In 2016, Zachary Fowler spent nearly three months alone in the foothills of the Andes mountains in Patagonia, Argentina, competing on Season Three of History Channel’s survival show Alone. Fowler and nine other wilderness experts were recorded living entirely on their own in the forest until they were medically evacuated or reached a breaking point and tapped out. But Fowler stood strong. After 87 days of isolation and starvation, he was the last man standing (suffering, really) and won $500,000.
Four years later, Fowler finds himself holed up again — this time in his Maine home riding out the coronavirus. His safety pack is equipped with everything he didn’t have in Patagonia: his wife, his two daughters, heated shelter, plumbing and protein-heavy food. Still, he’d much rather be out in the cold than stuck in the pandemic a day longer. “Eighty-seven days out in the wild was easier for me than trying to be locked down for 30 days,” Fowler tells me.
Recently, many isolated viewers have put Fowler and his fellow Alone contestants in their virtual pandemic safety packs. Pandemic-induced-isolation TV binges have turned multi-season reality wilderness shows like Alone, Survivor and Naked and Afraid into must-see programming.
Part of it is practicality, as a select few seasons of Alone and Survivor are streaming on Netflix. But there’s a bigger reason for its appeal: We viewers are drawn to content that can speak to our pandemic lives without patronizing us.
It explains two popular TV genres at the moment. There’s escapist TV, like The Sopranos, Bridgerton and WandaVision: trending shows with little connection to our current state of affairs. Then there’s crap like Netflix’s anthology series Social Distance, which tries to pedantically make sense of an incomprehensible moment.
If there’s a middle ground, it’s survivalist television. Shows like Alone and Survivor flourish as nonthreatening comfort viewing that can speak to the moment. If not, that’s okay — you can just take in the beautiful scenery and nearly naked cast.
Certainly, there’s an element of survivalist porn to Alone. Gawking at physical challenges and dangerous terrain people endure for a prize is a thrilling hate-watch. For the first couple of seasons, Alone was promoted as a sensational horror show. Watch outdoor freaks like McIntyre, who spent 66 days on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, willingly succumb to life-threatening illness, frostbite and wounds.
As the show progressed, it shifted focus to the beauty of the outdoors and the psychology of persistence. It’s a chance to gaze at lush, scenic nature locations and look inside the minds of survivalists. (Similarly, Survivor took a few dozen seasons to discover that the social drama was far more interesting than the starving.) “There were moments of sheer terror. I almost got killed out there twice,” says David McIntyre, winner of Alone Season Two. Today, he looks back at the experience with a meditative appreciation. “For me, it was a very spiritual time.”
Alone showcases what it’s like to reach your limit and still have to get through. “Perseverance kind of sucks. We admire it in other people, but we don’t want to do it,” McIntyre says. It resonates: Ten months into the pandemic, perseverance is a necessity and not a noble goal.
There’s something deeply calming about Alone. For a show steeped in the joys of unplugging, it combines the internet obsessions of ASMR videos and front-facing vlogs. The contestants become pseudo–wilderness influencers and full-blown cameramen, recording every bout of fire-making, fly-fishing and defecating. “The camera became my Wilson,” Fowler says, referring to Tom Hanks’ volleyball that becomes his personified friend in Cast Away.
Fowler developed such a knack for recording himself that he’s since left his nearly 13-year career as a self-sufficient, isolated boat builder in the woods of Maine to become a nature and woodworking YouTuber. “I want to have big adventures, but I also want to come home to something secure,” he says. Plus, he needed to be in town to secure internet access.
Both McIntyre and Fowler caution against casuals living out their wilderness fantasy — no matter how fed up with the pandemic they are. It might look serene, but living in below-freezing temperatures with nothing but a tarp and a piece of flint is terrifying.
McIntyre reminds himself of this these days while getting through harsh Michigan winters. “I’ll be walking across the parking lot, and it’ll be 35 degrees and raining here in Michigan,” he says. “This weather sucks, but I’m like, ‘Dude, you did this for two months. You can handle this.’”