Why ‘Naked and Afraid’ is the toughest reality TV show out there

03.17.14 5 years ago 30 Comments

If you ever find yourself watching “Survivor” and rolling your eyes at the general whininess of the contestants, try tuning in to Discovery's “Naked and Afraid” (Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET). You will not find the survivalists on this show whiny. Crazy, maybe, but not whiny. Never, ever whiny.

No, “Naked and Afraid” asks theoretically sane people to survive in perilous conditions without food, water, shelter, or clothes for 21 days. Oh, wait, they get one personal item. No one ever brings shoes for some reason, but they need them. Of course, they need lots of things, like fire starters and machetes, which they do sometimes bring. God, they need so much stuff. Man, just thinking about it is stressing me out. 

The second season started this Sunday, and it made me wonder if this show is skirting a little too close to being a mission impossible or, worse, featuring a fatality. Our first two contestants seemed to be made of tough stuff, after all. A.K. is a mother of three who teaches people how to live off the land, and Tyler survived a stint in Afghanistan.

The Amazon jungle challenge is supposed to last 21 days. A.K. makes it four. Tyler suffers through five. 

Tapping out is always an option, but I'm fairly sure no one was expecting both players to duck out so quickly — a series first. The mosquitos were so nasty neither A.K. or Tyler could sleep, and their bodies were so completely covered in bites A.K. moaned that they were attacking her va-jay-jay. I didn't blame them for backing out. I'm sure when most people imagine what it would be like to play Adam and Eve in the wilderness, they don't take into consideration hungry insects eating the alive from the outside in. 

One week later, two previous contestants — E.J. (who survived Tanzania) and Laura (who tackled Panama) — take a second go at tackling the challenge. They're obviously experienced and know what to expect, but that almost don't make it through — and this is the All-Star team. While they manage to find solutions to the big problems that took down A.K. and Tyler, they don't find food until Day 14 (no shocker that E.J. loses 44 pounds in less than a month) and, after building a fantastic raft, very nearly get bogged down in the river's overgrowth. 

As insanely difficult as this show is, as dangerous as some of these challenges appear to be, I can't deny that it makes for edge-of-your-seat television. More significantly, the show has made some savvy decisions that have kept it from devolving into trash TV.

No money or prizes are at stake, meaning that the motivations for anyone appearing on this show are largely internal. Working together is critical to survival, and while some pairs quibble, they either get over it quickly or become too consumed by hunger to argue for long. The nudity may spur people to tune in, but it's hardly sexualized — everything is blurred, and it's more about stripping these competitors of their resources than shaming them or making them focus on private parts. When the reality of needing water and shelter and food almost immediately sinks in, even the ones who might want to flirt get focused. 

We all wonder if, when pressed to the limit, if we might find inner reserves of strength, a moral fortitude pressing us to do the right thing. We wonder if, on the brink of starvation or dehydration, we'd share the only available food or potable water we'd seen for days. What's impressive and what makes this show so watchable is how often these people do exactly that. This isn't trash TV. It's thought provoking and, yes, sometimes inspirational. 

At the end of the show, each contestant gets a PSR — Primitive Survival Rating. Playing well with others is part of it. As it should be. Now if they can just keep from getting anyone killed…

Are you watching “Naked and Afraid”? Do you think this season is going to be tougher? Do you think you could make it 21 days in the wild? 

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