Television

Survival Television

Learning to love the vast wasteland to come

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On May 31, 2000, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 4.8 points to 10,522.33. Life was no longer as great as it had been just a few months earlier, but it was still pretty great. Code Orange threat alerts, weaponized anthrax, and toxic mortgage-backed securities had yet to bedevil the public's imagination. Many Americans feared Al Gore more than Al Qaeda.

When Survivor made its television debut that evening, it was clearly the product of a secure, prosperous culture. In what other place, at what other time in history, could a monthlong vacation on an island paradise qualify as the ultimate test of one's resourcefulness and mettle?

Then terrorists blew up the Twin Towers. Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans. Economic swine flu swept through the banking industry. With every news cycle seeming to introduce increasingly exotic threats, the knowledge that a representative sampling of our fellow citizens can successfully endure Jeff Probst's solemn inquisitions during tribal council no longer offered much comfort. We needed grittier, more convincing depictions of the average American's indomitable spirit in the face of adversity. Graciously, Discovery Channel has answered the call, with Survivorman, Man vs. Wild, and most recently Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment

In the Out of the Wild's second season, which aired last spring, nine adventurers embarked on a month-long, 60-mile trek across remote back-country terrain. Unlike on Survivor, there was no $1 million prize at stake or elimination votes to cast, just the opportunity to spend a few weeks with semi-frozen strangers, feast on the occasional bird heart, and battle-harden oneself for the coming apocalypse. According to the Discovery Channel, more than 100,000 people applied for a spot on the series.

No doubt their appetites were whetted by Survivorman and Man vs. Wild. In those programs, the survival-expert hosts strand themselves in remote locales with little more than the shirts on their backs. It's a curious conceit if you think about it, because anyone who finds himself in the middle of the desert or a Costa Rican jungle without an ultra-light tent, a water purifier, or at the very least an iPhone probably doesn't deserve the title of survival expert; it's not as if you need Magellan-like navigation skills to find your local REI these days. But what these shows lose in missed product placement opportunities they make up for in metaphorical power. They aim to show us that even under the most extreme circumstances, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency is no longer around to give us toxic rescue trailers and even the continent's rich reserve of Snickers bars has been depleted, it is still possible to survive.

And not just for professionals. With Out of the Wild, Discovery Channel's doomsday optimists demonstrate that "ordinary Americans" can thrive in the end times too. Like most reality TV, the show is cast with melting-pot catholicity. There's an Asian-American attorney from Chicago, a feisty grandma from Kentucky who works as a body piercer, three East Coast city slickers, a blonde fitness instructor who is also the reigning Miss Bikini of Southern California, an African-American customer service rep who has led "extreme eco-tours" in Costa Rica and Central America, a Maryland member of the Atlantic States Gay Rodeo Association, and a fishing outfitter from Wisconsin. After three days of off-screen survival training, this Noah's Ark of tenderfoot explorers is provisioned with equipment, the cameras start to roll.

There are no elimination votes on Out of the Wild, but participants can remove themselves from the experiment by pushing a button on the GPS units they all carry. This summons a rescue helicopter that spirits them back to the world of running water and fast food restaurants.

In just the first four days of the expedition, three participants opted out. With no $1 million dreams to keep them warm at night, the stress and boredom of back-country life just weren't worth it.

Those who remained looked convincingly exhausted and miserable most of the time. They got sick. They muddled around their various shelters in a collective, half-starved stupor. A few dry-goods staples such as flour and lentils were intermittently available to them, but mostly they relied on whatever berries they could gather and game they could shoot. It wasn't much. The centerpiece of their first meal in days was a skinny mouse; a ground squirrel followed a couple days later. The cast quickly achieved that level of hunger where anything that smelled even faintly like a calorie became the most delicious thing they'd ever eaten. Not since caveman times, one suspects, has a porcupine been devoured with such lip-smacking relish.

While the lack of a $1 million carrot meant the cast of Out of the Wild had no incentive to engage in the strategic machinations that distinguish Survivor, they didn't have the energy for intrigue either. Mere subsistence demanded their complete attention. And if they weren't quite as entertaining as their tropical counterparts, they were far more inspiring.

