The Naked Truth

As Discovery’s most notorious show prepares to return, we ask ourselves: Is it okay to be entertained by exploitation if we acknowledge we’re being manipulated?

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One man and one woman, forced to survive
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The day after the season one finale of Naked and Afraid premiered on August 3rd, I went to brunch with my in-laws at a deli in Bethesda, the kind of place that serves toppling smoked meat sandwiches and omelets the size of handbags. When the subject of the Discovery Channel’s hit reality series came up, I felt a brief surge of excitement as I hovered over my sausage and eggs. Naked and Afraid — a show in which one man and one woman are stranded nude in hostile wilderness without food or water for 21 days — was my guilty pleasure of the summer, and I wanted desperately to talk with someone who understood how wonderful and ridiculous and shameful it was to be hooked on such over-the-top reality fare.

But this was my husband’s family, including his brother, a video journalist who won an Edward R. Murrow award for his work in Afghanistan. My brother-in-law has nothing to do with reality television personally or professionally, swears it’s destroying the industry and turning us all into drooling idiots. He was the one who brought up the subject in that eye-rolling, “look what they’re up to now” fashion. So I grimaced, pushing my greasy food around on my plate.

“I watched that show,” I admitted. “All seven episodes. But, you know, purely for professional reasons.”

It’s how I justify all of my uglier viewing habits. Over the years I’ve watched everything from the 2004 makeover show The Swan, in which normal-looking women undergo radical plastic surgery and then compete in a freakish beauty pageant, to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, that grotesque excuse to mock the taste level and dietary habits of the working poor in rural Georgia. I teach a college pop culture seminar, and I like to write about pop culture, which gives me a handy excuse to indulge in reality dreck ad infinitum.

Shows are always upping the ante — increasing the shock factor, finding new ways to traffic in the risqué, the humiliating, the dangerous and disgusting. The more morally questionable a show is, the more likely I am to tune in on the excuse that anything this excessive has to be examined. I do like to think about how, in affording us the pleasure of judging real people in stressful and potentially humiliating situations, these shows palliate us — situating us comfortably in our own realities, reaffirming our cultural norms and making us more satisfied with our own lot in life. But of course my interest is not just intellectual. I’m as rabid a consumer as anyone, and shows like Naked and Afraid that push the boundaries of ethics and decency are on some primal level just a really, really good time.

Obviously I’m not alone here. 4.15 million viewers tuned in for the series premier of Naked and Afraid. The finale was the number one original cable show among women and men ages 25-54; a new two-hour special episode is set to air on December 8. The success of the first season isn’t surprising considering the provocative premise: a man and a woman who have never met, forced to partner up for survival and companionship without one stitch of clothing other than what they can find or make. They have to sleep in close quarters, in makeshift shelters, perhaps huddled together for warmth. They are survivalists, so most likely superior physical specimens who should make for pleasant TV viewing as they bathe in streams and lagoons, haul wood and tend fire and thrust handmade spears into the vitals of wild animals.

But Naked and Afraid turns out not to be particularly sexy. Those of us who tuned in for the nudity probably stuck around for something more troubling: The experience of seeing people at their most vulnerable under constant risk of bodily harm. It’s cringe-worthy, all that unprotected human flesh exposed to every threat imaginable, from sand flies and leeches to caimans and pit vipers.

“We’re just warm, pink, soft bodies,” Billy Berger complains in episode six as he slogs crotch-deep through the Louisiana bayou. “Everything … wants to take a bite of us.” Pinkness does appear to be a distinct disadvantage on this show. In episode three, filmed on a sun-scorched scrap of land in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Jonathan Klay burns brick red and spends days lying in the sand and moaning. His partner Alison Teal fairs better, suffering only debilitating menstrual cramps and the standard starvation and dehydration routine. I feel for Teal — two days of crippling dysmenorrhea would have me out of the game for sure — but all in all she does well in the Maldives compared to cast members in other episodes. E.J. Snyder steps on an acacia thorn in Tanzania and gets a gruesome infection in the sole of his foot — we see a stomach-churning close-up of the medics slitting the wound and draining the suppuration while he screams his head off. Laura is covered head to toe in sand fly bites, her entire body miserably swollen. Billy and Ky get trench foot. Kim falls deathly ill from bad turtle meat. Puma drinks contaminated water and is carted away on a stretcher. It’s like a live action version of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies, so macabre it’s hard to believe all of this is really being served up as entertainment.

