Reality TV Leaves Behind Trashy Competitions for 'Gold Rush' of Unusual Occupation Shows


Today’s wave of reality docu-series seems to be finding plenty of compelling stories in occupations that you’ll probably never see in a TV drama. Most of these careers don’t require an expensive college education, but they may ask you to risk a lot more than a few brain cells at a kegger.

If you’re wondering what to do for a living, or know someone who is, they might find inspiration in some of the shows below, which represent just a slice of the ways Americans pay the bills.

American Guns

Gold Rush” – Season two of this Discovery Channel show premieres Oct. 28 (it was called “Gold Rush: Alaska” in season one), again following the Oregon father-and-son team of Jack and Todd Hoffman as they take a second swing at gold mining in Alaska. They reassemble in season two, adding to their team of down-on-their-luck and/or adventurous miners for a return to remote Porcupine Creek. Once there, they’ll see if they can realize their American dream of pulling wealth out of the ground with muscle, determination and a lot of heavy equipment. I’ve seen a couple of episodes, and it’s not an easy ride for the Hoffmans, but to strike big, one has to take big risks, and they do.

American Guns” – The Wyatts of Colorado are the focus of this Discovery series which premiered Oct. 10. Rich Wyatt and wife Rene own Gunsmoke, a family-run firearms facility just outside of Denver, where they buy, sell and trade all manner of guns. And if they don’t carry just what you want, their gunsmiths can make it for you. They also test-fire everything that goes out their doors.

Dirty Jobs“- Discovery Channel’s long-running Tuesday hit follows perpetual apprentice Mike Rowe as he checks out difficult, nasty and challenging jobs “that make civilized life possible for the rest of us.” Did you know that you could make flower pots out of cow manure? Ever wondered how a hot-tar roof is laid down or where salt comes from? Want to know what a “bunghole” is (not what you’d first think, fortunately)? If so, Mike’s your man. And he’s even doing his part to help boost employment in good-paying traditional jobs. Check out mikeroweWORKS to learn more.

American Pickers” – You can call it dumpster diving or you can call it archaeology, but it’s essentially looking through other people’s old junk for fun and profit. This History Channel Monday hit follows “antique pickers” Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz as they prowl America’s back yards, garages, barns, sheds, and the occasional garbage dump in search of history, lore, and unique items that are sometimes worth a lot to the right person.

Storage Wars“- A&E’s hot Wednesday series follows professional buyers who bid on abandoned storage lockers in hopes of selling the contents for more than they invested. Unlike the “American Pickers,” they don’t always get to examine the finds before they have to put money down, but again, you’ve got to be in it to win it.

Ax Men“- Trees don’t just cut themselves down or float to the top of rivers to become all the wood and wood products we use every day. Somebody has to go get them, and those somebodies tell their stories in this History Channel show. Over four seasons, it has tracked small logging companies in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southeast, where survival depends on getting trees to market, sometimes at great risk to life and limb (human ones as often as arboreal).

Ice Road Truckers– Stuff’s got to get from here to there, and this History Channel show — whose spin-off, “IRT: Deadliest Roads,” is currently airing on Sundays – demonstrates how that’s done under some of the most challenging conditions possible. The most recent season saw winter truckers hauling loads over ice and snow on the rollercoaster Dalton Highway in Alaska and in rural Canada. It’s physically tough and mentally demanding, and you’re only as good as the number of loads you haul. One major upside, however, is that your work station has a great view.

Deadliest Catch“- Right about now, this program’s famous crab-fishing fleet and a host of camera operators — are heading into Alaska’s Bering Sea to begin the king crab season facing a sharply reduced quota that could seriously impact profits. TV stars or not, these fishermen are still operators of small businesses, fighting the odds and nature to keep their boats running and their families fed and to put a tasty delicacy on the plates of people around the world.

Tanked“- Just renewed for a second season after a successful initial run, this Animal Planet series focus on Wayde King and Brett Raymer, New York-born brothers-in-law who run a successful business in Las Vegas creating and installing custom-built acrylic fish tanks. The recession hit them just like everyone else, but they persevered and now can add “TV star” to their resumes. Click here for a slideshow and story from when I paid them a visit earlier this year.

You’d figure from this list that reality TV has switched all its attention to grizzled mountain men and muscular, masculine physical laborers. However, it’s not just about rough types doing rough jobs; there are plenty of shows to cater to the fairer sex, as well:

Say Yes to the Dress – If there’s one thing that’s recession-proof, it might be the wedding industry. This TLC series, which just launched a new season on Oct. 7, has become a franchise with not one but three spin-off shows. “Say Yes to the Dress: Big Bliss” features the plus-size bridal stories at the same salon that plays host to the original show, Kleinfeld’s in New York City (a special airing Friday, Oct, 14, chronicles “The Big Day” “of “Big Bliss” bride Kelly Miller). “Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta” and “Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids” both come from Bridals by Lori in Georgia. It’s a high-stress, potentially big-money business that requires consultants to be a combination of therapist, stylist and, in the case of pushy entourages, defender of the bride.

Tabatha’s Salon Takeover” – Renewed for a fourth season, this Bravo series is as much about doing business as it is about cutting hair. Outspoken Australian stylist and salon owner Tabatha Coffey hits the road, providing a last chance for survival to salons on the edge of financial ruin. Her advice is not rocket science, but it’s absolutely necessary – know what you’re doing, take care of your facilities, treat your clients well, be responsible and prudent in handling your finances. If only Tabatha could take over Congress …

And, speaking of rocket science:

Rocket City Rednecks– I recently headed to Huntsvilla, AL – home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center — to attend the premiere of this National Geographic Channel series at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, airing Wednesdays (click here for a slideshow and story). Proving that super-brains don’t require skyscrapers and pavement to work, space scientist and native Alabamian Travis Taylor and his pals – including a physicist and Taylor’s “Daddy,” a former NASA machinist – drink beer, ride around in pickup trucks and do elaborate science experiments on the weekends.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Grab your remote, and you can find shows about exterminators, feral-hog hunters, motorcycle designers, auto enthusiasts, coal miners, oil drillers, dog trainers, lobster fishermen and pawnbrokers.

Who says you need an MBA to be a success in America? These days, it seems even the humblest and most obscure trades can vault regular people to stardom, and that’s a good thing. Despite a few high-profile holdouts, reality television has progressed beyond competitions designed to bring out the worst in human behavior and has now moved into an era of celebrating the dignity and value of the individual American laborer.


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