Have you seen that show Man vs. Wild on the Discovery Channel? I first saw it a few months ago and was hooked after one episode. I quickly placed it in the pantheon of all-time great non-fiction series, right alongside Good Eats and Mythbusters.
In each episode former British Special Forces soldier Bear Grylls gets dumped into the middle of some uninviting wilderness; the Amazon jungle one week, the Australian Outback the next; armed with only a water bottle, a knife and a flint. He begins each episode by telling us about all the tourists who get lost in these areas and need rescue, and by saying that he’s going to show us the skills we need to survive in such a situation. He subsequently survives for several days, building makeshift shelters to protect himself during the night, showing us various hunting and fishing techniques, telling us where to find water in the desert, and distinguishing among those plants and insects that are safe to eat from those that are not, all the while working his way back to civilization. A camera crew follows him but does not aid him in any way. Or so we’re told.
The show’s interest comes partly from the frequently ingenious survival tips he comes up with, and partly from his engaging commentary. You find yourself narrating whatever mundane task you are doing after watching the show in Grylls’ style, and suddenly brushing your teeth or making a snack seems like the most exciting thing in the world.
Watching the show does leave you with a few nagging doubts. Surely some of it must be staged. His adventures have to be edited into an enjoyable one-hour show, after all, which means there have to be enough dramatic moments for a whole episode. You can’t leave that sort of thing to chance. And then there’s the fact that he always seems to find just what he needs lying around to come up with some brilliant, MacGyverish solution to whatever problem he is facing. He also seems to know so much about the environments in which he finds himself. Finally, there is the undeniable fact that for all the physical challenges he faces in each episode, the camera crew seems to have little trouble following him around.
Still, though I kind of suspected the show wasn’t entirely on the up and up, I was disappointed to read this report from Reuters:
Discovery Channel is re-evaluating one of its most popular series, “Man vs. Wild,” after allegations surfaced that its survival-expert host was bunking in motels when he was supposed to be braving the great outdoors.
The network issued a statement Monday in response to an investigation launched by British television network Channel 4, which carries the program under the title “Born Survivor: Bear Grylls.” Channel 4 confirmed that host Bear Grylls had partaken of indoor accommodations on at least two occasions when his series had depicted him spending the night in the wild.
In each episode of the series, Grylls is airlifted into the wilderness with only a few tools to aid in his survival, such as a flint or water bottle. A former British special forces soldier, Grylls is typically depicted as subsisting for several days without intervention or interruption while cameramen follow him offscreen. He has been stranded all over the globe, including Utah’s Moab desert and the Costa Rican rain forest.
But among the charges made against Grylls is that a raft he is depicted as having built himself actually was constructed and then disassembled by consultants to the show in order for the host to put it together. In another episode, Grylls happens upon what are referred to as wild horses that were said to be brought in from a trekking station.
I saw both of those episodes. I remember thinking that his raft looked awfully sophisticated for something he just slapped together, and I was also puzzled that a wild horse would let him get so close.
The trouble is you really can’t just chalk this up to dramatic license for the purpose of making a good show. The whole point is that he is going to show us what we need to do to survive and escape from the wild. Spending the night in a motel is not an option for someone lost in the Amazon. They might as well just film the whole thing on a soundstage in Holllywood.
I’ll probably still watch the show, but I definitely will not enjoy it as much. It’s not that I anticipate spending some time in the Amazon, and now worry that I won’t actually be able to apply his techniques. I just like knowing how to do things, even if they are things I do not expect to ever do myself. Likewise, I probably will never make half the recipes I see Alton Brown doing on Good Eats, but I still like knowing how it’s done. If it’s revealed that actually his cakes don’t rise and his beef tastes like sawdust, I’ll be similarly disappointed.
I guess there really is no such thing as reality television.