In opening up interior terrains, the survival series Alone makes other reality television look like pantomime. By Sarah Krasnostein.
Long after the 1952 Olympics where he won gold in the 5000 metres, the 10,000 metres, and – after deciding at the last minute to compete in his first marathon – the marathon, the Czechoslovakian runner Emil Zátopek would say, “We have a magnificent motor at our disposal but we no longer know how to use it.”
Zátopek went on to use his ungainly running style to break the world record in the 10,000 metres. Sixty years later in 2013 – when Runner’s World named him the Greatest Runner of All Time, which is how he came to my attention – I used mine to train for a marathon.
My expertise was then limited to The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, which remains one of my bibles. Its main lesson hit with the force of revelation: ideal conditions are a lie. You scoop up all your discomforts and hauntings, and you run anyway. Endurance training is about small insistences on emotional spaciousness: a very long process of minuscule improvements in one’s ability to tolerate pain until it sits alongside joy without devouring it. “You will meet yourself at what you thought were the boundaries of your potential and endurance,” the authors wrote, “and watch in awe as they evaporate to reveal only open expanse.”
As an act of vicarious spiritual hygiene during this lockdown, I’ve been watching the open vistas on the reality series, Alone (SBS On Demand, Binge). The premise is simple: 10 “survival experts” are dropped in remote wilderness to last as long as possible with a restricted amount of gear while self-documenting their struggles. The last one standing wins a cash prize. Contestants may “tap out” and be extracted back to normality, but otherwise they’re on their own. Everyone is unaware of the others’ progress, or lack of it. If Alone can be described as a competition, then it is a competition only with oneself.
The show’s eight seasons have been filmed in remote, usually Indigenous-controlled, locations that have so far included Canada, Patagonia and Mongolia. Later seasons strip back the standard reality show padding – gone are voice overs, extended flashbacks to life back home and behind-the-scenes looks at selection and preparation. This creates space for something more elevated. We are served a slow-food version of the genre in which character and setting rise over time through a steady accumulation of thick, rich detail. The other reality show that shares this profundity – while being different in every other respect – is Japan’s Terrace House.
I came to Alone through season six, and while I’ve watched other seasons, six remains with me: 10 men and women in the Canadian Arctic and winter is coming. Not only do they have to find water and food, evade predators, build shelter and maintain fire and their sanity in below zero conditions, they have to do all that while filming themselves and speaking to camera. The edit is so seamless that the effect remains one of complete authenticity. Despite the majesty and unpredictability of their vast surrounds, the true ground of adventure for the viewer lies in the sense of being welcomed into interior terrain. In this sense, Alone makes other reality television look like pantomime.
It’s also a reminder that, when it comes to the inventory of reality shows, we’ve put the cart before the horse: we’re more interested in group dynamics than in self-knowledge. Sure, watching people strategise about sex and status may be more immediately thrilling than watching someone desperate for calories contemplate whether to eat a diseased porcupine, but we’ve learnt nothing particularly insightful about human behaviour from the former.
There is variation between the different contestants, and within the same contestant, over time, but seeing patterns of personality emerge as the unrelenting pace of their situation sets in is one of the gifts of this show’s gradual unfurling. While there are medical emergencies, accidents and the heartbreaking encounters with nature that the law refers to as “acts of God”, it remains true that – like the animals some are excellent at tracking – the final few are not hard to spot early if you know what to look for.
They aren’t the strongest or the smartest or the luckiest or the most vapidly positive. It comes down to those who perceive the external conditions as hostile and those who don’t. Key to that distinction is whether the person feels lonely in their solitude or connected with someone or something outside themselves despite being physically alone. This is the value of the ultra-endurance race of one that is Alone. It shows that resilience is not brute force. It is about persisting while remaining adaptable within authentic human relationships. And that this includes, as a matter of first principles, our relationship with ourselves.
There is nothing that reminds you that you are your own worst enemy so much as becoming increasingly peeved that your dinner delivery is late while observing the ebullience of someone who has finally trapped a field mouse for dinner. As one contestant put it: we’re cave people with TVs, and we’re confused. Confusion also describes the overall odd experience of watching this show during lockdown, which involves witnessing the anguish caused by too much freedom while feeling the anguish caused by too little freedom. As Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder of back-to-nature American transcendentalism, put it nearly two centuries ago: solitude is impracticable and society fatal. Our nature “delights to put us between extreme antagonisms, and our safety is in the skill with which we keep the diagonal line”.
The people who keep that line to last longest on the show are those whose to-camera monologues sound closest to dialogues. They have a particular balance between their certainties and doubts. They eventually return to a sense of purpose, if not joy, regardless of the conditions. And they are able to forget that purpose frequently enough to dissolve into those conditions in a way that signifies they are aware of just how small they are and how quickly time moves. Also, they are humbled by those whose knowledges are keeping them alive.
“Something’s wrong when you spend the whole day staring at a screen pushing a button,” Alan says heartily in season one. “We are capable of doing way more than we do.” The social experiment that is Alone brings to mind Henry David Thoreau’s self-imposed isolation near Walden Pond in the 1840s, and how the concept of “self-reliance” became wilfully misperceived in modern America. While Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor, emphasised the value of self-imposed isolation as one means to attaining self-trust, it was never a fetishisation of individualism for its own sake. The cultivation of self-awareness was an instrument to be used for the collective good: “we require such a solitude as shall hold us to its revelations when we are in the street and in palaces…”
That intellectual tradition has another problem. Despite its emphasis on “sympathy”, a concept closer in its usage to empathy, the insistence that we carry our fortunes in our own hands only goes so far. Emerson and Thoreau wrote at a time when Native American communities were being murdered in waves and as colonial institutional structures built on their land created objectively hostile conditions. This makes it impossible to assert that freedom is a question of self-activation alone.
Season six took place in the Northwest Territories of Canada near Great Slave Lake – Tucho in the language of the Dehcho Dene, the First Nations people of the region. It’s no coincidence that the contestants’ best traps, shelters and clothes are Indigenous inventions, as well as the wisdom about what to eat and how to find it, and how to live with the land. Waubgeshig Rice’s 2018 post-apocalyptic novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, is set in an Anishinaabe community on a reservation not so far from there. “Yes, apocalypse,” he writes. “We’ve had that over and over. But we always survived. We’re still here. And we’ll still be here, even if the power and the radios don’t come back on and we never see any white people again.” Turns out the greatest endurance athletes never competed at an Olympics and that the idea of self-mastery in nature for the good of the collective was not the novel theory the transcendentalists thought it was.
Season eight of Alone has started streaming on Binge. At a time when we are surrounded by those whose self-reliance is so solipsistic that they trust themselves to reinvent everything from climate science to epidemiology, it’s no wonder the urge to retreat is strong. Just make sure to come back.
Alone is streaming on Binge and SBS On Demand.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "Solitary worlds".
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