Having every move shadowed by a production crew that included two helicopters didn't make for ideal hunting conditions—but when the survivalists came across a presumably hard-of-hearing ptarmigan or porcupine, they proved to be pretty good shots. They lugged bulky, 60-pound packs for miles at a time. They crossed rushing rivers and field-dressed game with aplomb. They kept their bickering and self-pity to a minimum. Compared to experienced outdoorsmen, they may have seemed unskilled and occasionally clueless. Compared to the ordinary Americans on reality TV these days, and to the ordinary investment bankers and CEOs who appear on the business channels, the show's cast seemed hardworking, resilient, and incredibly self-sufficient: 21st-century Pilgrims.

In contrast to Survivor, where money is always the subtext and the reigning ethos is dog-eat-dog, Out of the Wild's post-pecuniary, group-eat-squirrel approach is fraught with enough commie overtones to send Sean Hannity into a patriotic rage. Ultimately, though, the show is really about personal autonomy. On Survivor, the tribal council is the master of your fate. On Out of the Wild, only you can pull the plug on yourself. On Survivor, government intervention is pervasive in the form of host Probst and the unseen hand of series creator Mark Burnett. The contestants' lives are centrally planned on an hour-by-hour basis; the rules they must follow are elaborate and gratuitous.

On Out of the Wild, events are much less prescribed. The daily challenge of subsistence orders the participants' lives, but within that context they're free to determine their own destinies. Should they follow the map or take a shortcut? Should they spend their energies setting traps or gathering firewood? It's all up to them. 

And thus what arose from doomsday angst begins to take on utopian tones. The world Out of the Wild presents is a downsized utopia to be sure, but it's still an inviting one. The desire to escape the grid has been with us even when there wasn't much of a grid to get away from.

Out of the Wild hardly romanticizes this impulse; even Thoreau might find it hard to rhapsodize about the simple virtues of some of the skeletal shacks the trekkers call home. But with each new technology we acquire, with each thick set of homeowners association rules, with every political savior planning even more entries to the Code of Federal Regulations, the desire grows stronger to light out for the territories, where we can live free from all the rules and programs that are designed to protect us, free from the complicating conveniences of modern life, amid prickly thickets of alder and surprisingly delicious rodents. If there's a third season of Out of the Wild, the Discovery Channel probably should expect even more applications than the 100,000 it got the last time around. It doesn't look like much fun, but apparently the experience is worth a million bucks.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.

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  1. It’s the same reason that Red Dawn and survivalist fiction was popular in the 80s.

    Everyone is been convinced of impending doom.

    And doom sells.

  2. “Many Americans feared Al Gore more than Al Qaeda.”

    I still do.

  3. I never understood those shows. I was stuck in a hotel room with nothing else to do, so I watched one of them. Some egotistical host deliberately got himself stuck in the desert with no food or water. He found and killed a rattlesnake, and took it with him. Later on after the snake innards have sufficiently deteriorated, he proceeded to drink the snake! Few things in life can provoke a violent vomit response in me, but that one came close.

  4. Everyone is been convinced of impending doom.

    The universalism is the interesting part. Whether the vehicle is Obama, Cheney, eeeevil corporations, fiat money, or IllegalMetsicans, more and more people seem convinced the end is nigh.

    Now I’ll RTFA and see if Beato cribbed me.

  5. Few things in life can provoke a violent vomit response in me, but that one came close.

    Did you not see the episode where he drank water squeezed from elephant shit or where he slept inside of a camel carcass, ala Empire Strikes Back?

  6. Guns and ammo are a solid investment as Obama keeps spending money like a drunken retard.

    Eventually dollars aren’t going to be worth much.

  7. And don’t forget the badass factor. Like Stephenson says in Snow Crash:

    “Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live,devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.”

  8. You know, I’ve never watched Out of the Wild, but I might have to check it out now. It definitely sounds interesting and I’d much rather watch that than Survivor.

    I’ve always thought that they way they should do Survivor is that whoever gets voted off the island, gets eaten. THEN I’d watch that shit! 😉

  9. I don’t get those shows either. They are of absolutley no value even from a suvivalist perspective unless you are complete dumb ass who manages to get yourself lost in the wilderness with no supplies. There used to be a short lived show where they would talk about how to prepare if you are going into the wilderness. For instance, they had one show on what to pack in a bush plane in Alaska in case your plane goes down and you have to survive in the woods. In another one they talked about how you prepare to actually drive accross the Outback. In another it was what kind of ditch kit you need to sail accross the Atlantic. It was actually interesting and it wasn’t based on the stupidity of the host.

  10. “Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world.

    I’m 35 and still think that shit 😉

  11. Personally, I thought In To The Wild was funnier than all those shows put together.

    The ending was hilarious.

