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The History Channel has sure branched out in the last couple of years making a name for itself in original programming series apart from the usual specials. After the success of last year’s real life series, Ice Road Truckers, the channel now offers up another treacherous location and job occupation, the job of an Ax Man, or as they hate to be called, lumberjacks.

The series, Ax Men, a playful title on the Marvel mutant series, focuses, at least initially, on four separate crews in the Pacific Northwest each aiming to meet quotas and stay in business for another year. The premise is eerily similar to the aforementioned Truckers in which it’s a race against time and weather to make money and survive in a harsh climate. It’s not to say the series isn’t original, but it fits in nearly the exact same mold, only with trees replacing trucks.


The life on an ax man isn’t a pleasant one as they constantly fight with the elements, and the fear that today could be their last. As one of the crew relays, a normal person would think this was the stupidest job in the world, and after watching the pilot, you almost have to agree with them. In the course of 42 minutes a helicopter carrying a cable gets stuck to a tree, a modified tank, now a logging instrument, gets stuck in a ditch, trees go tumbling down a mountain, cables break, and lots of surly old men call each other unpleasant names.

The program is an interesting experience, the focusing on four different crews in different locations; each with a unique way of approaching the job broadens the program and helps it from becoming a one trick pony about guys chopping down trees day after day.


The editing of the program leaves a little to be desired as “drama” on the teams is highlighted in a bit of an over the top fashion, including minor injuries and a tank getting stuck in a ditch, but this is an entertainment program, after all, and there has to be something to offer conflict when the namesake element of your series is a Douglass Fur. A rather annoying bit is when the program switches between crews it makes it a point to always say how many miles away from the last crew, and does an overblown, and overly dramatic zoom in of the crew with its name splashed on the bottom of the screen rather than just a standard scene transition and a line of narration that simply states what we are looking at. Hopefully the producers of the series realize this and cut back the technique in future episodes.


Ice Road Truckers was a huge success and there’s nothing to say that Ax Men, premiering March 9 at 10/9C, isn’t destined to follow in the footsteps. There’s a larger amount of “characters” to follow here so the more intimate time with the truckers may be lost on the loggers, but it isn’t a huge loss considering the centerpiece of the show is the life and limb danger and rugged manliness of the great outdoors (even the press kit was pine scented). Ax Men isn’t a huge leap forward, but it once again focuses in an untold industry that has been largely unaffected by huge technological leaps in recent years and still does business the old-fashioned hard way, which does make for some interesting TV viewing.

CMT’s newest reality series, Gone Country, has an interesting premise: take a group of singers and performers who wouldn’t otherwise be considered a country artist, throw them in a house together, and have them compete for a nearly guaranteed country-radio hit. To spice things up, these hapless humans will learn what it is to be country; from shoveling manure to riding ATVs, the unlikely hodge-podge of 80’s burnouts and D-list reality staples certainly tries its best to entertain.


The problem is, as with most reality shows, the manufactured situations and conflicts seem so transparent now after a show like this has been done so many times. With successful shows like Big Brother and The Surreal Life, both on corporate cousins of MTV Networks-owned CMT, it just becomes harder and harder to look at shows like this without wondering if it really is reality.

The show is hosted by John Rich, from the group Big & Rich, who tries to keep this motley crew focused on the contest at hand, the prize being the chance to be the next country superstar. As the pilot episode opens, a tour bus gathers up the contestants in different parts of Nashville and we’re treated to the reactions of each as new members are gobbled up. Contestants include Julio Iglesias Jr., Carnie Wilson (the big girl from Wilson Phillips), Twisted Sister front man Dee Snider (who seems to be in every reality show on TV now), American Idol runner-up Diana DeGarmo, Marcia Brady herself Maureen McCormick (who appears to be on her last bit of sanity), “Thong Song” writer/performer Sisqo, and the original bad boy himself, Bobby Brown.


It’s definitely a different, and eclectic, mix of characters who seems to meld well together, even when the producers attempt to show that there’s some conflict between them. Watching the train wreck of emotions that is McCormick is nearly unbearable at times as she begins to cry and whine about nearly everything (she acts more like Jan than Marcia, Marcia, Marcia). Snider comes off as his usual hard-assed self, but after seeing this character on everything from I Love the 80’s and beyond, I think the world is over its fascination with the cross-dressing front man. Brown, who you would think would come out swinging knowing his past, plays it relatively cool, almost to the point of disappointment. You’re just hoping Whitney pops up so he has someone to go to town on and liven things up a little bit.


