Two Sundays ago, TV fans and culture bloggers breathlessly tweeted the Mad Men season finale, using commercial breaks to analyze each frame, line, and drop of sweat on Don Draper’s forehead. I, on the other hand, spent commercial breaks switching channels to Discovery’s gloriously ridiculous new reality series, Naked and Afraid. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.
Naked and Afraid is, in every sense of the word, an insane show. It’s also quite possibly the most riveting reality series on television. Ever.
The concept is simple, nonsensical, and utterly genius. “No food. No water. No clothes,” a booming narrator warns during the opening credits. “Can a man and woman survive alone in the wilderness naked and afraid?” It’s Man vs. Wild, but there’s a man and a woman. And they are, for no reason and every reason, buck naked. Buck naked in the jungles of Costa Rica. Bare-ass in the Tanzanian Serengeti. The goal—and it’s just that, a goal, as there is no prize for completing the mission—is to survive 21 days in the wilderness together. Naked.
It’s a terrifying prospect, really. Yes, the whole naked bit is silly and also stressful. (Think of the bug bites, the sunburns …) But perhaps better than any of the survivalist shows before it, Survivor included, Naked and Afraid manages to depict just how difficult and challenging and depressing and bleak and awe-inspiring it is to stay alive in the wild with no modern conveniences.
The “afraid” part of the title, then, really isn’t an oversell. There’s very real danger. And the “naked” half of the name, well, that’s not an oversell either.
“I’m not a kid anymore, I’m an adult now and I don’t have a problem being naked,” contestant Shane Lewis says in the opening minutes of the show’s first episode. “But I am worried about the nudity level with the predators we have out there. Every single cut is a potential serious infection.” He then nonchalantly strips off his T-shirt and shorts and waddles into the dense Costa Rican jungle naked as a jaybird, as if it’s not an absolutely ridiculous thing to do.
His female counterpart, Kim Shelton, is shown doing the same. “Should we talk about the fact that we’re both naked?” she says during their fascinating first meeting. “Maybe check each other out now?” Then they start giggling and pledge never again to address the fact that his penis is just hanging out and her boobies are out there in the sunshine.
It’s understandable that they get over any insecurities associated with being naked so quickly. In the two episodes that have aired thus far, contestants become borderline hypothermic as nighttime temperatures plummet to almost unlivable numbers. The roof of one pair’s shelter is accidentally set on fire. Another pair goes more than a week without food. Hyenas swarm a camp at night. Shane encounters a snake so poisonous that a bite could render him immediately unconscious on the way to painful death within days.
“I almost died twice today,” Shane exclaims, after beheading the snake with a pointed stick he whittled to a spear. (Seriously!) “Woo! Gotta love it!” Approaching the reptile, which could kill right him there on camera, he says, “It’s all about speed and how big your balls are,” a particularly interesting turn of phrase when one considers that we can see exactly how big his balls are.
The contestants stop worrying about their nakedness so quickly because there are a hell of a lot of other things to fear. Like dying. All the time. The same can’t be said for the viewer, however. You’d think that after 42 minutes of it, you’d become desensitized to seeing the butts. But you don’t. You just don’t. (Genitals and breasts, however, are pixilated.)
It makes for a viewing experience like no other: your heart is racing as the two survivalists attempt to save their fire from the rain so that, you know, they don’t freeze to death, but then … a butt! ... and you kind of giggle even as your pulse quickens in fright for these poor contestants. It’s a curious emotional experience, to say the least.
Already, as happens with hit series, a bit of controversy is swirling around Naked and Afraid. The New York Post put the show on blast after the series premiere, reporting that producers played down how much help they gave violently ill contestant Kim Shelton, apparently hydrating her off-camera through an IV. But then Episode 2 showed in great detail the lengths producers were forced to intervene on E.J.’s behalf, and, really, not losing a smidgen of the sense of danger by doing so. If anything, producer intervention raised the stakes of the show, shining a brighter spotlight on how serious and challenging it is. Producers would be wise to do it more often.
Remember on Season 2 of Survivor, when producers were shown on camera for the first time running to help contestant Mike, who passed out and fell into a fire? CBS promoted the intervention incessantly, and it was one of the most tense, dramatic moments the series has ever had. Or what about all those times producers had to step on camera to help or talk to a house member on The Real World? It never cheapened the show. It made watching more exciting.
That’s not to say Naked and Afraid is all drama. There’s as much silliness as one would expect from a show with such a campy title.
There’s the time, for example, that contestant Kellie Nightliner goes fishing with her vagina. Yep. She just sits in a pool of water and spreads her legs, using her nether regions as bait. When a fish swims toward the promised land, she clamps her legs closed and traps it. “Maybe now, [fellow contestant] E.J. will treat me as an equal,” she says, filled with pride over being the first of the two to catch a decent source of protein. And you know what? He really does.
Plus, unlike Survivor, whose cast members magically appear camera-ready with long hair billowing sexily in the wind, the Naked and Afraid contestants, as time goes on, look like crap. Kellie’s hair starts to form tangled dreadlocks, and E.J. looks so dirty you can practically smell him through the TV.
So if there’s a little bit of a hole in your life now that there’s no Don Draper existentialism to decipher for the rest of the summer, you can do worse for yourself than to tune in to Naked and Afraid Sunday nights at 10 EST on Discovery.