Review: Watching Alone Together in Isolation
Alone is a reality show which first aired on the History channel in 2015. The premise of the show is simple: 10 competitors are left in an uninhabited location with a pack of supplies; they must find their own food, build their own shelter, and survive in the wilderness. The last person to remain wins 500,000 dollars.
This show became a surprising obsession of Brooks’ and mine as we whiled away the days of isolation of late Spring and early Summer, and as our state and country dealt with the ever-intensifying COVID-19 pandemic. Alone became simultaneously a reflection of our struggle with the sudden loss of our normal lives, and an escape from the stress of living under the threat of a new and deadly illness.
It is a show about survival of the most extreme kind-- complete self reliance and isolation, with no one to talk to except a camera. The contestants must last an indeterminate amount of time, waiting to outlast all of the other competitors. Ultimately, the show highlights the resilience, ingenuity, and strength of humanity, while emphasizing the importance of human connection. Many contestants choose to leave not because of hunger, or fear, or injury, but because they can no longer stand being away from their loved ones.
What is your favorite element of Alone?
E: Alone is a tribute to the strength, flexibility, intelligence, and resiliency of humanity. It was a strange alignment of fate to begin this show in the midst of a pandemic, and seeing people tested to their limits showed me just how much we can endure. It became a reflection of some of my real life struggles as the contestants on the show dealt with voluntary isolation.
I also like that the show tries to reinvent itself every season. It is not just the same show with different contestants. The rules change, the location changes, and that makes each season refreshing and exciting. It’s fun to see a show that isn’t afraid to take risks, even when they aren’t sure that those risks will pay off.
B: My favorite element of the show came when contestants reached their limits or recognized the importance of their everyday existence. I’m guilty of this “take it for granted” attitude myself. I fail to recognize the importance of the mundane: a chat with a friend, a hot meal, or a kiss from my girlfriend. Alone demonstrates, on a micro-scale, the important aspects of the everyday
What location would you like to see the show choose next?
B: I would love to see alone in a Florida swamp during Summer. Living in Florida, I would love to see contestants try and brave wild rainstorms, swarms of mosquitoes, alligators, and brave the Florida heat. Something tells me it wouldn’t be a long season.
E: I agree with Brooks. A tropical setting would be GOLD. Florida Everglades, a Caribbean island, the Amazon... Every season the contestants have to face pretty similar conditions: freezing temperatures, large land predators, food scarcity. How about mixing it up with trying to keep your equipment dry during the Florida wet season, or coming up with ways to battle the heat or bugs!
What was one thing that surprised you about the show?
E: Like I said in question 1, the way that the show reinvents itself was a surprise. In each season, the rules change. In season 3 they move locations, in season 4 contestants compete in pairs, in season 5 they invite former competitors to try again. It’s fun to see the show take risks, and not become so settled into what worked in previous seasons.
It is also fun to see the differences in survival strategy. Some people focus on finding as much food as possible. Others build elaborate shelters. Others still throw themselves at projects like boat building or creating creature comforts. It is interesting to see what these contestants find essential to survival.
B: One thing that surprised me about the show was how it touched on aspects of class. Greg Owens immediately comes to mind. He’s a Drywaller from Canal Flats, British Columbia who starred in season 3 of Alone. Throughout the season he kept harping on the fact that this money was his retirement and a house for his daughter. To emphasize, it wasn’t for his retirement it was his retirement. At least implying to me that Greg had no other options besides winning it all. Here was a man that had spent his life doing an honorable trade, but one that left him with little to no options for a future free from hard work or the means to support his family. Both of these dreams seemed so plain. Yet, more often than not, Greg was not alone. These hopes were shared by many if not the majority of other contestants. You’d hear phrases like “I want to get the car fixed” or “I want to pay off the mortgage.” or “I want my Mom and Dad to retire.” These same lines were repeated over and over again. It was heartbreaking to watch.
What in your opinion is the greatest indicator that a person is going to win?
E: I think a person’s mental capacity to tolerate complete isolation is a huge indicator. Is the contestant sitting in their shelter bemoaning the fact that they miss their family or their way of life or are they focusing on their end goal and finding ways to occupy themselves? It is interesting seeing some contestants who have set themselves up well (a good shelter, plenty of food, etc.) and see them just decide to call it quits because the money isn’t worth it anymore. Is the contestant able to endure the discomfort of isolation? Are they driven to see the challenge through to the end? The contestant’s background (family life, economic status, life circumstances) definitely inform their motivation, and are a good indicator of whether or not a contestant is in it for the long haul.
B: This relates to another answer on the list, but the class or economic background of the person competing. In my viewing, it seemed that the less well off, economically speaking, individuals were the more they were willing to sacrifice. Their hunger and need for the money was greater and so they pushed and worked harder.
Which season would you recommend and which would you suggest people avoid?
E: Avoid season 4. In this season, competitors work in pairs. One person was set down at their location while the other person had to hike an average of ten miles to reach them. Many of the teams tapped out in the first few days, leaving the rest of the episodes to center around about 3 teams. The twist on the original premise is interesting, but unfortunately, competing in pairs led to much more air time eaten away by bickering and arguing, especially when food began to run short and the weather turned colder. I became frustrated and annoyed by the constant arguing and ended up moving on to another season without finishing it.
I think of all the seasons, season 1 and season 6 are my favorites. The contestants are likable, and show intelligence, ingenuity, and resilience.
B: Avoid season 4 at all costs. In our viewing of the show, 4 was the only one we couldn’t finish. My favorite season was the first. The reason season one was such a joy to watch was Alan Kay. His general attitude and quirkiness was a refreshing break from the rest of the contestants. He is a true Renaissance Man. For example, Alan quotes The Raven from memory.While I’m not a big fan of Poe, I was in his corner from then on out.
Which aspect of the show troubles you?
E: Many of the contestants enter the show displaying an overwhelming toxic idea of masculinity. These contestants have the mindset that nature is something to be “conquered” and when they ultimately fail, they take it as a sign of weakness on their part.
If this attitude were in only one or two contestants, it wouldn’t bother me, but unfortunately, there are multiple contestants every season who share this view. Whether this is the result of a failing on the part of those who choose the contestants, or if the show itself perpetuates this idea, I’m not sure, but I would like to see the show depart from this idea in future seasons.
Also, a woman has yet to win and they are currently airing the 7th season. I know this isn’t completely up to the show-runners, but come on ladies! I can’t wait to see a woman win, it’s only a matter of time.
B: In addition to all of the reasons Erin listed above, Alone tends to promote this problematic narrative of the “rugged individual” that seems to permeate the culture of the United States. This is a bit of a paradoxical criticism however. Every individual that goes on the show, I would argue, learns to appreciate their community and network of family and friends around them. At the same time, this new appreciation is overshadowed by the fact that one man, sorry ladies, has “conquered” nature, pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, and won the grand prize. I feel it somewhat negates the purpose of the show which is to recognize that being alone sucks and that we are stronger together than we are alone.
This post was co-written by Erin Snedeker and Brooks Applegate