Monday, November 19, 2007

in defence of bear grylls

Earlier this summer there was a lot talk in the media about Bear Grylls, his Discovery Channel show Man vs. Wild, and the accusation that he staged and faked some, if not most, of the events depicted in the show.

In truth I should have written this post a few months ago to lend my support to Bear, but the media reports kind of blew over, Bear made some statemtents on his own behalf, and so I let it go. Then Jon had to go and get me all worked up over it again last week, so this is for you Bear:

Many who have taken hold of the media reports on the Man vs. Wild point to three primary areas of question, which I'll outline below. But first, those same people often point to a similar Discovery Channel show, Survivorman, as the better and "more pure" alternative to Man vs. Wild, and to that I will say this...

Man vs. Wild and Survivorman are different shows with different intents. I liken it to this analogy: Survivorman is a show about enduring the wild, purposefully, with only the bare essentials - kind of like a road trip without a map. Man vs. Wild on the other hand is like a wilderness "worst case scenario" - like a road trip where your car goes flying off into a ravine, completely destroys everything, and now you have to fumble your way out back into civilization. They're both fine shows, and personal preferences may lead you to watch one over the other, but keeping in mind that the end purpose is different in each, and I think it's a stretch to say one is intrinsically better than the other.

Anyways, the critics of Man vs. Wild have pointed primarily to the following three issues:


  1. Bear Sleeps In Hotels: They say that Bear sets us up to believe that he is surviving in the remote wilderness for a week, but instead sleeps in a cozy luxury hotel and eats blueberry pancakes each morning. However, the show has always stated in the opening sequence that in instances of severe danger or in matters of "life or death" Bear can receive help from his team, producers, or outsiders. If I take that for what it's worth, then yes, there have probably been some pretty extreme nights out in the wilderness, and in the interest of human life someone made an executive decision to get the team out of danger. On the other hand, there have been plenty of documented nights in the wilderness where Bear legitimately set up camp and suffered through the night, and during some pretty rough weather as well. Case in point, Episode 3 - The Coasta Rican Rainforest - downpour all night long, and he was sick as a dog too. These instances of sleeping in hotels every night and eating pancakes are a little over dramatized by an overly-zealous British press.

  2. Bear Can't Make His Own Raft: In one episode Bear escapes from an island using a hand-built raft, but whistleblowers "outed" him by indicating Bear had to be shown how to build the raft first, then it was torn apart and Bear built it again for the camera. I wouldn't call this an earth shattering discovery... It is no secret that in each episode Bear relies on the wisdom of local survival experts at each location he is in, and these survival experts are credited in each show. Furthermore, Bear has indicated that he goes to each location several days early to get a lay of the land, meet with local experts, and confer on particular items that he may encounter while shooting the episode. I liken it to a reporter doing research - Bear does research by engaging with the locale first and then presents his findings during the episode. Bear just happens to be very qualified for this particular genre of research... it's not like they threw Matt Lauer out there.

  3. Bear's Remote Locations Not So Remote: Another aquaintance who is evangelistic on Survivorman being better than Man vs. Wild [what is it about you Surviorman people?] pointed out this YouTube clip. The clip shows a location on a Hawaiian lava field where an episode of Man vs. Wild was filmed, and then pans far to the left to show a road with cars driving on it, implying that Bear's remote wilderness locations are in fact not so remote. We have to remember that Man vs. Wild is a television show, and this particular show is not intended to be a "diary" of a week in the wilderness [Survivorman]. This show is intended to demonstrate survival options - tools to employ if you are ever caught in a similar situation. Secondary to this, I believe, is the idea that Bear is out there on his own trudging through all of this hundreds of miles away from civilization. And so if on certain outings the camera has avoided showing certain roads, or buildings, or telephone lines for dramatic emphasis, then fine - it allows the episode to maintain consistency and keeps us focused on the actual content, which is how to protect your hands by climbing through the lava fields using your socks as gloves.

I'll concede that the nature of the show likely set us up to believe certain things that weren't necessarily 100% true. I've come to the conclusion that this wasn't done with any deliberate malice, but rather was done in the effort to create a captivating and engaging television show to demonstrate "worst case scenario" survival techniques. Since the allegations I believe Bear has been very forthcoming regarding the history of the show, and specifically I would want you to read this very transparent posting from Bear on his personal blog as well as this article in Outside Magazine which clears the air on a lot of the issues above.

So let me end with this... Say what you want about Bear Grylls - call him a panzy, a fake, or the "adventure equivalent of a cheese souffle" for all I care - but first I want you to go visit your local zoo, find a fresh pile of African elephant dung, hold it above your head to squeeze the juice out and take a long hard drink.

... Until then, enjoy Man vs. Wild for what it is as you sit comfortably in your couch watching the Discovery Channel in your warm and heated house, eating pizza and drinking Coke. As for me, it is DEFINITELY time to be getting back to work....

5 comments:

ford said...

My name is Ford Church and I am the Executive Director and a Survival Skills Instructor for a nonprofit called the Cottonwood Institute in Denver, Colorado.

I did think it was unethical for Man Vs. Wild to lead viewers to believe that he was actually in the survival situations portrayed in each episode. I do think that Survivorman and Man Vs. Wild are very different shows. Having said all of that, Bear is still a very skilled survivalist. Anyone that does not tap into the knowledge of the local experts will probably not make it very long. While some core principals are the same, surviving in Colorado is very different than surviving in the Pine Barrens or on a desert island.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Anyone interested in checking out what I am up to with the Cottonwood Institute can visit our website at: http://www.cottonwoodinstitute.org

I also have some survival book recommendations in our Library section.

Keep on posting my friend,

Ford Church

uncle tim said...

dude, thanks so much for writing what I don't have the time to write. Any critic of Bear's really needs to watch the episodes. I definitely dig the re-edited versions where he admits when he receives help. Okay, he shouldn't have mislead the viewers, but honestly!!!! If you think Bear Grylls is a pansy, I recommend you watch him fly over mount everest with a fan strapped to his back! Man versus wild, still absolutely the greatest show on Discovery. Survival situations mostly are boring and uneventful, if you're lucky. that's why Survivorman is a really really lame show.

burnshead said...

Thanks for the comment Ford, and interesting program you run. I appreciate your balance between necessary outdoor skills and our collective need to protect the environment.

And Tim, of course, glad to lend the support to Bear.

El buzo said...

Scub,
Wheter is fake or not the man still goes thru dangerous situation. Anyway the show is to teach surviving skills. How can we spect the man to show the skill and in one show to lose his life and prove that is was real. Take life easier enjoy the show. I myself did not sink that it could be all real but is a show and entertaining too. Just being in does low or high temperatures places is dangerous already without doing anything else. Bear knows his stuff and I will have him in my team if faced with any of those dangerous situation.

Catspace said...

I agree with El buzo, in that the show is intended to teach survival skill...not that many of us are in the sort of shape that would be required to actually tie our shoelaces together, and shimmy up a skinny tree above an alligator infested swamp....
With that said, I do think that in this unfortunate age of Global warming, war, and imminent natural disaster. Bear could teach us all a few things about making do with what we have around us in order to stay alive. That is the bottom line!
The show is brilliant, and the man obviously knows what he is talking about. Oh ya, & He whines a lot less than Les too....