Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Addicted to Survivorman

I’m not a survivalist, outdoorsman, hunter, fisherman, shelter builder, or fire starter. Once as a child I tried to camp out in my backward; after several hours of having an exposed oak tree’s root jammed into my back as I tried to sleep, I got bored and frustrated and retreated into the cozy environs of my parent’s house.

This means I should have no interest in Les Stroud’s Survivorman. However, this show has quickly become one of the few television programs on my required viewing list that doesn’t involve footballs, absurd storylines of escapes from Panamanian prisons, or rerun episodes of George Costanza’s various neuroses.

The brainchild of Stroud, a Canadian survival enthusiast (an understatement of terms: the man spent his honeymoon living a paleolithic existence in the Canadian wilderness with his wife) who also plays a mean blues harmonica, Survivorman features Stroud stranded alone with only his camera gear and a few random odds and ends in some of the most godforsaken locations on earth (Passaic, New Jersey is not one of the locations…yet). Stroud’s challenge is to then survive in this location for seven days, film the proceedings, and avoid catching a pathogen or parasite and/or being mauled by an animal with giant claws, sharp teeth, and a penchant for dehydrated and starving Canadian survivalists.

A few things make Survivorman truly unique and separate it from the standard boorish and humorless macho survival show. First and foremost is Stroud’s personality; he has an “everyman” quality and doesn’t come across as the stereotypical Neanderthal survivalist hell bent on proving his manhood by slaying a grizzly bear with his bare hands. Stroud possesses a sort of Canadian Zen humor that is endearing to the viewer; whether he’s stranded on a life raft off the coast of Belize, stuck in a swamp in Georgia being drained by mosquitoes, or rejoicing at being able to drink a few drops of swill-quality water from a puddle, Stroud’s enthusiasm, honesty, and calmness (on camera, at least) in situations where most of us would panic, curse cruel fate, and weep uncontrollably is impressive. Of course, off camera Stroud could be having his own little Serenity Now outbursts.

He also allows the viewer to see both his successes and failures. Even though he could probably start a fire with nothing more than a Gordon Lightfoot LP and a VHS copy of Canadian Bacon, Stroud doesn’t put on any hardass survivalist façade. When he cannot find food or is even forced to cut a trip short due to lack of food and dehydration, it’s captured on film; when being stranded alone for days in locations that lack the comforts of even primitive living (not to mention the Internet!) begins to take a toll on his mental state, the cameras still roll. And unlike many of the more flamboyant nature show personalities, Stroud clearly respects the beauty, power, and sheer indifference of the harsh environments he’s trying to survive in. He’s more interested in sharing his experience with the viewer than in trying to play grab-ass with alligators, mountain lions, or polar bears.

The final aspect that makes Survivorman so engaging is the simple fact that Stroud operates all the cameras himself; his support crew drops him off and then gets the hell out of there. Once the crew is gone, Stroud is entirely alone and is responsible for building a shelter, exploring the environment, searching for food, and trying to avoid freezing to death at night or dying from heat stroke during the day. In order to capture as much footage as possible, Stroud frequently needs to place and re-place the cameras at various points, which in turn means he must often navigate dangerous terrain multiple times for the sake of good camera shots.

I’ve read that Survivorman is quickly gaining popularity and is one of The Discovery Channel’s highest-rated shows. Les Stroud has even appeared on Craig Ferguson’s late night show, and I’m sure the 18 people who watch that show were impressed. Of course, I don’t think families are gathering around the idiot box in droves to watch The Discovery Channel. Regardless, Survivorman is an informative and engaging television show, even if your idea of rough living is missing out on that first cup of coffee in the morning.

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