Say it Ain’t So!

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.

And later:

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.

Comments

  1. #1 David D.G.
    July 24, 2007

    (*GASP!*)

    Good grief! Next thing you know, they’ll be telling us that wrestling is fake, too!

    The horror! The horror!

    ~David D.G.

  2. #2 Garrett
    July 24, 2007

    Survivorman is your answer.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 24, 2007

    Garrett-

    I’ve watched Survivorman, and I like that show too. But I found Grylls a little more engaging and his commentary a little more interesting.

    David D. G.-

    Wrestling is not fake!

  4. #4 Chris Harrison
    July 24, 2007

    Bah. If anyone attempted half the crap Grylls does, they’d kill themselves.
    Les Stroud (survivorman) might not be as exciting as Bear, but I’ll happily take reality over Bear’s antics any day. Survivorman’s new season is starting in a couple of weeks too.

  5. #5 Callandor
    July 24, 2007

    Yeah, Survivorman was a far better show for actual realism of survival situations, and even they took a few liberties in such instances as safety precautions (gun in the Arctic and taking Les out of his ocean survival trip, are two that come to mind).

    The Man vs. Wild is engaging, but right when I first saw it I knew it couldn’t all be real having seen Survivorman first. The fact that there is a camera crew following him around brings way too many instances for “cheating.” Simple human empathy when the host hasn’t found anything to eat in 4 days, while the crew follows him around having been fed and watered — that’d bring you down.

    But, it is fun to still see some of the techniques, even if it is faked or helped in instances.

  6. #6 cephyn
    July 24, 2007

    What I like about MvW is that because there’s a cameraman there, Bear can take some bigger risks and show you some more dangerous (but useful in a survival situation) techniques.

    I am sad about Bear taking shortcuts though, if true. But it’s to be expected, I guess.

    Now Les on Survivorman? That dude is nuts. Hardcore. And seems to be all real – he really is out there alone for 7 days. Insane.

    And I love it. I respect Bear too, but maybe a little less now…

  7. #7 Jonathan Vause
    July 24, 2007

    C’mon. Anyone who jumps naked into an ice covered lake, waits until he’s on the verge of losing consciousness before dragging himself out and rubbing down with powdered snow to dry off, just so I can sit on the sofa and laugh at him, is perfectly entitled to go spend the night in a hotel as far as I’m concerned.

  8. #8 Leni
    July 24, 2007

    Way to ruin everything Jason. i just discovered this show yesterday. I had no time to enjoy the illusion! (Too cheap to pay for cable. Saw it at a friend’s for the the first time Monday.)

    It’s ok though. I consider them educational, not reality tv shows. So it’s disappointing but I still think he’s cute. I uh, I mean I still like the show.

    I’ve only seen the Scottish Highlands and the Outback episodes. It was really interesting, but now I feel myself wondering if he really was drinking his own pee. (I thought you weren’t supposed to do that???!)

    I also noticed a couple of fishy things. (The tree across the river in the Highlands episode? That was just way too convenient to be real. At the very least they found the tree and then filmed the segment.)

  9. #9 Leni
    July 24, 2007

    Oh, and as for him being so knowledgeable about the environments… I just assumed that was because he researched them first, which I though would be a sensible thing to do.

    But tourists don’t usually know the intricacies of the environments they’re lost in, do they? They are notoriously bad researchers, these tourists. And not one of them ever carries things like flints around. Who even owns such an object? I may buy one now, though. Just to be on the safe side.

  10. #10 Tyler DiPietro
    July 25, 2007

    I don’t see why people have to maintain illusions to be entertained by a show. Speaking of wrestling, I actually do watch import DVD’s of Japanese promotions like Z1MAX and All Japan Pro, mostly because I appreciate the stuns and acrobatics they pull off. It’s “fake” (or, to use euphemisms popular with wrestlings fans, “worked” or “staged”), but entertaining nonetheless if you know what you’re watching IMO.

    I feel the same way about a minority of reality shows. And the same way about shows like NUMB3RS, which have a lot of technical goof-ups but are still entertaining to math geeks.

  11. #11 hoary puccoon
    July 25, 2007

    Is anyone else here thinking of Steve Irwin? How much reality do we need? I’d rather know it’s faked and that the host will still be around for next weeks’s episode.

