Discovery Channel, never shy about milking a successful concept (“Deadliest Catch” and “Lobstermen”?), is airing competing survival shows “Man vs. Nature” and “Survivorman.” Both feature manly men dumped into the middle of nowhere with nothing but their survival skills to keep them alive. But which of these two shows is the true survivor?
“Man vs. Wild,” is the newbie, having premiered in November on Discovery Channel and England’s Channel 4. Host Bear Grylls wins in the “manly name” competition, but his show has a few handicaps. The charismatic Grylls is a former member of England’s Special Air Service and has made a name for himself as a mountaineer, adventurer, author and Christian motivational speaker. He seems quite gung ho about his adventures and is probably best known for chowing down on gross stuff. In his first two seasons, he’s snacked on giant grubs and chugged the fluid from elephant dung. Grylls clearly reads up on the areas in which he’s being stranded (everywhere from the African Savanna to Mexico’s Copper Canyon) and spends most of the show regurgitating info about edible plants, local legends and area-specific survival techniques. It’s educational, but comes across like rote memorization.
Grylls has been criticized for using a large camera crew (which he swears are flown out every night) and for “simulating” some of the dangers he faces. Commercial floatation devices have been used in river sequences, divers were employed to fend off sharks during the “desert island” episode, Rarámuri Indians served as guides throughout the Copper Canyon sequence and crew members used smoke machines to imply Grylls was braving a red-hot volcano in Hawaii. In other words: Grylls talks a good talk, but he may be sleeping at the Best Western at night.
Les Stroud, on the other hand, roughs it for real. He takes no crew with him and films his entire show himself (which looks less slick, but far more realistic). “Survivorman” is basically a spin-off of a five-part series Stroud shot for Canadian TV in 2004 called “Stranded.” Although he’s covered much of the same territory as Grylls (Georgia swamp, African desert), Stroud’s shows start with a more specific survival situation (a plane crash in Ontario, a 4x4 running out of gas in the Kalahari). Stroud often cannibalizes what he’s got (bits of plane, hunks of bicycle) to help him get out alive. Aside from the physical challenges, Stroud battles some serious psychological ones. It can get pretty scary out there in the woods at night—especially when the local wildlife wants to eat you. If Stroud can’t make it to civilization in seven days, his producers come searching for him. Invariably, he ends up looking tired, starved and half-dead by the end of his week in the wilderness.
While both shows are entertaining and educational, Grylls seems more like a well-read tourist. If I were stuck on a leaky liferaft in the middle of the ocean, Stroud is the guy I’d want sitting next to me.