When I heard the premise of “Naked & Afraid” (Sun. at 10:00 p.m. on Discovery), I thought it was just an extreme take on “Survivor.” Each week, two people (a man and a woman) are shipped off to an exotic locale. Once there, they strip down, meet one another for the first time, and try to survive without food, water, tools, fire or anything useful (with the exception of one personal item each) for 21 days. Sort of like Adam and Eve if there were no apples, the snakes were poisonous and the Garden of Eden was filled with thorns and hungry hyenas.
In some respects, the show fits into a standard reality structure. Each player is ranked with a PSR (primitive survival rating), which is then adjusted at the end of the 21 days. But we don’t see the men or women react to their ratings (it’s not even clear if they know them), and it really doesn’t matter. This is not about ratings, or winning, or taking home a prize (there is none). This show is, in a very real sense, about survival. That sounds like hype, but in this case it really isn’t. While plenty of reality TV shows flirt with chaos, usually due to behind-the-scenes stupidity or alcohol poisoning, “Naked & Afraid” could be the first to incur fatalities on a regular basis. I’m guessing the release forms for this show are pretty iron clad.
In the first two episodes of the show, we watch the survivalists climb out of a truck, strip down, and approach one another in the all together. This alone would make me want to head home in a hurry, but for the most part our tough guys and gals make a few jokes, shrug, and get on with the business of surviving.
Twenty-one days doesn’t seem like much — until we are reminded that after three days without water and a few weeks without food, people tend to die. Getting water isn’t the only challenge, either. While some locales have plenty of water, it isn’t always clean — and that means fire must be made for boiling. If the water’s clean, usually it’s raining all the time — which means fire must be made to stave off hypothermia. If it’s not raining all the time, there are three-inch spiky thorns that are impossible to avoid if you have to walk anywhere — which means it’s time to make shoes. Yes, shoes. It turns out tree bark is pretty handy for this, should you ever be in a similar situation. But even with shoes, one unlucky survivalist gets a painful infection that requires a medic to step in and dose him with antibiotics. Though he grumbles, even he has to concede that without them he’d likely lose the leg or die of gangrene.
This is an easy fix given the dangers these plucky survivalists face — the first two are presented with the option of backing out entirely when the executive producer of the show is bitten by a deadly fer-de-lance snake while scouting locations — the photos of his leg being carved open after he’s taken by helicopter to the nearest hospital are enough to make less hardy viewers turn off the TV, and the show hasn’t even started yet. Later in the episode, the male survivalist, kills a fer-de-lance for food — and manages to do it with a stick. Only a stick. In another episode, a woman goes out hunting for food but doesn’t get back to camp in time. She spends the night circled by hungry hyenas, and we are informed that yes, they will kill humans given the opportunity. If she had been killed, her body might never have been found — the camera crew goes home at night, and the survivalists are on their own.
That willingness to risk death is just one clue that the men and women who go on this show are really unlike anyone you’d ever see on “Survivor.” They’re closer in attitude to Bear Grylls or Ed Stafford, but they’re not camera-savvy types intent on educating viewers, either. While some will turn to face the camera and explain what they’re doing, more often they seem oblivious to the small camera crew or use their individual video cameras to vent about how sucky their partner, the weather, or the general conditions are at that moment. Not that these people are complainers, mind you.
Everyone so far seems to be either a military specialist, a wild plant expert or a teacher of survival techniques — and while they have a better-than-average base of knowledge, not one of them seems fully prepared for how hellish these 21 days are going to be. So far, no one has lost less than 25 pounds during their stay in the wild — and these are not people who needed to trim down.
While I thought the concept of having a naked man and a naked woman was simply to offer a titillating element to viewers (and that may have been the thinking behind it), the reality has been far more complex. Many of the men are alpha types who initially feel it’s their “job” to protect the woman-folk, while the women chafe at being protected. There has (so far) been little screaming and yelling (probably burns up too much energy), but instead some remarkably candid conversations. Some couples emerge with a grudging respect, while others become bonded. There are no sparks, mind you, despite the nakedness. Crushing thirst and hunger tend to dull other appetites.
I think, after watching “Naked & Afraid,” it might be impossible to watch something like “Survivor” with its backstabbing, reward challenges, and non-stop whining about who has to catch the fish that evening. Like Stafford, these survivalists are taking on legitimately tough challenges, and there’s no million dollar prize or a donut at the end (well, maybe they get a donut on the flight home). While I am awestruck by their willingness to wing it in the wild, it also makes me truly appreciate my indoor plumbing, my air conditioning and a big drawer of T-shirts.
Have you watched “Naked & Afraid”? Do you think it’s too dangerous? Would you go on the show?