Destination Truth’s Josh Gates on beating Amazing Race’s travel, creature names, more

SyFy’s Destination Truth returns tonight at 9 p.m. ET for its fourth season, moving to Thursday nights. All day today, starting at 8 a.m., SyFy is running a marathon of Destination Truth, which follows Josh Gates and his team of investigators as they look into legends and mysteries of various kinds, like ghosts at Pompeii and the brain-eating African creature called the Nandi Beast.

Actually, that’s not what it’s called. It’s the “Nandi Bear,” but SyFy likes to change the actual names of creatures featured on Destination Truth because some network executive thinks he or she knows better than the people who actually live near it and named it. For example, on an episode where the team explored the Everglades’ version of the Yeti, the network called it the “swamp ape,” when all of us Floridians know damn well that it’s a “skunk ape.”

I talked to Josh a few weeks ago at an NBC party for TV critics and asked him about that, among other things. He said the name change was because SyFy “thought that ‘swamp ape’ was a sexier title.” When I said that everyone in Florida knows it’s the skunk ape, he said “somebody somewhere along the line thought that the word ‘skunk’ would confuse people, I think. It’s in a swamp, and it’s an ape, and, you know, that’s identifiable.” He also said, “We’re going through that right now with a story, actually, there’s a story in east Africa called the ‘Nandi Bear’ that we’re doing this season, and the network would like to call it the ‘Nandi Beast.’ What am I gonna do? I do the best I can, with the tools I’m given, and as long as we get out there and we get to film the story, that’s what matters.”

Josh’s response illustrates his casual, down-to-earth attitude and engaging personality, and that’s what draws people to Destination Truth, I think, making it watchable for people like me who otherwise avoid the glut of ghost hunting shows. Alas, the network’s insistence on distorting actual truth is disappointing and kind of ridiculous, especially since the whole point of the series is, you know, to find out the truth; often, it debunks legends and stories.

Speaking of faking things, I asked whether the team ever over-exaggerates their reactions when they’re in the field–especially when they’re not actually finding anything–so they’ll have something to make a TV series. Josh told me, “I think you find, when you get into these places and the lights go out, and you’re in jungles that have tigers and other known dangers, and you hear a noise, you’re pretty reactive, because you don’t know what’s out there. If that feels heightened some of the time, it’s because it’s a stressful place to be. You don’t know what’s behind any tree.”

During a press conference earlier that day, Josh pointed out that Destination Truth goes more places than The Amazing Race. “I do think it’s the most international show on TV. We touch down on about double the amount of countries than, say, Amazing Race would touch down in a season. So we really, over the course of a full cycle, span the planet twice,” he told critics.

I asked about their production schedule, and he confirmed that the show does cheat a bit: While episodes suggest that they return to the states after each investigation, they film everything in the field all at once, which makes logical and logistical sense. Like TAR, though, they don’t spend much time in most places because their budget “just dictates that we have to keep moving.”

When they’re in the field, Josh told me, “There’s not a lot of luxury to the show. If we can find a place to rest our heads that isn’t the floor of a hut, then we’ll try and do that. Another consideration that we have to make is we have to charge a lot of the equipment. If we can’t find a place to sleep we have to hire a generator and cart that along with us some of the time, unless we can build up enough batteries to kind of trek with. So, occasionally we’ll be in what passes for a hotel, but a lot of times it’s not so luxurious. During the investigations we’re basically camping, I mean, we’re out there, you know, on our own.”

Producers research the episode’s subject matter before the team arrives, and confirm that there’s something happening and that the location will work visually and otherwise for the TV show. On the upcoming season, Josh said they’re going “to the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia this year, which is pretty cool, nobody’s ever filmed there at night before so it’s kind of a neat first for us.”

We also talked about the show’s new timeslot–Thursdays at 9 is quite competitive–and Josh joked, “I’m gonna drop a few grenades before I leave this [party] tonight, to try to take out The Office and a few other people. We’ve been on Wednesdays at 10, behind Ghost Hunters, which has been great, the show’s grown every season, but Syfy’s launching this new reality night on Thursdays that they’ve asked us to basically anchor. It’s a big opportunity for us that shows a lot of faith in us, but you’re right, it’s a competitive night. Thursdays at 9 is the new place to be for the cool kids.”

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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.