A young man with a soft look of contemplation on his face is delicately scraping dried mud from his beard. “To be honest,” he muses, “I’d totally eat a dead body right now. I’d carve into a butt cheek.” First airing in June 2013, “Naked and Afraid” revolves around the idea of dropping two stark naked strangers, a man and a woman equipped with only a diary camera and a tool of their choosing, into the wilderness to survive together for 21 days. As you could imagine, morbid excerpts like the butt-cheek abound.
“Naked and Afraid’s” bizarre concept alone is enough to set it apart from other shows in its genre. However, the plot isn’t the only thing that makes “Naked and Afraid” in my opinion, one of the best reality shows currently on television.
I first happened upon “Naked and Afraid” when I was house/dog sitting for a co-worker of mine. A few days prior, she’d informed me that she and had recently switched cable services and was granted half a years worth of full access to all of the TV things as a result.
“We’ve got an insanely stupid amount of channels right now,” she had explained to me, “so if you get really bored, I’m sure you could find something interesting to watch.”
Boy, did I.
Once I had arrived, settled my belongings in and explored her house to my satisfaction, I hunkered down on a gloriously squishy sofa and began to sift through the myriad channels. I eventually decided on “Naked and Afraid,” having previously heard a bit about it and being weirdly curious about how such an idea would actually work out. And thus my mild obsession began.
Four or so episodes in, I wondered whether or not my co-worker would see all of the “Naked and Afraid” in her viewing history when she came back. Would her smart TV ask her if she’d like to continue watching it the next time she sat down with her husband to finish to the episode of “Cake Boss”? Perhaps. But if she’s seen the evidence of my marathon, she hasn’t said anything to me about it.
The first component that makes “Naked and Afraid” unique is the fact that the human elements that generate interest are notably different from those in other reality shows. It’s not news that many of these shows are intentionally designed to dredge up and accentuate the nastiest bits of the human temperament. However, “Naked and Afraid” provides a refreshing contrast to all of that manufactured ugliness. In order to be successful on “Naked and Afraid,” participants need to show empathy toward one another rather than ruthlessness. They must be resourceful, generous and intelligent, as opposed to being petty, belligerent and aggressive. The goal is to keep your partner healthy and by your side as long as possible.
I think that Brian Moylan of “The Guardian” put it perfectly. “It takes the outrageousness of other reality genres,” he writes, “but applies it to celebrate human strength and fortitude rather than exploiting the frailty and narcissism of those who just want to be noticed.”
It is also worth mentioning that although I’ve been referring to them as contestants, they people on the show aren’t competing for any kind of measureable prize. While they are obviously paid for appearance, they don’t receive any winnings for completing the 21 days. The people who participate are driven by the desire to challenge themselves physically and mentally, rather than by greed.
The second reason that “Naked and Afraid” is one of the best shows out there is its authenticity. While many reality-survival hybrids go to great lengths to elaborate, or completely fabricate dangerous situations, “Naked and Afraid” is the real deal. The contestants are actually left totally naked, without food, water or assistance of any kind in some of the most unforgiving wilds that mother earth has to offer.
The crew has been scrupulously instructed that they are not allowed to intervene unless there is a certified medical emergency taking place. In the case of “Naked and Afraid,” “medical emergencies” only include scenarios in which a contestant is for suresies about to die or be severely maimed.
The contestants are free to bleed, vomit, cry and become as mentally unhinged as they want until they either tap out or their life is put at immediate risk. The film crew goes home at night because, well, it’s simply not safe to be out there in the dark. Any footage captured after hours is recorded on the contestant’s diary cameras, which they are given complete freedom with.
I even tried to see if I could dig up some dirt on “Naked and Afraid”; perhaps some post-episode confessions by the contestants that could potentially undermine the show’s claim of authenticity. The only anecdote that highlighted any betrayal of the show’s hardcore survival pretense was a woman’s confession that she was given a single tampon at one point. While tampons obviously wouldn’t normally be handy in the cruel wilderness, I can understand why that decision was made.
Although the participants are technically classified as “survivalists,” their experience varies greatly. Some people are ex-military, others just do a lot of backpacking in their free time. Many of the most talented contestants are people who were homeless for long periods of their lives. For the most part, the individuals of “Naked and Afraid” are very regular people— the sort of people you’d recognize and identify with in your own life. I feel that this element lends to making the show more interesting and relatable as a whole.
The success of the show success can also be glimpsed in the spinoffs that it’s inspired, such as “Naked Dating” (similar concept minus the survival) and Bear Gryll’s “The Island” (similar concept minus the nudity and plus Bear Grylls). These wouldn’t have come about without relatively high viewership of “Naked and Afraid,” even after a coalition of moms declared war on the show and caused several of its original sponsors to abandon ship.
The show’s final significant virtue is the fact that it makes you think. It makes you ponder the history of the modern human race and how people once lived. It makes you think about those last few relatively untouched corners of the world. It also makes you think about yourself. You’ll find yourself wondering how you might deal with a partner who was far too enthusiastic about eating rats, what your PSR (primitive survival rate) would be and ultimately, how you would fare if you were naked and afraid.