In its quest to compile the ultimate collection of moderately entertaining Content that won’t challenge viewers too hard and can be endlessly recycled and rewatched, Netflix has landed on some kind of secret formula when it comes to reality shows. That might say more about the reality TV genre than it does about Netflix, but the point remains that the streaming service has tons of original reality shows that have, somehow, found enough of an audience to survive—if not outright thrive despite being buried in the cavernous depths of those little scrolling rows.
Love Is Blind is an obvious one, so are The Circle and Selling Sunset and Drive To Survive, but also deeper cuts like viral hit Physical 100, Is It Cake?, and Floor Is Lava. Any of those probably could’ve made it on regular television (well, the ones that are obviously based on existing reality genre formats could, at least), but no one network would ever be lucky enough to to attract audiences with such an eclectic array of varyingly weird reality shows.
And now, Netflix’s secret formula machine has churned out another weird reality show that has a good chance of connecting with people. It’s called Outlast, and the elevator pitch would probably be that it’s like Survivor if nobody involved was ever allowed to have any fun ever. Even after they go home. It’s a bunch of jerks being jerks in the Alaskan wilderness, trying to suppress their jerk nature long enough to make it seem like they can work as a team long enough to win a cash prize at the end of the season.
The one real rule of the show, as the unseen narrator reiterates constantly throughout each episode with deadly seriousness, is that the last surviving contestant wins the prize money, but only if they get there as part of a team. The show started with four teams, assembled at random when the contestants first met up with each other, and other than some surprise loot drops and little tips to fight over, that’s pretty much the extent of any onscreen involvement from any non-competitors. Nobody gets voted out or eliminated, they only have to leave the show if they choose to leave (as indicated by shooting a flare into the air to both summon the raft that takes you home and to inform the other teams that someone has given up).
The contestants are all the sort of person you’d expect to see on a show where the main challenge is “tolerating other people,” which is to say that they’re mostly white people in camo jackets with identical backstories (“I like to be outdoors, I grew up outdoors, I want to challenge myself outdoors”). They constantly talk about having Type-A personalities, as if that’s a unique trait among abrasive loner survivalists.
But even when all of them insist that they actually really like sleeping outside in the rain with nothing to drink for 30 hours, it seems performative. It’s clear that no one is allowed to really have fun here, lest one of these abrasive loner survivalists start to suspect that you’re not pulling your weight. The teams don’t even have fun names like on Survivor (Ratu, Tika, and Soka on the current season), they’re just Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta.
There aren’t any games to play, but there are “challenges” of a sort. In the second episode, the “Game Masters” drop a tip onto each camp about where to find crabs, along with supplies to make a raft so they can get there. But, of course, they all get the same info and are in the same general location, so they have to race each other to get there first. And since they’re all hungry and tired, everyone is cranky and desperate to win. Nobody is smiling or making conversation with Jeff Probst about what’s been going on at their camp, it’s just high-intensity drama, resentment, and in-fighting.
And some people might be into that! In the first episode, one team is trying to find a reliable water source and ends up at a little stream. One woman decides to fill a cup with water and take a swig to see if it’s safe to drink, even though these are supposedly competent survivalists, and then she immediately gets violently ill and chooses to go home after vomiting for hours. The whole team is sympathetic to her face, but one guy—who had positioned himself as the de facto leader—is clearly furious during a talking-head interview and goes on a rant about how he hates quitters and how quitting one time is hard but it just gets easier and easier.
It’s powerful “this guy is somebody’s off-putting uncle on Facebook” energy—if he gets Facebook on whatever wooden computer he has hooked up in his home cabin. He truly could not care less that this woman was puking her brains out. He would’ve preferred to see her die face down in the bacteria-infested creek she drank out of than to see her get medical attention.
This is a show for that kind of maniac. It’s clear that whatever monstrous computer deep in the Earth’s core that runs Netflix’s algorithm knows that that kind of person is out there and it knows that they would watch a show kind of like Survivor. They’d just prefer one in which everyone hates each other and they’re constantly calculating how to undermine their competition while half-heartedly pretending they’re not. That may not really be any different from any other reality show, but now we have one where abrasive loner survivalists can see themselves doing the thing they insist they’re good at. Maybe Netflix’s secret formula is just throwing so much spaghetti at the wall that eventually everyone feels represented by something.