Friday, April 15, 2011

"COAL" runs deep.

Coupled with inexpensive production and wild popularity, reality TV has become a mainstay for every television network. Shows ranging from "The Bachelor" to "Survivor" to "Big Fat Loser" attract millions of viewers every night. As other posts on this blog have explained, reality TV has fetishized the rural. Shows like "The Simple Life," "Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive," and "Farmer Wants a Wife" reinforce negative stereotypes about rurality to a national audience. Luckily, Spike TV's latest reality show, "COAL," does a better job than its predecessors.

"COAL," which premiered on March 30, focuses on the drama of running a small coal mine in West Virginia. Admittedly, I know nothing about coal mining other than that it has huge environmental and human costs. It was only a year ago when 29 out of 31 miners died in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. And there is no shortage of coverage about the environmental carnage wrought by coal mining. Just a couple days ago the New York Times reported on the wholesale disappearance of West Virginia towns because of mountaintop mining.

As "research" for this post, I watched the first two episodes of the program and was absolutely riveted. Reality TV is notorious for its lack of anything "real," but from what I can tell, "COAL" does a pretty good job of explaining the mechanics of mining while it focuses on the human drama inherent in such a dangerous enterprise. The New York Times' review can be found here, but I recommend watching the show over reading anything about it. To whet your appetite, here's the trailer:

What struck me most about "COAL" was the recurring theme of the gamble. The show juxtaposes the story of two investors betting $4 million on a mountain with the story of 35 employees risking their lives every day to help those investors extract as much value out of that mountain as quickly as possible. The show tells us of the symbiotic relationship between the investors and the miners of Cobalt Coal, but it is obvious that the risks are inherently unequal. In one episode, while the CEO stressed out about the mine's inability to turn a profit in four weeks, miners were literally being smoked out of the mine and injured by equipment. Every episode I watched featured some near-accident. One miner admitted that "you have to be a little crazy" to have his job title, and the show's narrator pointed out that some positions in the mine are akin to "being a marked man." In fact, just a week ago the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) cited the mine featured in "COAL" for safety violations that federal officials noticed when they watched the show. Cobalt's CEO acknowledged the citations and admitted fault. He even went so far as to say that "COAL" could be used as an instructive tool for mine safety courses.

While other reality shows have exploited the rural in the past, perhaps "COAL" is an exception and can serve as an example to other TV networks looking to make entertaining TV without relying on stereotypes and oversimplifications.

No comments: