Ugh. It’s 2014, and I am still writing about survival television shows. Do you know how long it’s been since Survivor premiered on CBS? Fourteen years. Bill Clinton was president, Destiny’s Child ruled the airwaves, and iPods hadn’t been invented yet.
And yet here we are, still churning out and consuming the same low-concept, faux-pragmatic, increasingly cheaply-produced reality shows about surviving this or that imagined wilderness/disaster scenario. You’d think we could have at least ghettoized these things to their own network by now.
Now, I’m old enough to remember a time when there were only two shows on the Weather Channel. One of them featured a plain blue background with white lettering superimposed, the other showed people in shoulder pads standing in front of maps. Both were more entertaining than what I watched last night.
The best thing I can say about So You Think You’d Survive? is that it has a sort of gossamer-thin connection to meteorology that might appeal to the subculture of weirdos who’ve been watching the Weather Channel for fun ever since the blue screen and the shoulder pads.
The premise is simple: While the screen cycles through viral-y iPhone videos of various disasters, an unseen announcer addresses the viewer in the second person, offering multiple-choice options as to how each one might be handled. The scenarios run the gamut from implausible (sinkholes, killer bees) to fairly mundane (snowstorms, downed power lines) to, um, not actually life-threatening (sunburn). Here and there, we cut to some people sitting on stools, people who offer advice and have titles like “Sinkhole Repair Expert” and “Storm Specialist” and “Tire Expert.”
The disaster footage is mildly compelling, the quiz component is bland, and the voiceover is hackneyed (“There you are, trapped in your car, living an electric nightmare!”) The overall effect is like a cross between a half-hearted YouTube jag and the dullest Choose Your Own Adventure book you’ve ever read.
Following it up is Fat Guys in the Woods. This one hits pretty close to home: I live in the woods and I’m eating peanut butter out of a jar with a spoon even while writing this. Still, my first thought upon seeing the three “average Joes” heading into the backcountry for a weeklong survival crash course was, meh, I’ve seen fatter.
One of them was big-boned at best. I’ve already read TV critics describing this show as Man vs. Wild meets The Biggest Loser, but there isn’t actually any weight loss component here. A better name might be Doughy, Well-Meaning Urban Guys in the Woods. Whatever you called it, it would still be dumb.
A man who we’re led to believe has the birth name of Creek Stewart is charged with taking these portly fellows into the Great Smokey Mountains and, you know, making men out of them.
Fat Guys is yet another example of TV’s ongoing schlubification of the American male—no longer confined to sitcoms!—wherein “average” is synonymous with plump, doofy, and inept. Creek, for his part, is a sensitive alpha—he says “bro” a lot, and with his long blond locks and weathered flannel, he looks less like a chiseled Bear Grylls than a reject guitarist from Alice in Chains.
Does Creek teach the chubsters what it means to get by using only their wits and the earth’s abundance? I don’t know, maybe. Who cares? The whole hour-long show is like watching clips from somebody’s mildly challenging camping trip.
You do sort of have to applaud Fat Guys for doing away with the bullshit notion that anyone is actually learning anything from these programs. Creek and his slobs build pine-bough beds, find clean water, and field dress a rabbit that they may or may not have snared (a show-preceding disclaimer leaves room for doubt), but Fat Guys wastes almost no screen time explaining the mechanics of these things.
Indeed, why should it? The number of Weather-Channel faithful who tuned in with any intention of snaring their own rabbit could fit inside a wickiup. Instead, Fat Guys focuses on the intangibles: Brotherly camaraderie, pride in one’s accomplishments, spiritual lessons from Creek (on getting the feels after snaring a rabbit: “It wouldn’t be human if it wasn’t mixed with a little bit of sadness”).
Sure, the fat guys may look the same walking out of those woods, but you’d better believe they’re thinner on the inside.