By Ethan Tussey & Elizabeth Ellcessor
Though survivalist reality television ostensibly strips away layers of protection, civilization, and mediatization for its participants, it is densely layered in terms of its production and reception. Producers scout locations and conduct interviews, while audiences engage the operational aesthetic to detect likely producer interventions. When combined with real threats to health, safety, and survival, the pleasures of a program such as Naked and Afraid (Discovery Channel, 2013-present) are complicated.
Fortunately, David Jacoby and Juliet Litman, the producers of the recently defunct (but possibly returning) The Right Reasons podcast feel no shame in treating these shows like the complicated and pleasurable cultural objects they are. This unabashed enthusiasm made Jacoby and Litman popular among reality television show producers and stars, leading to interviews on this podcast that provided information about labor practices and working conditions that scholars rarely have access to in the course of their study of reality television. The audio clip here features an interview with David Story, producer of Naked and Afraid, focusing on the extreme conditions and probing to find out how much the audience should accept that the contestants are truly facing the premise of the show. In the course of the interview, there are ruptures in which Jacoby and Story cease serious discussion of contestants’ risks and producers’ responsibilities to celebrate specific episodes and events. When contestant Jeff caught a snake and proceeded to overcook it to the point of inedibility, Story recalled wanting to intervene “not as a producer, but as a friend,” and Jacoby recalled the intense high (and low) of watching this turn of events.
Moments such as this suggest that survivalist television can exceed the pleasures of voyeurism or schadenfreude to include pleasures rooted in both body horror and risk. The show asks the viewer “could you survive this test?” In this way, it is not dissimilar from body horror cinema. It asks questions about fear, humanity, and resilience. Furthermore, in watching contestants struggle and triumph over adverse conditions, viewers are engaged in deliberations about the meaning of risk; what is at risk in basic survival, and how does it compare to the amorphous risks of modern societies and technologies. Much as staring at nineteenth century freak shows reassured audiences of their bodily normalcy (Garland Thomson), survivalist television reveals “real” risks that may calm the stresses of perceived risks in daily life.
The dilemmas posed by Naked and Afraid are produced for television, not merely natural. However, in consuming this content, viewers are asked to consider its relationship to their own bodies, abilities, and lives. On The Right Reasons, this content is remediated; podcast audiences experience Naked and Afraid from the perspective of Jacoby (and, to some extent, Litman). His love of the show, and engagement with it as a former television producer, produces a context in which these tensions can be explored alongside other reality tv pleasures, giving permission to treat survival as serious entertainment.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1997.