You can do so many things in television programmes that would be frowned upon in everyday life. Abandoning 11 people alone in the Canadian wilderness, for example. Do that to your friends and you’re “a bad person” and they set up a special WhatsApp group and exclude you. Yet that’s the premise behind Alone (Channel 4, Sunday), where regular humans are transported by helicopter to fend for themselves against the elements for a cash prize of £100,000, much like their hunter-gatherer ancestors.
It’s a pretty diverse group, but the competitors have one thing in common: a crippling fear of bears. Man, do they go on and on about bears. Always with the bears. In normal life it would be unusual to encounter 11 people in a row who share the same obsessive terror of bears. Although, in fairness, they are surrounded by bears. That area of the Canadian wilderness is filled with bears, which they keep seeing and hearing, and then cowering in their tents in abject Blair Witch Project-style terror. (They’re doing their own filming, to lend authenticity to their isolation and, probably, to save money.) Eventually, it’s hard not to see the terrified campers in their tents and imagine them as tasty burritos for bears.
The producers rub it in a bit. “The Northwest Territories is home to over 3,000 bears,” says the narrator, who speaks in a low, ominous growl and who I quickly suspect to be a bear. In dramatic terms, bears are Chekhov’s gun, and if at least one person isn’t eaten by a bear by the end of this show it will betray a loose grasp of dramatic structure on the part of the ursine narrator.
The people who take part are all pretty impressive. They’ve all done a nine-day course in bushcraft, which is probably enough. They whittle and forage and make fishing nets and strike flint on kindling to make fire. Called upon to live a hunter-gatherer life, they say hunter-gatherer things such as “Absolutely mental!” and “I think I have the drive to win” and “Grrrr grrrr grrrr”. (Wait, that might be a bear! I think Alan has been replaced by a bear!).
There’s a contemporary notion that there’s something more authentic about hardship and danger than suburban comfort. We think we like “nature” when what we really like is “parks”
Some of them have practical jobs, such as “builder” or “forest manager”, but some have titles such as “entrepreneur” and “PR executive”, which makes me wonder what they’re going to do when they come face to face with a bear other than craft a press release that reads “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!”
I’m doing them a bit of a disservice here. They’re all much more stoical and handy than your average city dweller (they’ve done a course!), and if this were me and 10 of my useless friends, episode two would just start with the narrator saying, “Sadly, Patrick and his useless friends have all died of natural causes (bears)”, and then the rest of the series would just be footage of bears, captured by the bears themselves with left-over camera equipment and featuring interviews with emotional bears growling about why they’ve chosen to take part in the show.
In my defence, the first rule of hunter-gathering is actually: “Don’t go into a forest filled with bears when you already have food, shelter and a water source in a place where there are no bears.” So I feel like, in a very real sense, I’m living by truer survivalist principles than the participants in this programme.
Survival in the wilderness is really, really hard and it’s also tedious. In the first episodes a woman slaves for hours to start a fire, someone gets lost while setting traps for tasty vermin, a frightened man speaks of his anxiety (hunter-gatherer psychotherapists usually said of people’s anxiety, “That’s your fight-or-flight response telling you that there is a bear and now you must run from the bear”) and another munches the flesh from a squirrel’s head. That man, Louie, also demonstrates how difficult it is to hit a duck with an arrow with the immortal words “Fucking ducks. Fuck you. Fuck you, man.” Some version of these words have been spoken by humans for millenniums. Ducks are the worst.
They all speak about having something to prove. “I want to see what I’m made of,” one competitor says, which is something that the bears might be able to help him with.
I find Alone morbidly compelling in its survivalist detail but also a bit strange and ethically dubious. Apart from the fact that it may, in the end, be an elaborate bear-feeding scheme run by actual bears, many of the competitors have also grappled with struggles and traumas about which they are touchingly open. It’s often moving to hear them speak of the things they’ve been through, but it also makes it feel even more exploitative to be watching them being put through the emotional wringer while I’m eating a family pack of Minstrels. (Adopting the “bear gaze” has me hungry.)
There’s a contemporary notion that there’s something more authentic about hardship and danger than suburban comfort. And people frequently seem to imagine that it would be nice to return to nature and live off the land when what they really want is a nice view, a gentle stroll and a barista in the car park. This programme will reinforce the latter idea for you. We think we like “nature” when what we really like, for the most part, is “parks”.
Another show that makes me hungry and involves a metaphorical but not literal bear (he’s actually a human chef) is called The Bear (Disney+). The first season was the funny, heartbreaking and tense tale of family, precarity, ambition and delicious food set in a small Chicago restaurant. It took place in the aftermath of a family tragedy the consequences of which unspool over the course of the first series.
The second series features our protagonists launching a fancy new restaurant on the site of the old establishment. If this seems low stakes to you, just look at the travails of the hospitality sector in whatever town you’re living in. Operating a restaurant is just marginally more viable than surviving in the Canadian wilderness. The Bear is great. The film-making, often up close and hand-held, is nervy and inventive. The actors, particularly Ayo Edebiri, as the driven and talented young sous-chef, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach, as the angrily vulnerable manager, are brilliant.
And did I mention that the food looks delicious? It’s as though it were a sleeping reality-show participant and I a hungry bear.