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What I Watched Last Night: Blades Of Bad-Assery

Eventually, 24-hour news-channel coverage of Donald Trump's campaign of crash-and-burn turns into droning redundancy, so it was nice to find the History Channel in the middle of a Forged in Fire marathon all day Tuesday. I've lived a cable TV-deprived existence for a number of years, so it was refreshing to spend a few hours with a cable program not devoted to The Orange Man proclaiming every single thing under the sun "a total disaster."

Given my total lack of aptitude for anything involving tools, I'm always interested in seeing how true craftsmen end up manufacturing awesome shit out of basically nothing. If I learned anything from the three-round, $10,000 winner-take-all elimination competition between four bladesmiths that is Forged, it was this: It might take a village to raise a child, but it takes a guy with an anvil to arm the village.

The first two elimination rounds are staged in the Forged studio shop, which is equipped with all your basic hearth and forge equipment. This gives the joint all the sweaty ambience of a blast furnace, which creates perfect conditions for bladesmiths not in the greatest of health to begin with to occasionally dehydrate, pass out, or practically die from heart palpitations. Forged isn't exactly high drama, so it's a bit of a big deal when the medics get called for something that doesn't involve blood.

The series is hosted by Wil Willis, whose main job is to tick off the time remaining by yelling loudly. When he's not doing that, his job is to sound dramatic with the usual reality-show pregnant pauses that cue the next commercial for Crown Royal Vanilla, which is just all sorts of wrong.

Willis is backed by a three-judge panel consisting (at least in the first season or two) of knife and sword mastersmith J. Neilson, historical-weapons authority and swordsmith David Baker, and edged-weapons combat specialist Doug Marcaida. Basically, the trio know a good blade when they see one . . .

. . . and know how to murder the hell out of it to see if it will hold up . . .

When they're not trying to destroy someone's creation, they engage in a running commentary regarding everyone's progress, which is rather helpful to those of us who don't know shit about making an Indiana Jones sword from scratch.

Ornamentation does earn a few points on the show, but for the judges, the only thing that really matters at the end of the day is performance. Bladetestant creations are judged on balance, construction and utility. Sure, a Braveheart broadsword may indeed look like it could spit death, but having one that's light enough to swing all battle long without the blade going dull or being all bendy is what really counts when it comes to slicing, dicing, beheading and bashing in the skulls of an entire marauding horde.

Unlike competition shows like Hell's Kitchen, bladetestants on Forged tend to know what they're doing. Usually. Bending steel in your bare hands to design and build something you've just pulled out of your ass in three hours is not simple or easy, and - like anything else in manufacturing - there are plenty of ways for things to go wrong. That's the sort of train wreck that reality-contest shows love to serve up, but salvaging a roast that's a little burndy isn't quite as complicated as salvaging a hunk of metal that's gone to shit because some little thing in your manufacturing process was a bit off or dumb-ass you failed to notice you've used 24-hour epoxy on your handle instead of the instant-drying stuff.

Naturally, when you mix fire and grinders and welding torches, there are plenty of ways to grind off a finger or light yourself on fire. Consequently, the competitions can be pretty riveting when the challenge is to forge something new and bad-ass out of chainsaw parts, garden hoe, shovel, ax, ball bearings and old lawn mower blades.

As one bladetestant put it, "It doesn't have to be the best blade. It just has to be better than the your competitor's blade."

The biggest challenge comes for the last two bladetestants standing, when they're sent home to their backyard shops to create some wild-ass thing out of distant history they've usually never heard of, much less seen an example of, such as a chakram, a nasty throwing weapon invented in India. Unlike the studio-shop challenge where raw materials are provided, the two bladetestant finalists are sent home to figure out this shit on their own within five days. It's a bit of a guilty pleasure to watch them struggle - and disasters unfold - but it all seems less problematic than trying to boil a pot of risotto to please some screaming kitchen Scotsman.

Overall, the losers take losing in stride, because they recognize where they went wrong. Sometimes though, you get guys like Craig, who got a little emotional after losing the final showdown with contestant Salem on Episode 2 of Season 2. "I need about three gin-and-tonics to make the bad man in the back of my head go away."

Still, the bladetestants on Forged make me a bit envious, given the fact that Donald Trump would be spot-on if he added my tool and shop abilities to his endless list of complete disasters. Still, that doesn't stop me from imagining what kind of totally bitchin' last-minute steak knife gift sets I might come up with whenever Christmas rolled around.


Submissions to What I Watched Last Night - and comments - welcome.


Posted on October 26, 2016

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