To kick off the sixth season of the reality series that puts host Bear Grylls in scary, life-threatening situations so that he can demonstrate methods of getting out of them, Bear was sent to Arizona, where he slipped into an "OBAMA 2012" T-shirt and crashed an NRA-sponsored Tea Party rally, jumping onstage and charging past Governor Jan Brewer's security detail to ask her for details about all those headless bodies in the desert. Just kidding. (I kid Arizona because I love Arizona!) Actually, Bear was flown high over the Arizona desert, with its "parched landscape," "choking sands," and "deadly inhabitants" and jumped out wearing a wingsuit that enabled him to reach the ground safely, albeit at the cost of looking like Woody Allen fleeing imperial forces in Sleeper. "It's like landing in an oven," he gasped, once he was back on terra firma. "A very dry oven!"
For all his Boy Scout enthusiasm, Bear is pretty dry himself, which can be seen as the saving grace that keeps his show from feeling sensationalistic. It can also be seen as the death blow that makes the show feel kind of boring, even when its star is suspended in mid-air somewhere in the Earth's undeoderized armpit, chugging bat guano. Not that he doesn't deliver on his promise to fork over copious amounts of practical information that might actually come in handy for anyone out there who related a little too closely to the heroes of 127 Hours or Into The Wild. Once he's landed, he makes a large triangle in the sand, explaining that this is "the internationally recognized distress signal" and stresses the importance of staying where you are if you're lost in the desert and have reason to believe that someone may come looking for you. Having made the case for staying put, he immediately sets out on foot for a distant mountain range. Nobody ever maintained the highest rated show on cable by spending an hour twiddling his thumbs next to a big triangle.
Knowledge is good and all that, but everyone knows—certainly I imagine it's been pointed out to Bear by now—that the audience for a show like this tunes in hoping to see two things: stunts, and the consumption of disgusting things. Those tuning into the season premiere will get to see Bear snacking on a live scorpion ("You want to bite the pincers off first") and discovering a huge, hollowed-out peccary's head, which he cooks over a fire and then nibbles gingerly, in the manner of someone who has lightly worded contractual obligations to go with the cache of Milky Ways and Slim Jims in his rucksack. How did the remains of the peccary get there? Bear surmises that it must have been killed by a black bear and, having found evidence that bears have recently been in the vicinity, warns the viewer that you absolutely would not want to cook meat anyplace where bears might be likely to pick up the scent. Then, true to form, he basically just says to hell with it, if a bear shows up we'll figure out how to handle it. Maybe, before bedding down for the night, he tiptoed over to the sleeping cameraman and planted the Slim Jims in his pants.
There's a trace of something half-embarrassed about Man Vs. Wild at moments like that, when Bear is pretending that whatever left the handy props for him to find walks on four legs and isn't packing a union card. At one point, Bear happens to stumble across what's supposed to be the beautifully preserved wreckage of an ultralight aircraft and proceeds to fashion a wind-powered land vehicle out of it. How did the aircraft get there? "It's a well-known fact," says Bear, making use of a phrase that literally translates as, "How about just going with me on this?" that Mexican drug cartels regularly use ultralights to smuggle their wares across the border. I'm not saying that the idea of a reality-survival-TV host finding the remains of a botched drug-transport operation in the desert isn't a cute idea, but a part of you wants to yell at the screen that if you're being paid to write Man vs. Wild, you should do that and write your Breaking Bad spec script on your own time.
Man vs. Wild has gotten in trouble in years past for the contrived nature of its survival-situation setups, which is why the episodes are preceded by assurances that Bear and his crew "receive support when they are in potentially life-threatening situations as required by health and safety regulations," and also why Bear signs off with a plea that "If your life isn't in danger, please respect all the plants and animals you find." (I assume that the scorpion's family received an out-of-court settlement.) Really, though, my big problem with the show isn't that it's contrived but that it could be contrived a hell of a lot better. And it's not as if Bear doesn't have some moves to him. At the thrilling climax, he shimmies between two rock faces after securing the line by firing it with a handmade bow; "I'm not even going to tell you how many attempts that's taken," he says, once the job is done, but it's clear that he's long since passed the point at which, if it were me playing Angry Birds, the services of the Mighty Eagle would have been brought into play. It's too bad that the editing and camerawork undercut the thrill by deliberately obscuring just how high he is and what exactly is beneath him. If the idea is that this will make the feat seem more adventurous than it is, it has the opposite effect; for all you can tell, he might be a foot above the ground, with Disney forest creatures gathered below, holding a net.
Really, how you respond to Man vs. Wild probably comes down to how you respond to Bear Grylls. He's a hard fellow to dislike, but when he sits by a campsite beaming and says, "It's almost impossible not to smile when you get a fire going like that," you might start trying to imagine what it would take to get him to stop smiling. He smiles when he jumps out of planes, when he finds what's left of one of Anton Chigurh's failed operations in the desert, when he's trying to find the tastiest bits inside a dead peccary's head, even when he has a brief encounter with a rattlesnake. (You can tell it's unscripted, because instead of picking it up and pointing out which parts the starving survivor would find edible, he just acknowledges its presence and keeps walking in the other direction.) Grylls has one of the great real-life tough-guy names, a name right up there with Bo Gritz or Ray "Crash" Corrigan; it conjures up an outsize, colorful character, the kind who gets calls on his special phone with the beat-growl ring tone that begin, "Bear Grylls, the Joint Chiefs have a problem that only you can solve!" Grylls, a smooth, multimedia-age update on the English gentleman adventurer type who looks like a taller, older, less bewildered version of Shia LaBeouf, wilts in the shadow of his own handle. Even his boundless enthusiasm is a little muted, in a way that makes me appreciate the memory of Steve Irwin, who was never afraid to push his own unbridled enthusiasm into the red zone of borderline goofiness. I figure his blandness must be part of his appeal: He demonstrates that, with enough practice and the right temperament, it's possible to make surviving in treacherous, exotic situations look like something you can do with one eye on the clock.