Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Survival Shows

I read a lot of survival magazines and books, both because they are interesting and because I invariably learn something I didn't know from them. Sometimes the books or magazines raise issues I haven't considered, or give me new ideas on how to handle something in a different and better way.

I watch television survival shows for the same reason.  The first one I remember was Bear Grylls.

I watched it and while it was sometimes interesting, I always thought that his actions were pretty extreme. Some of the things he did, like eating rotten carrion and drinking his own urine at every opportunity, seemed to be more oriented towards his audience than reality.  He traveled with a massive camera and support crew to back him up and film the show.  I heard rumors that he was faking a lot of his production, but I didn't believe them.  Finally a fellow emailed me and gave me a specific incident that was supposed to be faked. I wrote the the Discovery Channel, and they sent me back a form letter saying ,in effect, that some of Bear's activities were in fact faked.  The famous "I spent the night in this tree" when he really stayed in hotel that night was the one I specifically remember.  The letter said the Discovery Channel was sorry that there had been "misunderstandings" about the issue and that next season all of Bear's programs would be "realistic and true to the presentation."  Maybe they were, but I don't know because I never watched his show again.

Then there was the Canadian, Les Stroud. His show first came on about the time Bear Gryllis did.  Stroud took a different tack, though. He filmed his own program, traveled alone, and didn't put on stunts to impress anyone.  His advice was good, and in his programs sometimes what he tried worked, and sometimes, it didn't.  That's how real life is and I appreciated his honesty.  The show went three seasons, then he announced he wouldn't do them anymore because it was in the too hard category.  At heart, he's a musician and he wanted to pursue that. Since then, he's done two programs of two hours each,  one in Norway and one in Mexico. He also had a short lived series where he lived with indigenous tribal people around the world. His heart was in the right place, but unless you were an anthropologist the episodes were pretty boring and it didn't last long. I recently read that he has agreed to do two more survival specials next year.

 A little later, Man, Woman, Wild came along. It starred a former special forces soldier, Mikhil Hawks, and his attractive wife.  They worked well together, and it was an interesting program. It went through one and a half seasons, as I recall, and then disappeared. I've never been sure why, but I suspect that his wife had gotten tired of it. She was a trooper and never complained, but she got pretty sick a couple of times and probably didn't appreciate being filmed barfing and laying face down. That's my own supposition, but the show had a good following and was well received by the survivalist community, so it seems logical.

Dual Survival has gone three seasons and I'm not sure if it will be back.  I like Cody Lundin. I've read his books, and read about him in other books written by survivalists who went to his school in Arizona. He's a straight forward person, with no pretensions. Lundin grew up on a farm way out in the plains, did time for drugs, got his act together and has prospered as a lecturer, author, and actor. He makes no claim that his Dual Survival Shows are entirely authentic. He famously responded to a question about the reality of the program in an interview where he said "hey, man. It's television."   The first two seasons were with Dave Canterbury, who fell from grace when it turned out that his military career had not been exactly what he had portrayed it to be. Rumor control had it that Canterbury's disappearance was more to do with not being able to get along with Lundin than any real discrepancies between his resume and his service record.  The third season featured another special forces type, whose name I don't remember now.  This was a good show, filmed in beautiful locations, and you could learn from it.  However, the producers felt that it would be more riveting if the two partners constantly disparaged each other and denigrated their partners skills. That practice got on my nerves and sometimes I almost turned the show off in exasperation.

Discovery Channel is currently running Naked and Afraid.   The basic premise, bizarre as it is, involves taking a man and a woman with survival skills, who do not know each other, and dumping them off in some of the worlds worst terrain. They are allowed one implement each, and no clothing.  Maybe the producers thought making the protagonists be naked would add to the prurient attraction and draw more viewers. If so, they didn't take into account how unattractive nudity is when people are filthy, sweaty, covered with bug bites, and sun burned all to the devil.  That adds little to the show other than to emphasize that these folks are well and truly ill equipped.  The camera crew follows them around by day.  At night they film themselves with hand held cameras. I'll say this for the program, the teams don't always survive their 21 day ordeal. People get hurt, or get sick,  and it's not drama scripted in for the viewers. 

Personally, I don't think I will learn much from this. I've been in the jungle, in the Philippines, and I hated it. I was out there with good people I knew, well equipped, with a massive support system behind me. I was with well trained, highly motivated individuals.  I knew what I was doing, what the point of the evolution was, and never doubted I'd make it through. These poor people in this show are just dumped off with nothing, with someone they don't know, and they don't even have a pair of shoes.  Now, at age 60, I wouldn't go back in the jungle for any amount of money even if I was equipped to the teeth.  I can't imagine doing it like these people on Naked and Afraid are.  Considering the episodes I've seen, I'd have to say the women have done better than the men.  The men, with one exception, have all been class A personalities. Aggressive, competitive, over achievers.  They seem to get mad easily when things don't go according to plan, and some of them have taken it out on their female partners when it wasn't anything to do with the women at all.  I can remember fussing at my wife sometimes when something I was doing or working on wasn't going right, and seeing these guys act this way brought back some guilty memories. Maybe it's just a masculine trait.  The women seem calmer and better able to cope with disappointment.  That's not to say they have an easy time out there, far from it. They just don't show it as much.

Well, some of these shows are better  than others.  I learned more from Les Stroud's shows than any of the rest of them.  But they are all useful, in their way.  I don't plan on being stranded in some hellish wilderness but you never know what's down the road.


  1. The camera is the two edged sword in all this.

    Can't have a show without it, but the quest for ratings forces all the hokey-ness that creeps into these shows to begin with.

  2. Stroud hit the right middle ground. First, he didn't have a camera crew. I've always thought that if you have a horde of production assistants following you around, the show has to be fake to a certain extent. Unfortunately, when Stroud nearly croaked in the Kalahari desert from heat stroke he decided to pack it in. His wife of many years left him at about the same time, and that may have influenced his decision as well.

    1. I've followed them all, and like you, liked Stroud and Cody too. Some are just plain downright silly. I prefer books, still, I'll watch.

  3. Some of the shows are filmed in really beautiful areas. I remember the one Stroud did in "canyon lands." I'm not sure if I will ever travel out that way again so I enjoy the scenery. Once in awhile you'll pick up something useful from one of the shows, as well.