conditions." As Jamie Davis declares, "This isn't like working in the city. It's hard-core. It's 'see you in 48 hours, hope you make it back alive.'" So there's danger, feats of strength and trucks crashing. As advertised. But it's not like those shows celebrating brawn and brute force. It celebrates the hardiness of helpers and caregivers, because it's Canadian.