Get Out Alive is Bear Grylls’ first show on a major broadcast network. Though Man Vs. Wild reached a wide international audience, the inability to settle a contract dispute with Discovery led the cable network to terminate their relationship with Grylls over a year ago. Now he’s back on NBC with a reality competition show designed to test contestant pairs on how well they can imitate significantly reduced obstacles that mirror his grotesquely extreme survival demonstrations.
In his autobiography Mud, Sweat, And Tears, Grylls delved into his Special Air Service training in extreme detail, cataloging the grueling training efforts required to qualify for the elite military division. He had a buddy who trained with him, and in the actual training scenarios, he got very close to dropping out or getting bumped for poor marks—but once he achieved qualification, it became all about group goals and camaraderie over individual ego. That’s the chief failing of Get Out Alive, which takes the educational approach of Grylls previous series—with the acknowledgment of the incredibly miniscule chance any viewers would have to resort to such extreme measures—and instead attempts to incorporate them into a knock-off combination of The Amazing Race, Fear Factor, and Survivor with intrusive product placement from Walmart and Procter & Gamble.
After the introductions have been made—several couples, married, engaged, or dating, family teams, best friends—and all the personal hardships revealed—a motorcycle accident, a car accident, a mother with MS, crystal meth addiction—the pairs draw Bear Grylls-branded knives out of a log to determine their roles as the group heads out on their first day. Grylls emphasizes later in the show that what he’s looking for is a combination of hard work, enthusiasm, determination, and cheerfulness in adversity. What he will judge—and whether he’s the sole determining authority on who goes forward doesn’t seem likely—is whether a group pulls their weight in collective survival. The knives divide groups into “Obstacle,” responsible for leading the group to their destination past some dangerous impediment like a rushing river of glacier water, “Food,” which continues to lead the group to their food source for the night, a deer carcass nailed to a rock wall in a cave, “Fire,” and “Shelter,” who build the ramshackle covering to keep the contestants just warm enough to survive.
I rarely watch reality programming, but two shows I respect are The Amazing Race and The Biggest Loser, because while they may be detestable at times—the latter certainly more often than the former—at the very least in my mind they advance some kind of respectful goal or message, for international travel or weight loss and a healthy lifestyle. Grylls’ stated criteria would make for a great collaborative reality series, but when forced to adhere to certain staples of the competition genre, this goes awry. There must be breakdowns, infighting, and talking head interviews as the contestants snipe away at each other, revealing that while they may work together, they are not here to make friends. And since even Grylls’ original breakthrough in reality television bent the rules a bit from nature documentary into “reality” programming, it makes sense that a show on NBC that only uses Grylls as a hosting prop to represent survival skills would go further in that direction.
To that end, the chief set piece of the whole premiere requires one person on each team to drink a mixture of their own urine and muddy water, heated to 95 degrees for sterilization, then cooled to 60 degrees before chugging. It wouldn’t be a show with Bear Grylls if there wasn’t piss-chugging in some capacity, and it’s kind of funny watching everyone try to choke down a horrible bottle full of hot urine and mud water. And the greatest moment of the entire episode comes after the victorious father/son team reaches the Feat Pit for their reward: a lovely catered meal with a “special gift” of toothbrushes, toothpaste, and mouthwash from Procter & Gamble. The quote of the night, from the son, clearly required to read from a product-plugging script: “Being able to use the Crest toothpaste and the Scope mouthwash…after drinking my own pee is amazing.” Greatest. Product placement. Endorsement. Ever.
But then it’s down to Grylls to eliminate one of the pairs. One guy dove into glacier water wearing all of his clothes, and because of his close call with hypothermia, everything from setting up camp to cooking dinner had to take a backseat to keeping everyone alive, delaying proper preparation for the next day. But the two girls from Chicago also responsible for food gathering defer to the men when they have to swim through a pool of freezing water and carry the deer carcass. And since two men not assigned to food know how to properly skin and prepare the meat for cooking, they defer once again, but don’t help their place setting up shelter. Worst of all, the group wastes a huge amount of viable deer meat because the Chicago girls go to sleep early instead of staying up to cook the rest and save it for the morning.
So Erica and Vanessa, the two girls from Chicago, get eliminated. This seems less motivated by Grylls actually picking the biggest survival mishap of the group—that one guy jumping into glacier water with all his clothes on caused a huge delay that led to a bunch of other problems—but taking out the team that failed in their big opportunities to contribute when needed. The girls may have done less work that the teams that took charge in a power vacuum, and they’re hardly the only team that didn’t make significant contributions—but they failed most visibly. Even the girl who couldn’t take the pressure and vomited during shooting the elimination meeting made it to the next round.
Get Out Alive judges people not on their ability to enter a rough scenario and learn from the shock of survival—like Grylls did throughout grueling training to become an SAS officer in the UK—but on their survival instincts from wherever they came from in life. That puts everyone on an entirely uneven playing field. Grylls frames this as judging people not on skills (skylls?), knowledge, or strength, but on contribution to group survival. Watching Grylls gallivant through death-defying scenarios and putting himself—and his producers (WARNING: gruesome snakebite)—in great danger made for fiercely compelling television. But Grylls as host and voyeur watching over a lot of squabbling sob stories makes for a far more annoying hour than other, better conceived competitions.