Since 2015, the History Channel has aired Forged in Fire and its unique blend of hoo-rah military history and supportive cooking show format has been a sleeper hit is slowly growing into a cult fandom all its own. At once dead serious yet ridiculous, I've grown obsessed with the show since discovering it last year. A moody older brother to the pageantry of RuPaul's Drag Race, I've decided that I need to spread the gospel of this program specifically because I think I've figured out what makes it truly special compared to the other reality/competition shows out there.
Let me break it down:
Whether it's Star Trek or Game of Thrones, it seems like every major geek TV phenomenon introduces the viewer to a deep knowledge base that helps them navigate the world of the show. So when you first watch an episode of Forged in Fire you might be a little confused. What's the difference between a Bowie and a Camp knife? What is "thermocycling" and does it happen before or after the "quench"? Luckily the show does a great job of slowly introducing techniques and explaining why they're important to the finished creations. In fact, while other reality competition shows telegraph the outcome by highlighting certain overdramatic fights and confessions, the editors go out of their way to highlight where competitors stumble in their smithing attempts and use on screen graphics and chyrons to clue the audience in on what are sometimes highly technical issues. After only a few episodes you'll find yourself screaming at the TV over issues like "mild steel incorporation", "cold shuts" and "overzealous fullering", much to the alienation of anyone around you who hasn't been keyed into the blade-centered lifestyle.
The media myth of the "geek" is a thorny subject for many. Representation usually boils down to two options: you're either supposed to be a Mountain-Dew swilling degenerate or some kind of eccentric computer-wiz who talks like a Vulcan. But the contestants on Forged in Fire showcase the broad spectrum (for lack of a better word) of people you see out there in the real world. The contestants are brought in from all the diverse (yet still unmistakenly nerdy) backgrounds that could lead someone to a life of smithing. The awkward otaku who folds his own katanas, the 60-something civil war reenactor, the pasty Renn Faire kid, and the leathery outdoor survivalist all come together, foisted upon the studio stage to share their passion with the home audience. It's genuinely enlightening to watch how these dudes (yeah sorry it's like, 97% dudes) were drawn to what is a very intense and solitary pastime, one that doesn't usually lend itself to large social media followings or stardom.
Speaking of "stardom" one of the most fascinating things about this show is how if you come across a contestant who's hamming it up for the cameras or messing with his rivals, it almost GUARANTEES that they'll be going home early. We live in an attention-based economy, but the skills that make for must-watch reality tv are incredibly detrimental for success on Forged in Fire. These are people working glowing hot steel and burning furnaces nearly shoulder to shoulder, cameras and crew mere inches away from their face as they work. The ones who make it to the final round are the people who can zero in on their task and work without distraction. The most notable competitors aren't the guys who made a meme reference in an ill-fitting kilt, it's the veteran horseshoe fitter who kept quiet and made sure he had the proper shaping on his handle scales for a competition chopper. In a world where so much is subjective and contextual, the stakes of a contest where your charisma or personal sob stories do not factor in at all is surprisingly refreshing.
One of the most universally appealing topics for video content is the mystery seeing what happens when a thing hits another thing. Sounds like I'm stating the obvious but remember last year when all of YouTube was obsessed with slicing stuff with a red-hot kitchen knife? How about that decade when the Mythbusters built a weekly tv empire out of "building something for an hour, then watching it blow up"? That's because there's genuine visceral curiosity to see what happens when unfamiliar forces collide with unfamiliar materials. The tests on Forged in Fire are seemingly bizarre stress tests that have the competitors' handmade weapons slice through random objects like sheet metal, frozen blocks, and assorted animal carcasses and every time you're glued to your screen because you GENUINELY have no idea what that's going to look like. I guess it's fortunate that most of us live in a world where we don't have experience seeing an axe being driven through a boar's torso, but that moment where blade hits target is satisfying on a PRIMORDIAL level.
The final round of each episode requires the contestants to recreate a historically accurate edged weapon at their own home forges and the show takes a camera crew back with them. It's during these segments that you realize that you're given access to their lives and given real glimpses into what makes them tick. Due to the amount of equipment and space required to practice bladesmithing, it requires sacrifices that most people aren't willing to make. We see vast workshops in lonely Montana fields, crowded suburban garages with little room to maneuver, and some competitors (having not expected to even make it this far) digging trenches in their backyard to fill with charcoal just to heat the large blades required of them. The physical nature of the work also leaves the subjects off-guard and more vulnerable, we get to hear them talk about their passion for what they're doing, or the fears they have about what will happen to their lives if they don't get ahold of that winning $10,000 check. That's another reason the show is compelling, for all but the most established smiths, making blades is a low-margin business, with many independent operations barely staying afloat due to high costs of fuel, materials, and the long hours needed to practice the craft. On many occaissions, these guys aren't competing for status, they're doing it for survival.
Hey, I bet you were wanting to have a conversation about masculinity in the 21st century while reading this pop culture fluff piece, right? RIGHT? While it's easy to roll your eyes at the pounding generic metal soundtrack or the zealous use of fire effects, below the surface something interesting is going on. When it comes time for judgement, the experts always treat the competitors with dignity and respect, trying their best to make pointed criticisms while praising them for persevering through the arduous tasks they've undertaken. Even when some competitors efforts fail spectacularly there's little ball-busting or roasting, they are simply asked to surrender their weapon. People aren't judged on looks or background, rather they are putting their all into the work of their own two hands and everybody involved is supportive in the endeavor. It's like the Great British Bake-Off, but with more cadavers and poleaxes.
While the other judges on the show seem to be mildly delighted about being on a moderately popular basic cable reality competition, edged-weapons specialist Doug Marcaida has been waiting for this moment his entire goddamn life. A 25-year veteran of the martial arts industry, Doug came to the program with catchphrases ready go and a near endless supply of tactical black long-sleeve shirts. With a beaming smile and a joyful energy, he jokes with competitors and is always the "good cop" when it comes time for criticisms. But that friendly attitude fades away once it's his turn to test the lethality of these unpredictable newly-forged weapons. With the precision of a master Kali practicioner he tears through fish, ballistics gel, and model skeletons, producing as much damage as possible, then gleefully declaring his famous line "It will kill" as blood (both artificial and natural) pools at his feet.
While he's been featured in many viral videos (especially once his signature weapon, the Filipino karambit became uber-popular in military shooters like the Call of Duty series and Counter-Strike), you can tell this is a guy who probably once dreamed of being the next celebrity martial artist, one of the great legendary figures who takes their fighting skills to the world stage, only to watch as his chosen arts fell by the wayside in favor of UFC megastars and bulky everyman action heroes like The Rock and Jason Statham. He's paid his dues and built a huge following based on his own charisma and undebatable skills as an educator so I don't know, maybe it's the nostalgia I have for childhood karate classes at the local strip mall, but seeing Doug on TV reminds me of every self-serious sensei who still knew how to calm down a crying kid when their mom forgot to pick them up at the dojo.
To highlight the duality of Doug, check out this insane video he recorded to promote one of his custom-designed blades: