Whisker Wars

Whisker Wars debuts tonight on IFC at 11 p.m. Eastern.

I’m not sure why I was looking forward to Whisker Wars so much. Maybe it’s because we live in tough times and a show about facial hair would be a fun diversion. Maybe it’s because I’m always captivated by those slideshows from bearding competitions. Maybe it’s because this baseball season is losing its luster and I needed a new sport to get into. Whatever my problems are, I expected a TV show about beards to solve all of them.

So my expectations were maybe a little bit high. The slight conundrum about beard competitions, at least to the uninitiated like me, is to know what kind of attitude to take towards them. Is it simply semi-ironic good fun? Or do people really take this very seriously? Bearding isn’t exactly a career or a physical sport, but then again, when your hobby is attached to your face and can get caught in your food or in your fly, it’s an everyday affair.

Whisker Wars follows Beard Team USA, led by Phil Olsen, a group that “grows beards for America.” As is announced in the show’s voiceover, the sport of bearding has been dominated by Germany for decades, and now America wants to take the crown. USA! USA!

In the debut episode, we meet the characters who will be competing in the National Beard and Mustache Championships. We meet Phil Olsen, the team’s coach, Myk O’Connor, a tatooed Brooklynite who met his girlfriend at a bearding competition, and the Austin facial hair club, which basically seems like your typical gaggle of Austin dudes who like to drink beer and eat ribs and make noise and grow beards. My favorite is Aarne Bielefeldt, a Norweigan with a long gray beard who lives in the California woods who says things like “I like the trees” and plays a harpsichord on which he painted a likeness of his wife. He looks like old-timey skinny tall Santa, or maybe a nutcracker carved out of a very old tree.

Then there’s Jack Passion, the reigning world champion of beards and the villain of the beard world. Jack’s beard is long and red and he takes great pride in it, singing “happy birthday” to it onstage and profiting off it with a book on beard maintenance. The other guys hate him, which is good for the sake of the show, because I’m not sure how well a series about a bunch of dudes having a good time together, petting their beards, would go down for a season.

Not to be a traitor to our country, but I prefer the freestyle look of the German beard to the long flowing full beard. At one point in the show, Jack Passion chats with German bearding legend Willi Chevalier, whose beard at times resembles either a gigantic elf shoe or some sort of elaborate pastry. He has persevered through an unfortunate power-drill accident where he lost three-quarters of its beard, and today it even stands up in the strong Bay area breeze. Those Germans are tough, but we knew that already.

At that National Beard and mustache championships, the beards are judged on quality, size, color and presentation and are broken down into the categories of mustache, partial beard, full beard or freestyle. I pondered how this is one of those challenges where women simply cannot compete with men, and then wondered what the point was even thinking about that. Once again, not to be disloyal to my country, I preferred the courtly presentation of Willi and Aarne to that of the whooping, hollering, flag-waving Americans.

I won’t spoil the surprise for you in regards to who wins what, but I liked the judging process of the competition, where the petite beauty queen thoughtfully tested each beard and the men stood by, gentle and proud of themselves. It was sweet.

Whisker Wars  is good light summer fun, that’s for sure, but I wish the show’s directors pushed it a little bit more in one direction or another, irony or documentary, which to my eyes loosely represents the two types of bearders. There are the older Teutonic types who seem to play it very straight, and then there are the younger guys who you can’t help but wonder if they’re approaching bearding from a somewhat hipster steampunk mentality. With a little bit more silliness, Whisker Wars could be the RuPaul’s Drag Race of facial hair. With a little bit more exposition, though, I wouldn’t mind knowing more about how these guys get into bearding, and why.

Stray observations:

  • "There’s shit talk coming from the beard attached to the mouth of Jack Passion.”
  • How much is a bearding competition just a type of dick contest?
  • RIP Yagi the Goat.

More TV Club