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 (email@example.com) writes from San Francisco.