Naked and Afraid – Discovery Channel

This past weekend I went to visit one of my sorority sisters from college. It was a fun visit – I got to spend some quality time with her adorable almost 3 year old, we checked out the spiedie fest in Binghamton, did a little wine tasting and had a nice dinner complete with delicious s’mores martinis. After we got home on Saturday night, a little exhausted from all the walking around and time in the sun, we flipped on the TV for a little mindless entertainment as we unwound from our day.

And that’s how we stumbled upon Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid,  one of the more insane shows on TV.

You can’t say that the show doesn’t feature truth in advertising – the premise of the reality show is that two survivalist experts (one man and one woman) are dropped off in some remote location in various parts of the world without a stitch of clothing and almost no supplies. Then have to battle the elements and the wildlife to survive for 21 days. We caught a marathon and a season one special, so we were able to watch a little bit of everything in a short amount of time: the unforgiving wildlife and swamp of the Louisiana Bayou; the blistering heat of a Maldivian Island; the danger of the jungle in Borneo. The elements are formidable, the predators numerable and the odds are seemingly stacked against them. The idea that two strangers meeting for the first time, wearing absolutely nothing, is the easiest part of the show is fascinating.

Now I’m not normally a person that watches the Discovery Channel. I don’t even know that channel that is on my cable system. I know that some people are really into Shark Week, but I’ll admit that though I’ve never actually seen any of that programming, despite the fact that I often quote 30 Rock and tell people “to live every week like it is Shark Week.”  I’ve never seen Deadliest Catch or Amish Mafia either and I’ve only caught an episode or two of Mythbusters and Dirty Jobs. I am vaguely aware of these shows since they do get mentioned quite a bit in pop culture, but for whatever reason, the majority of the programming on Discovery Channel just doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t generally like reality shows – I have a few guilty pleasures – and there is just so much other programming on TV that is in my wheelhouse that I simply have never made time to explore what these programs are all about. I’m not an outdoorsy or adventurous type of girl and that is the hook of a lot of these shows. I just don’t ever want to devote 30 minutes to watching people do jobs or put themselves into situations that I find ridiculous.

I’m thinking I may have to reconsider this stance given how instantly infatuated that I was with Naked and Afraid; it was like a car crash that I just couldn’t look away from. I spent half of the show blown away by the perseverance and skills of the two survivalists and the other half questioning their mental health. It takes a special type of person to go out into these kinds of remote and treacherous locals with a stranger and try to survive, but to voluntarily do this without any clothing certainly ups the ante and make me question their sanity. The lack of clothing really is what originally sets this show apart from other shows; it’s probably the hook that gets most people to tune in. This is still a basic cable show, so all the potentially offensive bits are blurred out, but there is no mistaking that the exposure of skin to all the elements makes this experience unique for both the participants and viewers.

What surprised me is that after I somewhat got over the “oh my God – they are wading into a pool of standing water filled with alligators – and they have no clothes” component of the show (though you never really “get over it”) is that you really get invested in these people and their survival. I think it helped that the first episode that we watched the couple didn’t make it the fully 21 days – after drinking some unpurified water one the participants had to be removed from the show and taken to the hospital. By starting with an episode where things got pretty scary fairly quickly, it created clear stakes of what could happen. This was clearly not a staged show; there was a legitimate chance that someone could die. This wasn’t a drill – these people were really trying to survive. It added a tension to the show that made the viewing experience a lot like watching a horror movie. Internally, I was shouting all sorts of things at them – Watch out for that spider! Climb a tree! Don’t pick up that snake! DON’T GO IN THE WATER! – and I could feel my anxiety rising as the mission continued to play out. Even if I thought that these people were coo coo bananas for singing up for this, you didn’t want to see anyone get hurt. It probably wasn’t the best choice of a show to select for trying to unwind as I was probably more amped up after the show than I was before. My adrenaline had kicked in even if I was in no mortal danger.

I’ll admit that the show also kind of made me feel a little bad about myself, since there is absolutely no way I would make it more than a day or so in these conditions. I have very little survival instinct and I’d probably get bitten by a snake or spider almost instantly because I wouldn’t know how to avoid them. Prior to watching the show I was quite pleased with myself and my decision to skip dessert at dinner, like this was some real sacrifice that I had made; after watching the show, I realized that I need to work very hard to keep myself living in the style to which I am accustomed because my prospects for survival with even a minor hiccup are pretty bleak. I’d like to think that I would somewhat rise to the occasion if I found myself in a battle against nature, but the smart money is on me becoming gator bait in less than 24 hours. Seriously – I can barely light a candle with a lighter. I’d probably trip on a rock and fall into the water and that would be it. Finito. Heather’s world would stop turning.

Some other quick thoughts:

In between all the nudity and surviving, it is interesting to see the interpersonal dynamics of the teams on the show. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the team that worked the best together was the most successful. However, even in a situation where two people are relying on each other for survival there were still personality clashes. Part of it is ego – you don’t volunteer to go on this show unless you think pretty highly of yourself and your abilities – but some of it is just old fashioned male/female conflict. It adds yet another layer to the show – not only can these people endure but can they do so without killing each other?

At the end of each episode they reveal how much weight each person lost while they were on the mission. That is the only moment when my subconscious flickers some interest in going on the show: “Sure that looks like hell and you would probably die, but you might also lose 20 pounds in two weeks. So that might be worth it.”

Here’s the real kicker of the whole thing – as far as I can tell, these people don’t win a damn thing if they make it the whole 21 days. Unlike Survivor, there is no million dollar payday awaiting them. These people are simply doing this to say that they did it (and I guess to appear on TV). I’ll admit that this makes the show much more appealing; I’m sure that they are somehow compensated, but they are mostly out there just to prove to themselves that they can do it.

We caught what appeared to be the final episodes of the first season, but there are plans to bring the show back for more episodes. I’m planning to catch the episodes that we didn’t watch on demand and will definitely tune in when the show returns. It’s been two days since we watched and I still can’t stop thinking about the show and just how crazy it is that people would voluntarily put themselves in such a situation. The combination of incredulousness that this is something that people do by choice with a real concern for the participants, even while scoffing at their decision making, makes this a show that is surprisingly addictive. I may have to put the effort in to finding the Discovery Channel after all.

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