Introducing you to ‘Naked and Afraid’

Image: Discovery. 

Only TV execs working against a global torrenting epidemic could come up with a premise for a TV show that makes The Hunger Games look like a pensive park stroll.

Naked and Afraid is a confronting new reality program that recently premiered in the US on the Discovery channel, and describes itself as “the Everest of survival challenges”. The unambiguously titled show, which has been signed on for six episodes, is essentially a hybrid of Survivor, Castaway, Into the Wild and The Hunger Games. Aspects of these juggernauts are mashed into highly compelling, stand alone episodes. Two strangers – one man and one woman – are dumped in “the world’s harshest environments” sans supplies, shelter, food and – point of difference – clothing. They are filmed by presumably clad, fed and housed cameramen and producers who, the audience are assured, will only “intervene” if the contestants are basically about to die.

The inaugural episode opens with an anecdote that reads like a forewarning: the show’s Executive Producer suffered a life-threatening snake-bite while exploring the Costa Rican Forest – the arena, if you will – for the first episode. Audiences are privy to graphic close-ups of his swollen foot pre-operation and a hideously contorted post-surgery shot of a bone-baring lower leg. “I’m lucky to be alive,” he reflects, while an omnipresent voiceover says the show’s first two contestants were given the chance to opt out of what looks like an excruciating, unbearable and potentially dangerous... experience.  

They don’t.

The premier episode pairs 40-year-old Shane with 22-year-old Kim. As the two meet Kim giggles “should we talk about the fact that we’re both naked? Maybe check each other out now?” They spin around, show off their respective appendages and Shane assures the audience in a piece to camera that he doesn’t “have a problem being naked.” There is zero sexual tension. In fact the whole scenario has about as much sex appeal as a dying slug.

This is partly because Shane explicitly has no patience for the Lena Dunham demographic (he hates “the younger generation” even though he desperately craves Kim’s attention and affirmation – “she hasn’t spent one second trying to learn anything about me”) and also because the only thing Kim seems to notice about her partner is that he “talks a lot.”  

As the episode goes on, you learn that Shane, a man who grew up in foster care, has little time for other people. “These are the days I’m glad I have no parents, no wife and no kids, because if I die, no one gives a sh*t about me.” It should be sad, but the burgeoning threats of spider monkeys and hypothermia serve as adequate distractions. In some ways, Shane is reality TV’s answer to an early Chrisopher  McCandless, only aside from deploring credit cards he also hates women: “Women aren’t natural hunters. They’re pussies.” Maybe he should’ve been partnered with Kellie, who stars in a later episode and uses her lady bits as fish bait. (FYI she succeeds.)

What makes the show most compelling, though, is not its nudity (“You’d think that after 42 minutes of it, you’d become desensitized to seeing the butts. But you don’t. You just don’t.”) or the nail-biting scenarios that mix tragedy and comedy (Shane, in all his unclothed glory, has to kill a deadly snake while his pixelated member is offered all the protection of a few, flimsy leaves).

It’s the fact that the show has no (heavily sponsored) prize pack at the end. The only thing the contestants win – aside from their 42 minutes of fame – is the joy of, well, life. They fact that contestants don't die solicits congratulations. 

In a recent Salon article, Charlotte Shane writes, “for all the hand-wringing over the presumed depravity of “Naked and Afraid’s” viewers, there’s been little recognition of the show’s sweeter qualities. Partners aid one another, forgive and cooperate without fail, even if the goodwill comes in fits and starts, punctuated as it is by exhaustion, starvation and extreme discomfort. “You’ve got this, you’ve got this!” team members shout at one another while they try to start fires, fish and hunt. And get it they do. We’re lucky to watch their triumphs.”

When only one a car, a single apprentice position or a Harper’s Bazaar cover shoot is a show’s definitive marker of ‘success’, participants pit themselves against one another in story arcs centered on catfighting and play-offs. Naked and Afraid – for all its promised titillation – delivers a new dynamic to an audience jaded by staged rivalry: cooperation. And when they work together, the odds are indeed in their favour.

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