  12. My favorite suvilval show was PBS’s Frontier House. They took families and stuck them on homesteads in Montana and had them live like it was the 1880s. Only it being PBS and all, no guns or hunting were allowed. No kidding. Without the ability to hunt for meat, people started getting very hungry.

  13. I like Survivorman. Relatively free of stunts, he’s really out there by himself (sure, there’s a crew on call, but they are over the horizon), and its really pretty practical stuff. Good entertainment.

  14. “Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world.

    I’m 35 and still think that shit 😉

    Just ’cause you haven’t met Raven.

    Even the Deliverator makes way for that dude.

    The nuclear bomb is just icing on the cake of his manliness.

  15. Poor Uncle Enzo.

  16. Some people like to do difficult things because they enjoy the accomplishment and feelings of bad-assedness it provides. I don’t think it has some much to do with being a dumb-ass as John suggests. Of course in most situations where you are likely to find yourself stranded in the wilderness, you should be better prepared. That is not the point of these shows.

  17. “Some people like to do difficult things because they enjoy the accomplishment and feelings of bad-assedness it provides.”

    That is no excuse to be stupid and unprepared. I am sorry but wondering around in the desert with no food or water is dumb.

  18. You must remember along with the “subjects” of the show there must be camera people, lighting people, directors, stage hands etc all trooping along to publicise and show what the survivor is doing. How desparate can it be, with that whole crowd of supporting “cast” trooping along with the “star” or “stars”.

  19. Of course in most situations where you are likely to find yourself stranded in the wilderness, you should be better prepared. That is not the point of these shows.

    One of things I like about Survivorman is his point that the most important tool is your mind, and that being mentally prepared is the key to survival.

    Plus, I like the way they set him up, with like a wrecked plane or snowmobile to scavenge from.

  20. How desparate can it be, with that whole crowd of supporting “cast” trooping along with the “star” or “stars”.

    At least with Survivorman, the star packs his own kit.

    So the macho bastard is out in the wilderness without shelter, extra clothing, food, water or purification equipment, but with fifty pounds of videography equipment.

    And he does dumb things from time to time. But is a smart and knowledgeable and able and tough. And I watch the show sometimes when I happen across it.

  21. i hate the “survivial” shows. never actually watched a whole one, but form what i have seen even man v wild its all set up, and they pass on food and drink all the time, any real survior would know. if anyone ever starves/dehydrates in the wilderness, they have not been to enough schooling, and should not be outside in the wild. it is very easy to survive in most climates save dessert/tundra. water and food are everywhere, you just have to be willing to eat/drink it.

    just looking out the uyear dinto the woods i see enough to survive indefinatly on. i see dollar weed aka miner lettuce elderberrys grasses, slugs snails roly pollies (little land crustaceans) crickets birds. for water i have the plants and grasses, trees, animals and creek. thats just at a glance out the window.

  22. btw even in the dessert, you can get water, by making a dew trap, basically you take a tarp dig a hole and place tarp over hole with the center weighed down to form a concave cover over the hole. at night the air cooling and dew will give about a glass or 2 of water nightly 6-12 ounces. and of course cacti are full o water. just bitter as fuck

  23. The Jerusalem Post has an interview with a member of the Basij, the teen militia that enforces the Iranian regime’s will. Even with what we knew about the Basij’s brutality, this is shocking:

    He said he had been a highly regarded member of the force, and had so “impressed my superiors” that, at 18, “I was given the ‘honor’ to temporarily marry young girls before they were sentenced to death.” In the Islamic Republic it is illegal to execute a young woman, regardless of her crime, if she is a virgin, he explained. Therefore a “wedding” ceremony is conducted the night before the execution: The young girl is forced to have sexual intercourse with a prison guard–essentially raped by her “husband.” “I regret that, even though the marriages were legal,” he said.Why the regret, if the marriages were “legal?” “Because,” he went on, “I could tell that the girls were more afraid of their ‘wedding’ night than of the execution that awaited them in the morning. And they would always fight back, so we would have to put sleeping pills in their food. By morning the girls would have an empty expression; it seemed like they were ready or wanted to die. “I remember hearing them cry and scream after [the rape] was over,” he said. “I will never forget how this one girl clawed at her own face and neck with her finger nails afterwards. She had deep scratches all over her.”

    http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1246443842931&pagename=JPost%

  24. SpongePaul:

    Good luck with your dew traps. Unless you plan on going nowhere, you’ll never produce enough water with them to justify the water lost digging the holes. A 3×3 pit will maybe yield 8 oz. a day, and that’s if you stock it with vegetation & other crud to drive the evaporation. You’ll need about 16 of those pits to give you the gallon/day you’ll need to survive in the desert – that will be about 600 sq. feet (16 * 6×6 feet) of clear plastic (not tarps). I’m not sure how one ends up stranded in the desert with so much Saran Wrap, but if you do, you’ll know what to do with it.

