Whenever men on TV are taking waves of sea water in the face, driving 18-wheelers down highways made of ice, swinging axes or getting splattered with crude oil, you can probably bet that Thom Beers is lurking somewhere off-camera.
He’s the guy whose production company – Original Productions – makes all those shows that the TV industry has begun to refer to as “testosterone TV”: “Deadliest Catch” (Discovery), “Black Gold” (TruTV), “Ice Road Truckers” and “Ax Men” (History Channel) and a bunch of others.
And now, in the tradition of “Black Gold” and “Deadliest Catch,” here comes “Coal,” a new series about the manly miners of the West Virginia coal country – specifically, two guys named Mike (Crowder) and Tom (Roberts) who run Cobalt Coal, a small coal concern trying, against the odds, to compete against the coal conglomerates. “Coal” will premiere, with the first of 10 one-hour episodes, on Wednesday night at 10/9c on Spike. Beers talked to us about “Coal” and some of his other shows on the phone from West Virginia, where he was on a tour promoting the new series in the mining communities there.
How does “Coal” differ from these other workplace shows you’re doing? How is it similar? What’s cool about ‘Coal’ is, this is the closest – visually and from the story sense – that we’ve ever come to ‘Deadliest Catch.’ I mean, it’s a confined space just like the ‘Catch’ workspace is, visually it’s beautiful because you’re working in a hole with some controlled light – it’s kind of like shooting ‘Catch’ at night – and it just makes it all the more dangerous and sinister. It’s a beautiful environment. And it’s a tough environment. These guys are working a real long seam. Can you imagine [working like the men work on “Deadliest Catch”] but on your knees?
What’s the formula for these shows, if any? The key to it was finding every element that we really needed. This time we found it with Mike Crowder and Tom Roberts. These guys at Cobalt Coal – they have big stakes which make for personal drama. That’s really important – high stakes, high reward – those are the keys to these shows. Working with a big mining concern – which basically moves guys in and out of the job – doesn’t work for us. We gotta tell that personal small business story, that’s what makes it work.
Who’s going down in that mine where there’s a three-foot clearance and shooting ‘Coal’? Tell us about what it takes to work on one of your production crews. The key to it is, it’s the same guys [as some of the other shows]. Eric Lange’s the show runner on it. He ran ‘Black Gold’ for us [and] he worked on ‘Deadliest Catch’ so he’s taken all the same crews that he’s worked with on those into this. They’re all looking for an adventure. They’re looking for something more interesting than, you know, ‘The Biggest Loser’.
What manly occupations are left for you to cover now in new shows? Are there any? There are actually three big ones that we’re working on right now. I can’t really talk about them because they’re tied to networks and stuff, but there are still really unique environments out there. What gives us confidence is the fact that a show like ‘Catch’ is in its seventh season. Clearly, the audience continues to respond to good storytelling and that’s the key to it all – you know, great characters, high risk, high reward, good storytelling, that’s what makes a good show.
What are the miners of Cobalt Coal up against? They’re up against all the elements you can think of. It’s not just the cold and the dark and cave-ins. The generators don’t [produce] enough power, machines are old, they break down, they don’t get qualified guys working, they’re not getting enough cuts [coal] out. It’s great drama in this incredible backdrop.
All 10 of the episodes have been filmed (with no casualties, thank heaven). So what are you doing in West Virginia? We’re traveling around doing screenings for all these guys. Last night, after the show, a woman – a 50 year-old woman –came up to me and gave me a big hug. She said, ‘You know what? My dad worked in a mine for 30 years. I remember when he’d come home at night and mom would make popcorn [and] we’d have these little parties.’ She said she never realized until now what he did underground for all those years. She said, ‘Now I understood. Those parties were all about mom being so happy he was home alive.’ It was an amazing observation. [The world of coal-mining is] a tough world, but what I find fascinating is that half the energy in America comes from those coal mines, so it’s something that we really need to look at and explore and embrace. It’s one of those industries that made America great. The thing for me – you know what this show is about? It’s about guys that get up, they go to work, they risk their lives day in and day out to take care of their families and pay their bills. It’s that simple.
“Coal” premieres Wednesday (March 30) at 10 p.m./9c on Spike.