On A Cut Above, mist tumbles over mountains and through the branches of western red cedar trees that reach high into the air. And in a clearing, the sound of loud gas engines, as humans slash chainsaws into hunks of that red cedar, a violent action that produces stunning, dynamic works of art.
From the Canadian production company that brought us the terrific glass-blowing show Blown Away comes another reality TV competition about an art form that hasn’t yet had its own show: chainsaw sculpting.
A Cut Above first premiered on Discovery Canada in August, and is now on Discovery Channel in the U.S. (Sundays at 10), and it’s an outstanding celebration of a newer art form that centers the artists and their incredible work, all in a beautiful location.
The arena for A Cut Above’s competition is deep in a forest outside Squamish, British Columbia, leading to some rainy and cold days, where the production has created an absolutely breathtaking set for the competition: a circular arena separated by tiered planters, surrounded by logs places into the ground.
Host Adam Beach, a Golden Globe-nominated actor who is a member of the Anishinaabe Nation, starts open the first episode with a land acknowledgement to the Squamish Nation, which is the first time I’ve heard that on a reality TV show. (It’s also in the credits: “A Cut Above respectfully acknowledges the privilege of filming on the lands of the Squamish Nation.”)
A Cut Above also acknowledges, in the credits, how cutting up trees using power tools may be antithetical to the setting:
The producers of A CUT ABOVE have donated to reforestation and carbon offsetting as compensation for use of cedar wood and chainsaw emissions in the series.
There are a lot of power tools: The 12 contestants—who come from Canada, but also Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the United States, and Zimbabwe—have access to a shed with more than 30 chainsaws, and dozens of power tools.
The contestants are a diverse group, both as artists and people, who take vastly different approaches to the challenges. Asked in the second episode to produce a sculpture that embodies a hope or a fear, the results range from a haunting portrayal of loneliness to a comic likeness of one of this show’s judges being punched in the face.
Like Blown Away, which is also produced by marblemedia, the various techniques the artists use are explained to us, including blocking, which is the initial cut with a chainsaw to get a shape.
The artists then use smaller and smaller chainsaws to chip away at their sculptures. Power tools allow them to create even more detail, and they finish by burning, sanding, and painting the wood.
After the first episode, there are two challenges in each episode: a two-hour Quick Carve, whose winner gets an advantage in the seven-hour Master Carve, the elimination challenge.
The first Quick Carve is clever, challenging, and fun: carving a bowling ball and pins, which the judges test by actually bowling.
So far, the challenges have just let the artists work, giving them time constraints, themes, and must-haves, but otherwise letting them be creative, which is so refreshing.
Golden Globe-nominated actor Adam Beach brings an awed enthusiasm to his hosting. He also slips in a few puns (“The carvers who can’t hack it will be axed from the competition”) and uses an air horn, so watch out, TJ Lavin.
Because the process is about removing wood and then refining it, it’s a lot easier to follow than glass blowing, which on Blown Away often left me baffled about how a beautiful thing came into being.
I’d still prefer more time watching and less time cutting to the judges and host awkwardly talking their way through prompted conversations, but there’s less mystery here about how the artists have managed to get certain shapes or designs from their logs.
At times, it feels beat-for-beat like Blown Away, is why I’m comparing the two so much. A Cut Above even has an artist in her 50s who creates abstract pieces, and the judges and host standing above the work area making comments.
Chatting with Adam Beach are “technical judge” Ryan Cook and “artistic judge” Katharine Dowson. They can’t quite escape the problem that Blown Away has, too, which is that it’s challenging to objectively judge subject art, and even more challenging to explain that to viewers.
The judging comes down to things like: I wish you would have made this different choice, or I wish you would have had more time to do this.
But they do tell the bottom three contestants what needs to improve, and are very specific in that, and the first contestant eliminated felt to me like the clear choice based on the work they created.
The artists produce incredible art, even under the time and other constraints of a reality TV competition. It’s beautifully presented, too, with their pieces placed on mossy ground with mist drifting past, reconnecting the wood to the earth.
Season one has 12 one-hour episodes, and I’ve seen the first two episodes via methods, since they’ve already aired in Canada, and since Discovery Channel didn’t provide press with previews. I mention that only because I want more people to know that a great show like this exists.
Between A Cut Above and Blown Away, marblemedia is single-handedly bringing back the once-thriving subgenre of reality TV that gave a platform to talented but perhaps lesser-known artists and art forms. And—oh, forgive me for this!—it’s reality TV that’s a cut above the rest and really blows me away.
A Cut Above
An outstanding celebration of a newer art form that centers the artists and their incredible work, all in a beautiful location. A–
What works for me:
- The impressive artwork by talented artists
- The gorgeous setting, both natural and production designed
- Judges giving specific advice about what to improve upon
What could be better:
- The usual judging-art weaknesses
- Fewer prompted conversations and more authentic reactions