The best reality-television shows answer hypothetical questions. What happens when ten strangers live in a house together? What if the wealthiest, most glamorous housewives of Beverly Hills (and other metropolitan areas) aren’t actually happy? How long does it take for eight young partyers on the Jersey Shore to start grinding on each other?
For the seemingly limitless number of survival shows—“Naked and Afraid,” “Outlast,” “Race to Survive,” and “Alone”—the question is relatively straightforward: How do people act when all the comforts of modern life are stripped away? All of these shows are variations on “Survivor,” the longest-running reality show, which will soon begin its forty-fifth season, but they have metastasized into something more intense. “Survivor” has always presented itself as a psychological game, and the wilderness part is mostly a vehicle for interpersonal drama. The new breed of survival programming takes the nature part much more seriously, and combines the last-man-standing structure of “Survivor” with the wilderness bravado of Bear Grylls’s shows.
“Alone,” a History Channel show that recently finished its tenth season, features ten contestants who spend up to a hundred days in complete and brutal solitude, and film themselves the entire time. At the start of each season, the hopefuls get dropped off in one wilderness area with camera equipment and some survival items that they’ve selected: a hatchet to chop wood, a ferro rod to start fires, a bow for hunting. The contestants are all stationed in the same place, but they’re all separated from one another by water or an impassable landmass. Whoever lasts the longest without calling for the rescue team wins half a million dollars.
The result feels like what would happen if you set hundreds of hours of survivalist vlogs to a soundtrack of Werner Herzog’s rants about the indifference of the wilderness. (My favorite Herzogism: “Nature here is vile. . . . I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away.”) Here, nature provides—in the form of fish, grouse, edible moss, and mice—but it does so sparingly and almost randomly. As the contestants devolve into hunger and desolation, their monologues to the camera begin to sound beleaguered and even hateful. The camera proves to be as uncaring as the wilderness itself.
The self-recorded element of “Alone” is its real innovation. By eliminating camera crews, which, in survival shows, immediately raise the question of whether contestants are being helped, “Alone” gives us a front-row seat to the breakdown of the human spirit, in ways that are both edifying and brutal. The show has the spooky, almost illicit intimacy of “The Blair Witch Project” paired with the frank earnestness of a D.I.Y. YouTuber documenting the process of building a log cabin. We see our heroes fish, we watch them shoot grouse thanks to GoPro cameras cleverly affixed to their bows, we watch them fall over and get injured. They park their bodies in front of a tripod and talk to the camera about loneliness and their regrets in life. A branch snapping off-camera might jolt the contestant out of their maudlin reverie. Could this be the moose that will sustain them for the rest of the winter?
Through this lens, the beauty of nature quickly gives way to malevolence. The show is shot in some of the most majestic, untamed places on earth, but after the first episodes the stunning vistas give way to a procession of short, stubby conifers, broken alders, sun-bleached rocks, and thick, impenetrable brush. Lakes quickly turn into barren puddles filled with giardia; forest floors become plant morgues; tree roots become tripping hazards. The snow always looks like death cement. The first two seasons were shot in a forest on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia. I spent a year of my twenties in the Pacific Northwest and worked among the same trees, salal, berries, and sword ferns. Those forests always felt a bit eerie to me, as if some damp, unfathomable energy were running from cedar to alder to Douglas fir. In “Alone,” that same setting looks like a tangle of death, where no food can be extracted, no shelter can keep you dry, and predators roam freely around your camp.
The contestants on “Alone” spend much of their time in their sleeping bags, especially once the winter snows arrive. These scenes are shot with nighttime camera settings, which make every tightly framed shot look spectral, as if the subjects were sitting in a haunted confessional booth. During these moments, they invariably talk about the families they left behind. In the show’s most recent season, a father with an autistic son spends his time in his tent whittling toys for the boy’s upcoming fifth birthday. He reflects in a deadpan Georgia drawl on his own difficult childhood, and reveals the reason that he is subjecting himself to subfreezing temperatures and starvation: he hopes the money will help pay for his son’s therapy, and free him up to spend less time at his job and more time with his wife and child.
These stories point to the show’s moral center: family over everything, self-improvement, and humility before nature. With a few exceptions, macho men have a particularly hard time on “Alone,” and although I’d stop short of saying that the show is feminist, the producers and editors do seem to relish in cutting the most annoying survivalists down to size. The men who announce in the first episode that they will be hunting moose and bears almost always go home early in a helicopter; those who decide to build a palatial shelter usually burn themselves out within a couple of weeks. Humbler contestants like the ninth season’s Karie Lee Knoke, who spent most of her time making fruit leather, or even Alan Kay, who won the inaugural season with a diet of seaweed and slugs, tend to fare better than the hunters and the mansion-builders—both with keeping an adequate food supply and, more crucially, with tolerating both the boredom and pain of slow starvation.
“Alone” follows Herzog’s line of thinking: we cannot dominate nature; we can only humbly ask it not to kill us. The show is profoundly skeptical of the romantic, Tolstoyan rhapsodies that drove Christopher McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” toward the Alaskan wilderness that ultimately claimed his life. (Each episode of “Alone” begins with an epigraph, one of which comes from McCandless: “The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.”) When we see bears—and there are a lot of them—we see them as Herzog did in his documentary “Grizzly Man”: clumsy, powerful, and thoroughly unmoved by human suffering. Nearly all of the contestants on “Alone” show a McCandless-like naïveté. At the start of the season, they tell stories about finding themselves in the woods or connecting with their fathers on hunting trips. Then we watch as nature beats them down.