Just the title “Naked & Afraid” already sounds like a ratings winner for Discovery Channel, if one that will no doubt be easily confused with latenight fare available on Cinemax. Putting the budget for digitally obscured genitalia to the test (think “Borat,” only not consciously played for laughs), each episode will pit a pair of survivalists against an exotic locale, trying to hold out for three weeks with no food, water or (drum roll, please) clothes. What ensues is pretty typical of the genre, but it’s still kind of a risible kick, if only for how seriously the show takes itself.
A self-described “Everest of survival challenges,” the series promises — and then frequently restates — that the participants are accompanied by only a small crew with “clear instructions not to intervene unless there is a medical emergency.” In other words, it’s very important to believe these people might die, even if the constant repetition of the stakes sounds like the template for a drinking game.
The premiere pairs Shane Lewis, 40, with Kim Shelton, 22, in the jungle of Costa Rica. He insists on calling her “kiddo,” and professes to have little respect for twentysomethings. They meet cute — already naked, out in the wild — and proceed to snipe at each other while enduring pounding rain, foreboding elements and the struggle to find food.
Unlike a lot of similarly themed fare (see TNT’s “72 Hours”), “Naked” doesn’t build a contest into the format; the sheer challenge, combined with exotic travelogue and intended drama, are presumed to be enough to attract viewers, along with wondering exactly what that blurred video might be obscuring. About the closest the show comes to scorekeeping is in updating the duo’s PSR (Primitive Survival Rating, naturally) based on how they perform under the circumstances.
“It’s all about speed and how big your balls are,” Shane says as he prepares to kill a poisonous snake, conjuring a rather distracting image.
Beyond reality-TV antecedents (a la “Survivor’s” Richard Hatch), the most obvious cinematic parallels would be to “Castaway,” with a nod to “The Naked Prey” — that 1966 adventure oddity, with a stripped-down Cornel Wilde being hunted by murderous African tribesmen. Inasmuch as each episode is self-contained, those touchstones are significant, since the audience needs to do a bit of the work to fill in narrative gaps.
Still, the real goal of “Naked & Afraid” (a six-episode order, with different couples and venues) is as bare as its protagonists, intended to tap into our imagination about being shipwrecked, and provide Discovery a titillating concept to launch after daredevil Nik Wallenda completes (or doesn’t) his live high-wire walk across the Grand Canyon.
Discovery brass could try to argue “Naked’s” back-to-nature motif is more educational and illuminating than that, but attempting to do so would be a pretty good indicator of just how big their balls are.