    Source:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=g0pXR2qylP0C&pg=PA63&lpg=PA63&dq=dew+trap&source=bl&ots=1OeX5-PuGL&sig=3DMtLndQ2Gyt1mvLjtbkC4LE42c&hl=en&ei=pPFkSrGYAoz-M86aqZ8M&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7

  25. SpongePaul,

    Postscript: What you described is actually a solar still, not a dew trap. If you read further down the link above, you’ll see what a dew trap actually is; apparently it is a lot less work and yields more water than the still.

  26. Why is Iran executing virgin women?

    Anybody?

  27. Man vs Wild is terrible. It’s very clearly set up and bear knows nothing of survival. If anyone takes his advice they’re going to get themselves killed.

    Survivorman is awesome though. He is extremely knowledgeable and gives good, practical advice. It’s almost never him stranded with no supplies. He tries to simulate actual scenarios that are plausible. The one where he’s lost at sea is intense.

  28. ??? | July 20, 2009, 7:24pm | #
    Why is Iran executing virgin women?

    To encourage the others.

  29. I like Survivorman, he actually has the backing of many of the most noted survivalists and outdoorsmen. The fact the poor bastards travels the 2 times the distance to get each shot is funny as well. Set up shot, walk away for dramatic effect, turn around walk back and get camera, then walk back to where you just came. Sadistic when coupled with low sleep and hunger.

    Man v. Wild is a fucking joke, Bear is a joke, the show is a joke, and his advice or tactics will get you killed if you ever really are stuck.

    Personally, I thought In To The Wild was funnier than all those shows put together.

    The ending was hilarious.

    Darwinism. Stupid people who do stupid shit deserve the outcome. I too found it somewhat funny.

  30. SpongePaul, you are the man. Who raised you?

    I have been eating out so often since college that I can hardly cook for myself. This recession is going to do wonders for my survival skills.

  31. Why is Iran executing virgin women?

    The country of Iran is? Isn’t that a little like saying the tree was hanging people. If members of the government of Iran are executing virgins for reasons other than sharia , the “Monkey”, as many Iranians call Ahmadinejad, is using them as snacks to feed his pet Mahdi. Poor little feller, he’s been hiding down in that well for over a thousand years, he must be practically starving by now.

  32. My favorite suvilval show was PBS’s Frontier House. They took families and stuck them on homesteads in Montana and had them live like it was the 1880s. Only it being PBS and all, no guns or hunting were allowed. No kidding. Without the ability to hunt for meat, people started getting very hungry.

    And it had the TV character with the all time best phony name: Rawhide Johnson.

    Everything about it was great, including the out takes. The wagon accident that nearly killed the kid. The dramatic video cut from the ride away from there to the holiday ride in Acapulco shot from the overpass.

    I still think that couple who scavenged the anachronistic bed from a dump were in the best spirit of it all, and literally so in the case of making hooch. I don’t care if they cut the least wood, not only would everyone have come crawling to them during the winter, but in 10 years that guy would have owned the Montana Territory, and by long before our time he’d’ve built it up into the economic wonder of the world.

  33. the all time best phony name: Rawhide Johnson

    Fuck you, Robert.

  34. Brandybuck “I never understood those shows. I was stuck in a hotel room with nothing else to do, so I watched one of them. Some egotistical host deliberately got himself stuck in the desert with no food or water. He found and killed a rattlesnake, and took it with him. Later on after the snake innards have sufficiently deteriorated, he proceeded to drink the snake! Few things in life can provoke a violent vomit response in me, but that one came close.”

    He wasn’t drinking the deteriorated innards of the snake. Earlier, after eating the snake, he urinated into the skin of the snake and tied it around his neck like a scarf, knowing that might be his only source of fluids as he attempted to cross the desert shortly thereafter. He later did indeed drink his own urine (which had been marinating in snake skin in the heat for quite some time).

    That might make you more likely to vomit, not sure.

  35. Did they have laptops with a satelite connection? I mean, how did they download porn daily, to see Japanese lesbians giving each other oil massages? I could not live without that.

  36. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke

  37. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp.

  38. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

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