Before the "docu-realty" series Coal hit the air, the gang in Spike TV's publicity department did their best to scare away viewers with press releases that seemed to describe a show about lovable, middle-aged family men trying to get back to the kind of rugged, manly endeavors that made this country and its jeans commercials great: "The story is told through the eyes of part owners [of the small-time Cobalt Coal Company], Mike Crowder and Tom Roberts. The two struck up a mining partnership while watching their sons practice football and have invested their life savings into starting this mine operation. Crowder and Roberts face pressure every minute of every day to keep the mine up and running or face personal financial ruin but, more importantly, to keep their workers safe in a highly combustible environment where one wrong move could prove deadly." You can just see Jim Belushi barging into the office of his Wall Street boss and throwing his necktie down on the guy's desk as he announces that he's packing his family up and moving to West Virginia, so he can hear banjo music on the soundtrack and proudly watch his children get some coal dust in their lungs. Maybe Spike didn't know what it had, or maybe the network didn't think there was an audience for it. But Coal has turned out to be a good deal more interesting than advertised and considerably more harrowing, even without Jim Belushi.
The show wasn't exactly conceived in a vacuum and not just because of the past year's headline stories about mining disasters that must have gotten some network suits to thinking that there might be something exploitable there. The show is a product of Thom Beers's Original Productions, and Beers has carved out a niche for himself as a packager of dangerous, manly toil as television entertainment. Like Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, and Ax Men, Coal gives the viewer a chance to kick back and observe the working lives of men doing things that, in the information age economy, you might not have imagined anyone was still being paid to do, even if you were dimly aware that the fish you paid too much for at dinner must have been caught by somebody.
What sets Coal light years apart from this pack is that the life surrounding the work itself isn't remotely free-spirited, or even photogenic and doesn't look like what anyone might have once fantasized about doing for a living when he was 8. Even the road warriors of Ice Road Truckers are breathing fresh air and watching the scenery speed past their window. The heroes of Coal are, as the narrator, Jeremy Sisto puts it in one episode, "duck-walking into the dark," spending a third or so of their waking hours inside a mountain, with a space three-and-a-half feet high.
There is little in the show to completely distract you from wondering why the hell anybody would agree to do this. That question gets blunted just a bit when it becomes clear that all the men working for Cobalt would be prepared to get down on their hands and knees to beg for the chance to do it for just one more day, if it came to that. The general feeling among the miners seems to be that, whether by fate or genetic predisposition or whatever, they're miners and not cut out for anything else. One of the foremen, Jerry Edwards, is identified in the opening titles as "The Boss" and tagged with the nickname "Wildman", but he's emerged as the team's representative everyman figure, a soft-spoken guy who reasons that it's coal mining or not working at all for him and who shudders at the thought of the second possibility, and who takes great pride in making enough money to support a family and, after saving up long enough, treat himself by buying a guitar.
At the far end of the scale, there's Andy, whose mastery of the machinery he operates has earned him the title "The Legend." Andy trades off his turns at bat with his son, Andy, Jr., who talks proudly about the reverence that other mining professionals reserve for his father and says that his dream is to be just like him. Andy Senior is grizzled, with a lined face and sunken, haunted-looking eyes, whereas Andy, Jr. is still relatively fresh-faced and boyish-looking, but considering the conditions in which he works, he might yet achieve his dream while The Event is still on the air.
The management of Cobalt Coal describe themselves as "small-timers" looking to hit a big score and move up into the big leagues. So far, they've had their hands full just staying alive. In the first episodes, Cobalt was unable to maintain a steady rate of production because of frequent power outages, something that the bosses were eager to blame on the miners but that was finally credited to their having installed a generator too small to be up to the task. Tonight's episode began with the happy news that the company had finally invested in a generator strong enough to meet their needs. "The bad news is," Sisto says in a verbal deadpan, "the company's so broke, they can't afford to hook it up." Bills are sitting around they should have been paid over a month ago; in order to beat the wolves back from the door, Cobalt has to "haul 1200 tons of coal, 60 truckloads, in the next 48 hours." Can it be done? Hard to say, but things don't look good when an operation involving the coal belt shuts production down for more than seven hours. The night crew complains that the parts they're using don't match. It takes until the arrival of the day crew for some sharp-eyed dude to notice that they've installed them upside down.
As the hours tick away, the mountainous Mike Crowder ("The CEO") stalks about the grounds, sweating it out and looking worried and generally establishing himself as a good man to put at the center of a reality show and an even better man to invite to your poker table. As the episode nears its end, it looks as if the company is a sure thing to fall a few truckloads short of its necessary goal, but then more coal comes tumbling off the belt, a truck miraculously appears on the horizon, and Jeremy Sisto informs us that someone "has called in some favors" to make sure Cobalt stays solvent one more day.
There are moments in Coal when exactly what's happening is a little fuzzy, and at a climactic point like that, you can be forgiven for wondering if "called in some favors" might possibly be code for "told Thom Beers that if some trucks didn't show up out of nowhere, the last two-thirds of his new series would be set in bankruptcy court." But even when Coal is confusing or its head is clouded by the reality-TV flu, it's fascinating for showing you a process and way of life you'd never have seen otherwise and that some people might not be comfortable with your getting to see. (Cobalt has received citations from federal safety inspectors based on things the feds have seen in the episodes, which is one way to inspect a mine without getting off your couch.) It's a reality show that doesn't need to turn the people onscreen into TV characters and fabricate drama, not that it doesn't sometimes try to anyway. The business it documents is all the drama you need.