The pilot episode does a good job of setting up how the contest will work and introducing us to the players. I just wish producers wouldn’t try so hard, even during the “Coming Up” commercial bumpers, to force conflict in the off chance you might turn away to another channel for a few minutes. A competition like this doesn’t need the added emotional baggage some of the characters seem poised to bring to the small screen, and after nearly two decades of Real World, it’s really time for us to give up our voyeuristic tendencies and focus on what really is at stake, winning the contest.

With the never-ending stream of home fix it shows the networks are slapping onto the airwaves, it’s nice to see that someone is finally taking that motif and slamming it left and right. Of course a network would not and could not air something like Hollywood Residential, because reality is their bread and butter. Instead, (and we’re probably better off) Starz is the channel lampooning home fix it shows, as Hollywood Residential goes each week into the home of a celebrity, and spruces up various rooms in their houses.

The show centers around Tony King (played hilariously by actor, and show creator, Adam Paul) who is an out of work actor that sees this fix-it show as his jumping off point to fame and stardom. Sadly for King, he couldn’t fix a one manned boxing match, let alone a house, so he is stuck trying to take every chance he can get to use his show to move up and out.

The supporting cast of characters is talented and hilarious, comprised mostly of newcomers. Lyndsey Stoddart plays Lila Mann, the co-host tasked with fixing up all the screw ups King finds himself getting into. David Ramsey is Don Merritt, the producer, who at least seems in these first episodes to be little more than straight man. Then you have the celebrities, celebrities, celebrities. In the first few episodes of the show (a new actor’s house being made over each week", you have Chris Kattan (asking if King OD’d on stupid pills at an audition he sent him to), Jamie Kennedy, Tom Arnold, and a surprisingly hilarious appearance by Paula Abdul (where she continually asks when she can have her dramatic moment of, say, throwing a coffee mug…or a potted plant).

Cheryl Hines (of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame) is the executive producer, and guest on at least one episode, of Residential, and she seems to be very hands on, and extremely capable of taking a cast of unknowns, some good A and B list (ok mostly B list) celebrities, and coming up with hilarious, loosely scripted episodes that make you glad you’re not watching another sappy hug fest, or sexual/gender identity questionable designer. This is good, clean, wholesome, American television, where the celebs are whores and jerks, and the hosts are complete idiots (albeit lovable idiots).

The History Channel presents and interesting question: what would happen to the planet if people suddenly disappeared, for good? Every last one of the 6.6 billion people on the planet Earth were suddenly gone, how would nature, both flora and fauna, reclaim the lands which used to be their domain?

First of all, the amount of disbelief needed to imagine this is pretty hefty, not to mention even a catastrophic event in the world would have a hard time eradicating each and every last human being on the globe. Still, with fleeting thoughts of impossibility stowed away, it becomes a matter of awe as the destructive forces of plants, animals, and weather decimate what we hold to be a proud civilization full of technological marvels and engineering feats.


The fine cut released to the media lacked some of the special effects work and still used temporary footage in places, so its impossible to really gauge the quality of the CGI work being used at this time, but the thought provoking and factually based segments, as we go from 1 day without humans to 10,000 years, really do make the program an interesting viewing experience.

The facts are based on simple science and study of plant life and events like the repopulation of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, but the biggest indicator is the town of Prypiat, Ukraine which was abandoned in 1986 following the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Scientists have seen nature begin to take back the land with trees growing on and in buildings, animal population returning at higher levels than before the disaster, and various other factors which allow them to gauge estimates on just how long before all remnants of modern civilization disappear.

The program itself follows the logical chronological order of decay of everything from buildings, bridges, to entire cities. The editing is a little rough, and the use of a strange “static” noise and disappearing humans superimposed over background footage (as a not to them being gone) is particularly annoying for two hours. A lot of the focus is on the United States and our landmarks, including a whole ten minutes devoted to the Hoover Dam, while only touching on the burning of Rome and the falling of the Eifel Tower in Paris.


However, the questionable editing doesn’t diminish from the awe inspiring scenery and revelations that without human intervention, things we take for granted like the Golden Gate Bridge wouldn’t exist for more than a few years after we were gone as our constant maintenance is the only thing between a cold abyss for one of our nation’s most recognizable engineering marvels.