  12. #12 Russ
    July 25, 2007

    A buddy of mine, who is a survivalist, had a good chuckle out of one of these shows (I can’t remember which one). The episode he was watching had the host snowshoing through deep snow. He had been told by a native tracker to make sure he didn’t sweat and soak himself. So the host was taking breaks every twenty meters or so to cool down. My buddy’s solution would have been to take off some clothing…

    My friend did like the show for its general knowledge, but says it doesn’t go in depth enough to survive for extended periods of time in those locales. To do that, you need to learn from a specialist, not a generalist.

  13. #13 Ginger Yellow
    July 25, 2007

    ” The whole point is that he is going to show us what we need to do to survive and escape from the wild. ”

    Bollocks. The whole point is vicarious thrill seeking. He’s called Bear Grylls for God’s sake. Of course it’s made up.

  14. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 25, 2007

    Tyler-

    I think it depends on the show. I really like House even though I know it is medically unrealistic in many ways. But House doesn’t present itself as a medical documentary, and many of the liberties they take are clearly justified by the need to tell a good story.

    But a large part of the appeal of a show like Man vs. Wild is its realism. He’s not going to just show us things we can do if we get lost in the jungle, he’s actually going to put himself in that situation and demonstrate that he knows what he is talking about. There is something inspiring in seeing him survive for several days in a hostile environment and emerge in good health at the end of it. But it is only inspiring if it is real.

  15. #15 DuWayne
    July 25, 2007

    Leni -

    And not one of them ever carries things like flints around. Who even owns such an object?

    Ding ding ding. .That would be me. When I go on “adventuresome” hikes, i.e. requires a permit to go off the trails sort of hiking trip, I take a framepack with a steel crossbar, that contains a flint and tinder (actually sealed in the crossbar, with reusable wax). I also take a fairly comprehensive first aid kit, a few MRE’s, emergency mylar blanket, a laminated reference pad of local edibles (I’ve only been here in OR for two years), a knife with another flint and tinder sealed in the handle (in case I lose my pack) and a sat phone with GPS and a hand crank. The phone, alas, is not my own, I borrow it from a friend who spends more than half his time out in the wilderness, as a wilderness guide and sub-contractor for the parks service, clearing trails and doing search and rescue.

    I honestly couldn’t imagine trying to be out there for more than a few days at a time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of fun, living off native plants, grubs and the occasional frogs or small game, knowing I can still do it. But after the second or third night, I am all about getting in a hot tub and soaking away the pain. What’s really sad, is that I am only 31. The friend that I borrow the sat phone from, will be fifty next year and while he makes a fair use of the many hot springs around here, I doubt he’s ever stepped foot into a man-made hot tub.

    Almost forgot the twine, I take a lot of twine and a couple army surplus wool blankets. There is a lot of stuff one can make with twine, blankets and tree branches – I daresay I wouldn’t want to attempt a raft though. I should also note that I only do this a couple of times a year, cause deep down, I’m a wimp

    Tyler -

    My partner and I just finished seasons one and two of Numb3rs on DVD from the library. On one of the commentaries, “Charlie” explained that while he tries to put up the equations the math consultants feed him, it’s really hard to do that and get through the dialog, so quite often what gets put on the boards, bares little resemblance to the actual equations.

  16. #16 KeithB
    July 25, 2007

    The best two shows I have seen like this were both for PBS.

    One showed a guy who lived alone in the Alaskan wilderness for years. He filmed himself making his cabin, furniture and most of his food. Really interesting.

    The other was about 3 men who took different routes through the Australian Outback. They went for several weeks, surviving on what they could find. They were followed by film crews, but given the deterioration evident in the men, they did not get much help!

  17. #17 Dave S.
    July 25, 2007

    Me, I like Mantracker. My wife hates Les Stroud, although I like him well enough.

  18. #18 changhco
    July 27, 2007

    Unlike ‘Survivorman’, I always suspeced ‘Man vs. Wild’ because there are all these cameramen following Bear Grylls around…

  19. #19 travc
    August 8, 2007

    Never actually watch Man vs Wild because the promos made it look like a slicker (and more highly produced) version of Survivorman.

    Les Stroud, while admittedly not the greatest of presenters, makes Survivorman a quite enjoyable show IMO. It is self-filmed and he actually reveals pretty much all the “behind the scenes” stuff involved at various points. The “scenarios” leaving him with plausible bits of equipment (and/or junk) to utilize are also a plus. He is also quite a clever fellow.

    If you have never seen Survivorman, give it a watch and see if it is your cup of tea.

  20. #20 David D.G.
    August 8, 2007

    Meh. Amateurs and fakes, all of ‘em.

    Now Acorn the Nature Nut — THERE is a real outdoorsman!

    ;^D

    ~David D.G.