Whale Wars, Expedition Africa, Out of the Wild: quests that make fascinating, actual reality TV

Three reality series use expeditions, both real and contrived, to show us lots of actual reality, and all three are definitely worth your time.

Tonight at 9 p.m. ET, Animal Planet debuts the second season of Whale Wars, its docudrama about environmentalists committed to stopping Japanese whalers who insist they’re killing whales for scientific research only. Based upon the first episode, the second season will be even better than the first, which was extremely compelling. Tonight’s episode begins with a flash forward to footage of the Sea Shepherd crew failing at their mission to stop whaling, as a whale is killed right in front of them. That leads to a violent confrontation that ends with their boat colliding with one of the Japanese whaling vessels, which happened late last year.

As before, the show presents a pretty unfiltered look at the crew members’ lives and actions. Although it’s filmed from their perspective alone, the Sea Shepherds don’t get an entirely flattering edit. Their leader, Paul Watson, calls his crew “pirates of passion in pursuit of pirates of greed,” and he’s definitely got the passionate part right. The series is honest about portraying everything from their incompetence to their tactics on their dramatic quest to stop whalers, and that’s what makes it so fascinating and gripping.

Sunday, Discovery will re-air the last five episodes of Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment, starting at 1 p.m. ET. It’s the second season of the show, but it has a new format that its executive producer told me earlier this year were designed “to make it much more raw than it was last time.”

That may be true for the participants, who have to literally find their way out of the wild and trek through Alaska while surviving off of the wilderness, rather than just staying in one place like last time, but it doesn’t necessarily come off as significantly more raw for us. Most of that is because we know that the season will end in a finite number of episodes (it concludes Tuesday night) and because the producers have provided a lot of help, from rudimentary, rough shelters to an occasional hunting guide to bits of food at their shelter locations. The show cops to all of this, though, noting that something has been constructed “as part of the experiment,” and it seems to stay true to what real people lost in or trekking through the wild would go through.

More importantly, though, there’s no doubt the people are struggling to survive, forced to kill game (a cartoon-like trap was one of the highlights) and frequently field dress it (and the editors pretty much show us everything, from ducks getting shot to animals being skinned), and that makes for watchable TV. A number of the people who started quickly quit, which adds to the drama. Among the cast is the Discovery Channel’s first-ever out gay man, who was revealed to be gay on last week’s episode. The people clash, of course, but they also rely on each other to survive, so the series ends up like Survivor without the game play. It may not be as harrowing for us as it was for them, but it’s definitely a fascinating, engaging series.

Speaking of Survivor, last Sunday, the History Channel debuted its first reality series that makes sense for the network that gave us Ice Road Truckers (the history tie-in is still lost on me). Expedition Africa: Stanley and Livingstone follows four real-life explorers who trace parts of Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone. Produced by Mark Burnett, it has some of his signature cinematic production and editing, but mostly it makes a history lesson come to life.

The explorers, including journalist Kevin Sites, had lots of conflict during the first episode, but they were all arguments about real issues related to their quest, not just fighting for fake drama’s sake. They’re also sticking pretty closely to the original journey, at least as much as possible (it’s condensed and it seems as though they’ll be bypassing populated areas), including hiring porters to carry their stuff, which seems awkward now and is a lesson in itself. The first episode, at least, gave us just enough context and history balanced with that human drama to make the series a must-watch.

Whale Wars: A
Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment: A
Expedition Africa: A

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.