The best reality TV shows answer what-if questions. What happens when ten strangers live together in a house? What if the richest and most glamorous housewives in Beverly Hills (and other metropolitan areas) weren’t actually happy? How long did it take eight young partygoers on the Jersey Shore to start grinding each other out?
For the seemingly infinite number of survival shows—The Naked and the Scary, The Getaway, Race to Survive, and Alone—the question is relatively simple: What happens when all the comforts of modern life are stripped away? action? All of these shows are variations on the longest-running reality show, “Survivor,” which is about to enter its forty-fifth season, but they’ve pivoted to something more intense. “Survivor” has always been presented as a mind game, and the wilderness part is mostly a vehicle for interpersonal drama. The new type of survival show takes the nature part more seriously and combines the last man standing structure of Survivor with the wilderness adventures of the Bear Grylls show.
Alone, a History Channel show that recently concluded its tenth season, sees ten contestants spend a hundred days in utter and brutal solitude, filming themselves throughout the process. At the beginning of each season, hopefuls are sent to a wilderness area with camera equipment and a few survival items of their choice: an ax for chopping wood, an iron rod for starting a fire, and a hunting bow. The contestants are all stationed in the same place, but separated from each other by water or impassable land. Whoever lasts the longest without calling rescue teams will win $500,000.
The result is like what would happen if you set hundreds of hours of survivalist vlogging to the soundtrack to Werner Herzog’s unrelenting rants about the wilderness. (My favorite Herzogianism: “Nature here is evil…I’ll see adultery, suffocation, suffocation, struggle for existence, growth, and decay.”) Here, nature takes the form of fish, pine Chicken, offered in the form of edible moss, and rats – but it did so infrequently and almost randomly. As the contestants starve and desolate, their monologues to the camera start to sound besieged, even hateful. The camera, it turns out, is as indifferent as the wilderness itself.
The self-recording element of “Alone” is its real innovation. In a survival show, by eliminating the camera crew, which immediately raises the question of whether the contestants are being helped, “Alone” gives us a front-row look at the breakdown of the human spirit in a way that is at once illuminating and brutal. The show combines the eerie, almost illegal intimacy of The Blair Witch Project with the candid earnestness of a DIY YouTuber documenting the process of building a log cabin. We see our heroes fish, we see them shoot grouse with a GoPro cleverly attached to their bow, we see them fall and get hurt. They stopped their bodies in front of the tripod and talked about loneliness and regrets in life to the camera. A twig snapping off-camera might jolt a contestant out of a sentimental reverie. Could this moose support them through the winter?
Through this lens, natural beauty is quickly replaced by evil. The show was filmed in some of the most majestic, untouched locations on Earth, but after the first episode, the breathtaking scenery was overshadowed by rows of stubby conifers, crumbling alder, sun-bleached rocks and dense, impenetrable Transparent bushes are replaced. Lakes can quickly become barren puddles filled with giardia; forest floors become plant morgues; tree roots become tripping hazards. Snow always looks like dead cement. The first two seasons were filmed in the forests of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. I spent a year in the Pacific Northwest in my twenties working among the same trees, salads, berries and sword ferns. There was always something eerie about those forests, as if some dank, unfathomable energy flowed from cedar to alder to Douglas fir. In Solitude, that same scene looks like a deadly entanglement, with no access to food, no shelter to keep you dry, and predators roaming free around your camp.
The “Alone” contestants spend most of their time in sleeping bags, especially in winter when it snows. The scenes were shot with a nighttime camera setup, which makes each tightly framed shot appear ghostly, as if the subject is sitting in a haunted confessional. In these moments, they always talk about the family they left behind. In the show’s latest season, a father with an autistic son spends a tent chipping toys for his son’s upcoming fifth birthday. Wandering in deadpan Georgian about his difficult childhood, he reveals why he endured sub-zero temperatures and starvation: He hopes the money will help pay for his son’s treatment so he can Spend less time at home. Work and more time with wife and kids.
These stories point to the moral center of the show: family above all else, self-improvement, and humility before nature. With a few exceptions, macho men have a particularly hard time in Alone, and while I hate to call the show feminist, the producers and editors do seem to like to put the most annoying survivalists Downsizing. The people who announce moose and bear hunts in the first episode almost always fly home early by helicopter; those who decide to build a palatial sanctuary usually burn out within weeks. Some unassuming contestants, like Season 9’s Karie Lee Knoke, who spent most of her time crafting fruit leather, and even Alan Kay, who made seaweed and slugs Food, which won the first season, tends to outperform hunters and mansion builders. — both to maintain an adequate supply of food and, more importantly, to endure the boredom and misery of slow hunger.
“Solitude” follows Herzog’s line of thought: we cannot dominate nature; we cannot dominate nature. We can only humbly ask it not to kill us. The show is deeply skeptical of the Tolstoyan romantic rhapsody that drove Christopher McCandless (the protagonist of Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”) into the Alaskan wilderness, ultimately claiming took his life. (Each episode of “Solitude” begins with an inscription, one of which comes from McCandless: “The most fundamental core of a man’s life spirit is his passion for adventure.”) When we see the bear— And there are plenty of them—we see them as Herzog did in his documentary Grizzly Man: lumbering, powerful, and utterly indifferent to human suffering. Nearly all of the contestants on “Alone” display McCandless-esque innocence. At the beginning of the season, they tell stories about themselves in the woods, or about connecting with their father on a hunting trip. Then we watch nature beat them.