The worst fate of all is suffered by one of the show’s producers, Steve Rankin, bitten by a fer-de-lance pit viper in Costa Rica while scoping out film sites for episode one. After the snake strikes clean through Rankin’s hiking boot, the crew makes a two-hour trek through the jungle and eventually gets him to the hospital, where his corrupted flesh is removed surgically, exposing a gaping swath of muscle and bone from the top of his toes to just above his ankle. It’s no accident that Rankin’s story is featured in the series premier, right before Kim Shelton and Shane Lewis head off into the rain forest without so much as a cellophane baggie for protection. Nothing quite as dramatic as a venomous snakebite befalls any of the cast all season long, but the threat is always there, palpable and thrilling. It keeps us watching the same way some of us watch televised figure skating, gripped by the possibility of someone falling during a triple axel. We don’t really want it to happen, but when it does, the rush is undeniable.

Watching a show like Naked and Afraid is always an exercise in doublethink for me. Part of me is the eager consumer. I’m enjoying the hell out of every insect bite and burrowing leach, judging the hell out of every cocky dude who thinks he can drink the water without boiling or filtering it and then gets laid low by infection. I’m rooting for certain cast members — usually the women, who are typically underestimated and bullied by their assertive partners — and experiencing deep satisfaction when other characters get dealt a humbling blow.

At the same time, I watch with the eye of a critic who fancies herself too smart to be fooled by the Discovery Channel’s duplicitous rhetoric. Sure, I’m judging the cast — reality viewing is almost always about cheering certain people on and gleefully despising others — but I’m also judging the show itself, an exercise every bit as satisfying. I note, for instance, the Discovery Channel’s attempt to make orchestrated suffering seem educational — how the announcer cuts away from the action to offer vital tidbits about bow drills or fish traps or the devastating effects of dehydration and hypothermia, in essence tricking us into thinking we somehow better ourselves by watching.

My critical self is well aware that reality episodes are crafted to provoke a reaction, that they are not reality at all but a fabrication drawn from the raw material of the real. In Episode 4, “Punishment in Panama,” survival instructor and country western singer/songwriter Clint Jivoin is clearly cast as the buffoon, with his extra girth and his fear of the ocean and his tendency to stalk off down the beach in frustration, leaving his tough, competent female counterpart, Laura, to make fire alone. These episodes are culled from hundreds of hours of footage, and the editors choose just the right moments to make Clint seem absurd — highlighting, for instance, his fear of snakes and bats and big old spiders. I know I’m being taken in by this, my responses finessed, but my awareness of the show’s technique somehow makes that okay. Understanding that Clint may actually be more competent and Laura meaner and crabbier than the show lets on doesn’t keep me from rooting for Laura, and rooting for Laura doesn’t keep me from feeling that I understand how cunningly this show is crafted, that I am therefore nobody’s patsy.

Viewing reality TV as both credulous consumer and critic isn’t uncommon. Plenty of us get as much pleasure out of pulling a show apart limb by limb as we do out of engaging with the storyline. Years ago, when I first got hooked on CBS’s Survivor, I would hang out on discussion boards where fans were trying to guess which contestant would be voted off next. Partly these guesses were based on knowledge of the contestants and their strategies. Just as often, however, fans assumed executive producer Mark Burnett had some master plan for paring 39 days worth of round-the-clock footage into a compelling narrative designed to keep us guessing, and they placed their bets accordingly. Perhaps Burnett was doing something to throw us off the scent — keeping a contestant in the background, for instance, failing to highlight her story so that we wouldn’t realize she was slated for a win. Perhaps he was showcasing conflicts between cast members that weren’t as important in the long run as he was making them out to be. Some of us even thought he might be dropping subtle hints about the winner, planting little images for the clever viewer to unmask. Richard Hatch, notorious winner of Survivor Borneo, was rumored to have been featured in silhouette in the show’s intro, standing on a cliff with spear in hand. This, apparently, was supposed to have foreshadowed his win. I recently took a look at the intro to the first season of Survivor and frankly, that standing figure looks nothing like Hatch, but no matter. Point is that some of us believed it, and even those who didn’t saw Burnett as a master craftsman whose mission it was to manipulate viewers with sly editing. This kind of interactivity was all part of the fun. Our critical muscle kept us tuned in just as much as our emotional involvement with the cast did.

Like Survivor, Naked and Afraid showcases humiliation. It takes those familiar Survivor features of hunger and fear and exposed skin and multiplies them tenfold, upping the danger and increasing the ick factor. Critical engagement with a show like this often serves as a handy excuse for lowbrow gratification. If I understand that I’m being drawn in by the suffering of consenting adults, suckered into rooting for one cast member over another, won over by the classic reality TV formula of people with contrary personalities thrown together in high stress situations — if I acknowledge the methods that have their way with me even as I’m being had, does that make it okay?

I don’t suppose it does. But even knowing this probably won’t keep me from tuning in for season two. • 29 November 2013

Essays and stories by Joan Marcus appear in The Sun, Fourth Genre, The Georgia Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review. She lives and teaches in Ithaca, New York.
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