Reality TV has been getting increasingly extreme and more and more strange over the past few years. We don’t just go house hunting, we go tiny house hunting. “Cheftestants” suffer ridiculous (and hilarious) sabotages while trying to whip up simple dishes in 30 minutes or less. Survivalists and blind-daters have to take off all their clothes before they step in front of the cameras. A decade-plus of reality glut has left us jaded. We know all the kinds of characters who sign up for these shows, and we know all the storytelling beats the producers prefer. Even when these folks are naked, afraid, cramped, and cutting each others’ throats, the lulling, predictable rhythms and repetition of reality take hold.
Superficially, History Channel’s Alone isn’t anything special. It’s another “survivalists in the woods” show, with a competition angle and a few seemingly minor twists. Ten contestants are dropped into separate parts of the Canadian wilderness, with a pack full of useful equipment and their own cameras to document the experience. They try to stick it out, on their own, for as long as they can. The last person to quit wins a half-million dollars. These folks have more to work with than a lot of other reality contestants. They have tools and tarps (and clothes). Plus, they don’t have to deal with any of the social interactions that are often a handicap for the kind of can-do self-starters willing to camp out in the middle of nowhere.
But as it turns out, the “alone” part of Alone is a bigger deal than it initially seems. And it’s not the lack of a partner that messes with the competitors’ game; it’s the lack of a camera crew.
Alone’s second season premiere—the only episode of the new season made available for critics—wastes no time reestablishing what makes this show uniquely nerve-wracking. Within hours of getting dropped off in a remote stretch of Vancouver Island, one contestant sees fresh bear-scat on the ground, and hears rustling and roaring off in the distance. In a flashback to the days just before he left on this trip, we see this man jokingly boasting to his friends and family, saying, “If someone sees a bear fight, they better help the bear.” But now, on his own, with no one to talk to about what he’s experiencing, he starts getting into his own head. There’s no emergency personnel standing just outside the frame, with shotguns and first-aid kits. At what point does he realize that he really doesn’t have to be bear chow if he doesn’t want to?
Are the Alone participants in actual danger? After years of reality TV hype—with all those pre-commercial-break cliffhangers and misleading “coming up”s—the genre’s fans have reason to be skeptical. No one died last season on Alone; and though some suffered injuries and illness, no one was badly hurt.
Still: The lack of any outside authority monitoring the day-to-day safety of the show’s cast is, as one puts it in the season two premiere, “eerie.” What makes it even more so for the audience at home is that Alone has no narrator: no Thom Beers to make navigating “the ice road” or cutting down tall trees seem even more dramatic that it actually is. Aside from the occasional explanatory bit of on-screen text, the only voices we hear are those of the survivalists. Because of that, and because their situation is open-ended—meaning that they could leave at any time, or stay forever—the stakes for each decision feel more signifiant. Make camp too close to the water and supplies get wet. Move too far inland and risk predators. Let the fire go out and it may be impossible to get it going again in the damp Canadian winter.
The fundamental appeal of Alone is similar to other wilderness shows: It’s the fascination of watching handy people think their way through impossible challenges, using skills that very few of us have. (How do they eat? How do they not get eaten?) And though these people are serving as their own camera-people, Alone is beautiful to look at. Credit for that is partly due to the natural magnificence of Vancouver Island, which comes through even when shot by amateurs. But it’s mostly due to the show’s editors, who use well-placed inserts and time-lapse sequences to create a real sense of place at each of the 10 locations.
The editing also makes Alone feel refreshingly unhurried. The season two premiere only introduces four of the 10 participants (two of whom are women, which is a welcome change from last year), and only one of them decides to quit by the end of the episode. Last season, some episodes saw multiple tap-outs, and some saw none. There’s no defined end-point for this “game.” The competitors never see each other, and have no idea how their rivals are doing. Yes, there’s a big prize at the end; but in a way, the survivalists themselves determine individually what it means to “win.”
That’s ultimately what made Alone’s first season feel so fresh, and what works so well for the start of season two. Often, series like these play into survivalist stereotypes, by showcasing ex-military cavemen types. But Alone features a mix of seasoned soldiers and back-to-the-land hippies, all of whom eventually find themselves confronted with the existential anxiety of being isolated in a hostile environment. Sometimes their troubles are practical—as in the season two premiere, where a contestant finds herself surrounded by a limitless supply of mussels that she can’t eat due to the poisonous “red tide”—but more often they’re personal. As the days drag on, they ask themselves how they could’ve reached a point in their lives when they’d leave loving families behind to risk death in an unforgiving landscape.
Time will tell whether Alone’s second season will measure up to its first, which produced two likable finalists from very different backgrounds. But judging by how season two begins, the arc could be very similar. There’s a rare poetry to this show, which combines deep stream-of-consciousness monologues with rough naturalism. It’s like the reality competition equivalent of a Terrence Malick film—or like the haunting last-known footage of some restless souls.