The weather can be a massive, destructive force leveling cities, killing millions, and generally being an unmatchable reckoning tooling which can change in seconds and leave nothing behind. In a post-Katrina world, many would view the weather as a large scale, history changing might, but even with hurricane winds and damages something as simple as freezing temperatures can change history as explored in The Weather Channel’s new series, When Weather Changed History.

The series focuses on events in history that were caused or drastically altered because of the weather and its power. The pilot episode features the Challenger disaster in January of 1986 in which extreme cold caused o-rings within the space shuttles solid rocket boosters to lose their effectiveness and fail 73 seconds after launch. The though that a clear day in Florida could end in such horrific tragedy because of something so simple as cold weather certainly shows the many facets weather has to it, and how we almost take for granted the small stuff when faced with tragedies like tsunami and hurricanes.


The program is well constructed and paced throughout its 43 minute running time, devoting about half the show leading up to the accident and the second half on the cause and outcome of the investigation. Even nearly 22 years later, the footage of the accident, pictures of the debris in a hanger still bring a wealth of emotions and powerful feelings for the seven heroes who lost their lives on that cold January day.

A common device in TV programs these days is the prefacing and recapping of earlier events after each commercial break, and while its understandable that producers are editing to bring in additional viewers who might be channel flipping, those who are watching the entire program are usually treated to a total of five to six minutes of re-used information over the course of the entire program. When Weather Changed History is thankfully light only recapping 10-15 seconds before and after each break, but the device is already overused.


Interviews with the flight director and those responsible for launching the shuttle that morning provide a clear perspective into the mindset found in the Roger’s report in 1986, that no problems were known to them that morning and that larger problems within NASA had caused the ill-fated launch to proceed and disaster to strike. It’s nice to see references to the true problem that caused the problem, the groupthink mentality at NASA and not necessarily the weather, as the shuttle should have never been launched. Finally an ending reference of the Columbia accident nearly two decades later show that the everlasting affects of weather on man and technology will always be present, even as innovation advances.

When Weather Changed History premieres January 6th at 9PM on The Weather Channel with a look at the Challenger disaster. Future installments will feature The Battle of the Bulge, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina among others with new episodes every Sunday.

It’s 1965.  The scene opens on children starved for music to describe their anguish and turmoil…and then Dennis Hopper starts talking? 

Aging baby boomers who haven’t had a paying gig in awhile aside, VH1 Classic’s 7 Ages of Rock, which premiers Monday, December 17th, takes us from the turbulent beginning of rock, all the way through the stadium performance era, and present day.  For anyone that is a die hard lover of rock, you will love this seven part documentary special extravaganza.  There is a lot of original footage from concerts and television appearances like “Live Aid” and U2’s multimedia blowout Zoo TV, and a lot of interviews with the greats like Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Gene Simons (this special is worth it simply for his quote, talking about critics panning KISS, “…more than 1 billion dollars later, they can kiss my ass.”) and many more.


For the less musically inclined, there are still lots of things to appreciate about this special, including tons of factoids and wonderful chunks of music’s impact on history from Cream’s Disraeli Gears being the first album to contain a psychedelia sound, to the Rolling Stones performing at The Altamont Speedway Free Festival that resulted in 3 deaths (thus ending the carefree 60’s era), and even the stadium rock megaperformance “Live Aid” which raised money for Ethiopian famine relief. People who have an appreciation for the sounds’ impact on world events, that know rock has truly changed the world in some respects, can definitely get a lot out of 7 Ages.


All in all it was a very interesting special, but there were a few notable problems that were not able to be overlooked.  For one, a lot of the earlier content of the special centers around rock in the UK.  They talk about how the British youth took the tones of black lament, the blues, and used it to help them express their angst.  Unfortunately, they talk about it like the British invented the wheel with this concept, completely overlooking the fact that a decade before, people like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley in the United States pioneered a new version of music, stemming from the blues.  Also, the narrative of the special was a bit choppy in parts, going a few years in history with one band, then cutting back through history with another, and then fast forwarding past that to go back to a previous band. 


