The exploitative element of Discovery Channel’s new survival show “Naked and Afraid” shouldn’t comes as much of a surprise to viewers. It’s right there in the title. The surprise, rather, is the addictive nature of the seemingly familiar material.
Cable TV is no stranger to survival shows, having hosted iterations of “Survivorman” with Les Stroud and “Man vs. Wild” with Bear Grylls for the better part of a decade. But “Naked and Afraid” takes the concept to its logical (?) extreme. The concept is simple: Two self-styled survivalists, one male and one female, volunteer to spend 21 days in the wild with basically nothing. They’re allowed to take one “personal” item (most choose a machete or similarly helpful tool), but other than that, they’re not even permitted to keep the clothes on their backs. So there you have it: One naked guy and one naked girl getting sunburned and looking for grubs to eat.
The nudity angle (blurred, of course, even in the “Uncensored” version) loses its appeal quickly. Spend enough time at Walmart and you’ll realize how little of humanity you really want to see in the buff. Even under the best of circumstances, nudity loses its titillation value rather quickly. In the case of “Naked and Afraid,” the muddy, scraped-up, sunburned, bug-bitten survivors aren’t going to provide viewers with sexy good times. Instead the show simply reminds us how fragile the human body is. Almost every show features a major foot injury, a bounty of delightful tropical rashes and more dysentery than you can shake a stick at (because, frankly, a stick is all you’ve got in this show).
The enjoyment you get from watching “Naked and Afraid” is the philosophical “I wonder if I could do this?” angle paired with the shameful joy of seeing idiots who aren’t you screw up their lives. “This isn’t worth cutting my feet over,” says the woman perched on a razor-sharp coral reef looking for fish. “Ow, I cut my foot,” says the man, barely missing a comedic beat. The couples on “Naked and Afraid” are paired with the surgical precision of a “Wife Swap” episode. Of course they hate each other. Of course the women look tough compared to the dopey, ineffectual men (a likely result of dramatic editing as much as natural inclination). How will these mismatched Adams and Eves ever secure shelter, build a fire, catch food, find water, make clothing and otherwise survive three weeks in the African bush or the Costa Rican rainforest or some deserted island somewhere in the South Pacific?
“By the skin of their teeth” is the most likely answer. At the end of 21 days, participants are starving, bedraggled, wounded and still mostly naked. Along the way, we get to laugh at their stupidity (this idiot brought a pair of swim goggles as his personal item?), marvel at their prejudices (“Women aren’t natural hunters,” grunts one caveman. “They’re pussies”) and revel in their triumphs (damned if they didn’t get a fire started by rubbing two sticks together). The ultimate lesson of the show isn’t a bad one: Naked, afraid, stupid and dumped into the middle of nowhere, chances are we humans can triumph over adversity, work together and come out alive.