‘Alone’ Is Reality TV. But Is It Real?
Another contestant heads home early after the reality show throws viewers a few curveballs
The producers of Alone love to throw their audiences a good curveball.
(Spoilers ahead.) The fifth and sixth episodes of the survival reality show’s ninth season contained a handful of narrative ruses. In episode six, contestant Teimojin Tan, 31, a doctor from Montreal, climbed high into a rickety pine tree to retrieve a lost arrow, and the episode cut to a commercial break just as Tan appeared to crack a limb and fall. My pulse thumped in my throat as I waited for the episode to return, only to see that Tan had grabbed a brach and saved himself after tumbling just a few inches.
Later that episode, cast member Juan Pablo Quiñonez, 30, of Guadalajara, Mexico, became stricken with sadness after he shot and killed a cute weasel. Having watched the entire Alone series, I’ve become accustomed to the show’s familiar beats. So, when I heard Quiñonez longing for his girlfriend and life back home, I was convinced that he was about to quit. One scene later, Quiñonez turned his proverbial frown upside down and recommitted himself to his life in the bush.
But the biggest misdirect so far in this season occurred in episode five. After 26 days in the wild, Benji Hill, 41 of Bellevue, Washington, had transformed the Labrador wilderness into his own personal all-you-can-eat buffet, gobbling down multiple fish and a few feathery grouse. Hill, 46, had even tracked and and killed a beaver, and then scraped enough energy-providing fat from the aquatic rodent to fill a hollowed out log.
Midway through the episode, producers juxtaposed Hill’s seemingly carefree storyline with scenes of contestant Adam Riley, who was battling a crippling stomach virus. When Riley started assessing how much he really wanted the $500,000 prize purse given to the season winner, my Spidey senses were triggered: Is Riley going to drop out? Or is Alone misdirecting us again?
In the ensuing scenes, the fortunes of the two men flip-flopped entirely. Riley made himself a steaming cup of birchbark tea and pushed through his stomach pain. Meanwhile, Hill caught an intestinal bug after eating another greasy beaver meal, and became completely incapacitated with diarrhea, fever, and body aches.
“I got beaver fever right up in my stomach,” Hill groaned into the camera between bouts of vomiting. “I’ve never had this kind of relentless turmoil in my stomach.”
After a night of sickness, Hill made the correct decision to call for medical help, becoming the third contestant of the season to go home.
Misdirects like this happen from time to time on Alone, as producers spice up the storytelling to keep viewers like myself on the edge of our couches. These moments are a reminder of the show’s duality: while the hunting, stomach aches, and moments of sadness on Alone are all real, the series is still very much reality television, an entertainment medium in which producers and directors ultimately weave the narratives that tie these moments together. And the production teams employ plenty of trusty television tricks, like cliffhangers and twists, in order to do so.
Alone is real, but it’s also a TV show.
I spoke to multiple past contestants about this dynamic, and all admitted to feeling some disconnect between their own survival experience and the way it was portrayed on screen.
“It’s hard to describe—everything they show is something you did on camera,” said Jordan Jonas, the winner of season six. “But the way it comes across might not be totally true to your experience.”
Callie Russell, who was the runner-up in season seven, told me that watching herself on Alone forever changed the way she watched the show. Russell shot thousands of hours of footage, and only a tiny percentage aired.
“I have a lot more compassion and openness for a person’s journey, and I’m not quick to judge someone for what they do or do not do,” Russell told me. “I know that this is just a version of what happened, and not every detail is shown that led up to a person’s decision.”
Jonas, Russell, and others weren’t upset by the way their respective stories were told. For every minute of footage that producers choose to air, there are dozens of hours that are left out. But it took being on the show to realize that the footage that they captured, and the experiences they had, were simply the raw material used by producers to tell the story they want.
Ryan Pender, Alone’s executive producer, said that the pursuit of truth is the ethos that drives Alone’s storytelling. “I think we’re the most honest reality show on television,” he said.
While the show’s focus is wilderness survival and the elevation of bushcraft skills and self sustainability, Pender said he and his staff also seek to explore the emotional fibers that help people push through adversity. So, they tend to sift through the thousands of hours of footage to find moments where cast members find catharsis, lament the loss of a loved one, or discover some inner truth about themselves.
“At the end of the day the show isn’t about winning, it’s about hearing about someone’s relationship with their family or children—or lack thereof—and how that comes out,” Pender said. “That’s what makes us different from other survival shows.”
In order to make those moments connect with audiences, however, Alone needs to provide a narrative arc, or some type of storyline, to frame each person’s emotional discovery. And showing those moments means sacrificing other stories that could be told.
For instance, in season two, contestant Larry Roberts admitted to himself—and viewers—on camera that he hated his job as an electrician, and that he was burned out with his suburbanite existence. This moment was made all the more profound due to Roberts’ scenes in previous episodes, in which he dropped the F-word constantly and directed his ever-present anger at mice, rocks, trees, and whatever else he came across in the forest. He came across as someone who was battling his inner demons out there in the wild.
Roberts probably had some moments of happiness during that stretch that simply didn’t make the cut.
Roberts’ storyline makes me wonder what the coming Alone episodes have in store for Tan, Quiñonez, and the five remaining contestants. My assumption is that we will see more narrative curveballs, but also some powerful and very real moments as well.