In sum, 7 Ages of Rock isn’t going to change the world, but it is a very well put together documentary sure to entertain.  For the avid rock fan that pulls a Wayne’s World in their car when “Bohemian Rhapsody” blasts from the radio, for the want to be guitarist out there that strums the simple start to Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”, or for anyone who just wants to flick on something on television at night for a week without being tempted to purchase anything Billy Mays sells on late night infomercials, turn on VH1 Classic and prepare for the history of rock.

The History Channel’s pedigree in history is unparalleled, which should be a given with the channel’s namesake name, but not everyone is enthralled with stories of pilgrims crossing the Atlantic or the story of Christopher Columbus. Still, a subject that everyone can bask in is recent history, history that affected people directly, history that actually changed something that we know, something that we face each and every day in this country so it comes as no surprise that The History Channel’s latest special, 1968 with Tom Brokaw, hits close to home and is one of the most memorable programs of the fading year.


The program is deeply focused on the politics of the aforementioned year, which is the only real disappointment because it bills itself as 1968 when in all actuality it is the changing politics and the real power players of the late 1960s who take up center stage. Except for the final few minutes devoted to the three astronauts who first orbited the moon at the end of the year, the entire program focuses on topics ranging from the Vietnam War, women’s liberation, the 1968 presidential election, and the ramifications of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy.

The special is powerful, even for a youngster such as me who wouldn’t be born for another 15 years. Even the most jaded individual will be brought to tears at the sight of Senator Kennedy’s funeral train progressing to Washington, D.C. with thousands upon thousands of viewers along the tracks holding American flags and saluting the fallen soon-to-be-leader. The outcome of Kennedy’s death is felt throughout the subsequent months as the republicans lead by Richard Nixon take the presidency ushering in a new breed of politics, and we all know where that’s lead us.


With interviews from many of the figures who were there shows the advantage of focusing on a more recent event. Instead of old journals and diaries the viewer is able to hear the stories and recollections from those who were actually there, including the hosts, Tom Brokaw.

Through archival footage we see a young Brokaw on a street corner in San Francisco reporting on the hippie movement, and in the present day we see the soothing, commanding presence of the man who may very well be news to many Americans. His personal stories and how the war in Vietnam directly affected him, how the events of this year impacted his career only exemplifies the fantastic choice of host.


Through interviews with comedians like Lewis Black, Jon Stewart, and musicians like Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor, the image of 1968 is painted for the viewer to understand, and the parallels between ’68 and soon-to-be-’08 are painfully, and terribly obvious. But without diverging into a political triad, its evident that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, and we seem to be doing that today.

1968 with Tom Brokaw is an excellent program; one of the best The History Channel has produced, and may very well be one of the best, if not the best special of the year.

Before Psych returns for its second season in January on USA, the fake psychic, real detectives have to spread some holiday cheer in a very special Christmas episode focusing on the murder of a grumpy old man, but its who the suspects turn out to be that hits close to home.

Starting well enough, the Gusters invite Shawn (James Roday) and his dad (Corbin Bernsen) to dinner for the holidays, but after caroling turns up a dead body staged to look like a suicide Gus and Shawn take on the case to prove to Gus’ overbearing parents that Gus has really grown up, and that Shawn isn’t a negative influence.


Credit to the casting director of this episode for bringing in Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show) and Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) in as Gus’ parents who want to protect their soon so badly from the world that they pull Gus’ nursing home bound grandma to look over the 29 year old when they are both arrested as lead suspects in the case. This isn’t much of a spoiler as most of the episodes running time is Shawn and Gus’ attempts at clearing the elder Gusters of any wrong-doing.

In typical, albeit creatively funny, Pysch fashion the investigation takes numerous dead ends before locating the killer and ousting them in front of a large group with the customary “psychic channeling” Roday’s character is so well known for on the show.


Not to leave the holidays behind, there’s a B-storyline focusing on O’Hara (Maggie Lawson) inviting the snow globe hating Lassiter (Timothy Omundson) for dinner with her family, only to realize that the overzealous Lassie ends up being loathed. The B-story provides something for the two characters to do besides working on the case; however they are more out of the loop than usual in this episode and their story is forgettable at best.

Other than the Christmas theme to set up Shawn having dinner with the Gusters there isn’t anything special about this episode other than to let the viewer new that new episodes are coming in just a few short weeks (something everyone needs in this strike afflicted world). The story is thin (as usual) but it’s the characters that really get you involved with the show, and as the rapport between the four principles increases the comedy flows much easier and you’ll find that you are coming back week after week for more.

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