Naked and Afraid

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TV Series Review

There's not much I can say about the new reality show Naked and Afraid that the words naked and afraid don't already sufficiently cover. Give the folks at Discovery Channel credit: This reality show is exactly as billed, loaded with participants who are quite afraid and very naked—though none, strangely, seem overly afraid that their nakedness is being seen by millions of curious viewers. Modesty is so 2012.

What's that? You want a little more to go on? Bare the truth of the show a bit more? Buff out the rough edges? All right, if I must.

Naked and Afraid feels at first a little like your standard Survivor-esque game show: Participants are dropped into wild locales to fend for themselves for three weeks. But that's where the similarity ends. You won't find Jeff Probst lurking behind a baobab tree. There are no goofy games, no duplicitous backwoods deals, no pile of cash for the winner. Two participants (a new man and woman occupy each episode) must work together and simply survive for 21 days with nothing but their survival experience, creativity and one lone tool they're allowed to bring along (a knife, a pot, a book of matches, etc.). It's as if Discovery has given us a weekly reboot of Adam and Eve as envisioned by Charles Darwin.

Discovery says Naked and Afraid is the "Everest of survival challenges," and it is unquestionably tough. The nakedness isn't just a salacious gimmick: It's an inherent part of the challenge. Participants don't just have to find food and water, they also have to cope with the sun and heat and rain and cold and thorns and bug bites. (Plus, I'd imagine that carnivores in the area might like to taste a bit of man-flesh without that pesky wrapper.) Sure, some of them find the time to make Spartan coverings. But shoes, not loincloths, are the priority here. The modesty factor is presented as nothing more than a minor inconvenience given all the other travails they face.

But while the nudity makes the survival challenge of Naked and Afraid that much more daunting, it also makes the show exponentially more uncomfortable—and problematic—to watch.

Critical parts of anatomy (genitals and breasts) are obscured through pixelation. But uncovered sides and backsides are in full, frequent and uncensored view. It's way more nudity than I've ever seen on television before (even counting Game of Thrones, and that's saying something). Indeed, the level of skin we see here is unprecedented on American television as far as I know. It would seemingly be enough to brand a movie version of Naked and Afraid with an R rating—not the strangely forgiving TV-14 it's been given here. Frankly, I haven't seen so many dirty, naked behinds since my kids grew out of diapers.

Granted, there's little that's intentionally titillating about the program's almost constant nudity. Executive producer Denise Contis insisted in an interview with salon.com, "We didn't develop the show to be exploitative, ever." And, to a point, she might be right. It doesn't feel terribly erotic to watch filthy, regular-looking people skin rabbits and pick thorns out of their feet—even (or perhaps especially) if they're in the buff. This is way more National Geographic than Playboy.

Of course, it's worth remembering that before the Internet, National Geographic infamously served as a de facto Playboy for some boys of a certain age. And for many today, I suspect, this show could still be woefully problematic—the producer's intent not to exploit notwithstanding.

So this is exactly the sort of show that triggers some viewers to lean forward and others to jerk back and grimace as they cover their eyes. And neither reaction is one that Plugged In would suggest make the show OK to watch.

But even if Discovery gave these poor people some clothes and retitled the show Not Really Naked but Still Afraid, there would be other problems to deal with. The episodes take place in the cruel, unvarnished wild, so we see quite a bit of wild behavior. Participants get hurt, and we see their sometimes squirm-worthy injuries. They get sick, and we watch them suffer. While all this stuff is, by definition, natural, there's a reason why most of us close our bathroom doors when we're taking care of whatever business we might have there; we don't broadcast it on a major cable network.

Animals, meanwhile, catch, kill and eat other animals. And bloody-muzzled beasts rip flesh from half-devoured carcasses. The dialogue (people's, not animals'), just like everything else here, is raw. The worst profanities—s-words and f-words—are bleeped, but that doesn't prevent us from picking them up through context. And most every other curse word is fair game.

Naked and Afraid is, in its own strange way, bizarrely compelling television. Personally, I've always found survival shows pretty interesting, and Discovery does its best to weave in little factoids during the course of each episode. We might learn, for instance, that catfish can hibernate for months in shallow mud before bursting forth when a watering hole gets enough precipitation. Those catfish can spend their entire lives flopping around in that one hole—until a reality show contestant catches it between her naked legs and fries it up for dinner.

Which brings us back to where we started. There's really no escaping the essential truth of the title: The folks on the show are very naked. And very afraid.

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Episode Reviews

Naked-and-Afraid: 7-1-2013

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Reality/Game

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Discovery

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Paul Asay Paul Asay