Whisker Warrior Jack Passion. (Karolina Wojtasik / IFC )
I suppose there is nothing that can be done in this world that can't be turned into a contest: Whatever the product or practice, there will always be a first, a biggest or, subject to judges' ruling, a best. "Whisker Wars," which begins Friday on IFC, is a "docu-comedy" — to use the provided description — about the world of competitive beard-growing, or bearding.
The main players are Jack Passion, two-time Natural Full Beard world champion and author of "The Facial Hair Handbook"; his coach, mentor and tireless partisan Phil Olsen, self-described as "the founder and self-appointed captain of Beard Team USA," a federation of beard-growing societies; Aarne Bielefeldt, a rangy, gray-haired Scandinavian living off the grid in Northern California, where he looks after the forest and plays the harpsichord; Myk O'Connor, a likable young Brooklynite who wants to establish New York "as a major stop on the beard circuit"; and various members of Texas' Austin Facial Hair Club, who are generally set against Passion and Olsen, whom they see as too interested in personal gain and glory, and who regard their own Bryan Nelson as the man to beat Passion.
Schooled in the European tradition, Passion, whose beard is "renowned for color and density," does indeed seem a little full of himself: "My name is Jack Passion, world beard champion, not Jack Passion, awesome guy with a beard," he says, and he stands apart from his fellow beardsmen (that's the word), a lone wolf isolated by his own ambition and the disdain of the competition. Where he casts himself as the Muhammad Ali of facial hair -- "I talk a lot of trash and rhyme a lot" -- Bielefeldt, who is cast as the natural man to Passion's sophisticate, says of his own facial hair, "There's nothing much to say. It grows. Let it grow."
Thom Beers, who is behind such hits as "Deadliest Catch," "Ice Road Truckers" and "Storage Wars," is an executive producer here, as well as the series' highly emphatic narrator. And indeed, this is reality TV, not documentary film; everything is crafted to underline conflict, to redouble the drama.
"Whisker Wars," as the name betokens, concentrates on the grinding gears of rivalry, a series of local and national pageants leading to a climactic world championship in Trondheim, Norway. We get a glimpse of some intriguing characters that we don't, however, quite come to know — not in the episodes I've seen, anyway — because we are being pelted the whole time with exposition and explanation. We're rarely allowed just to look or listen in or to think for ourselves.
At the same time, the talk we do get provides little in the way of context. O'Connor describes bearding as being at "the tipping point of becoming mainstream," but neither he nor anyone else has much to say about why that is, what they think that means, or even why they're growing beards rather than flying model airplanes or collecting comics or taking dance lessons.
Still, there is some fun to be had: It's men in crazy big beards, and big crazy beards, after all, out in front of cheering crowds. And you will learn a thing or two, as when ZZ Top's famously hirsute Billy Gibbons, judging a beard-off in Episode 4, says that if you're going to go down this road, "a good conditioner is advisable." Not necessary knowledge, from this end, but noted.