As metaphors go, there’s a certain poetry in shows like “Coal.” That’s because reality TV has sought to unearth riches by following manly men in dangerous jobs seeking precious commodities, like gold, oil and now coal. Yet in chronicling the travails of West Virginia’s Cobalt Mine, the premiere doesn’t address the politics of coal or owners’ poor track record regarding worker safety, focusing rather on the dangers and these particular operators’ tenuous finances. For “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers” producer Thom Beers, it’s another strike into a lucrative if awfully familiar vein.
In keeping with Spike’s testosterone-laden profile, “Coal” is framed as a heroic struggle between man and the elements. The day crew doesn’t just get ready to mine for coal; rather, they prepare to “do battle with the mountain,” a towering potential grave looming over their heads.
Beyond learning a lot of mining jargon (getting in “cuts” is a big deal), the show provides an eerie, dark-side-of-the-moon view of narrow tunnels miners must navigate. Those images, at least, are pretty cool.
The opener, though, primarily seeks to build suspense over whether crews can meet the necessary benchmarks to keep the mine financially solvent. Even a visit by safety inspectors is presented mostly as a nuisance — another impediment to yanking out enough lovely black nodules to stay operational.
Series like “Coal,” TruTV’s “Black Gold” and Discovery’s “Gold Rush: Alaska” all employ the same basic template — tracking groups of men willing to take high-risk jobs, out of necessity or habit. They’re colorful, yes, but as such concepts pile upon each other, the effect is less ennobling that enervating.
Maybe there’s another compelling series to be siphoned out of this strip-mined genre, but like these poor miners, you’re going to have to dig through a lot of sludge to find it.