Finding Bigfoot’s biggest surprise

Two cast members from Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot answered questions and signed autographs for the more than 100 people who’d come to see them at Stetson University last night, where I teach. I’d talked with the cast at a press event last summer, and when they mentioned they enjoyed talking with student groups, I suggested we set something up if they were ever in Central Florida.

On four hours of sleep, since they were doing a night investigation on Sunday, cast members Ranae Holland and Cliff Barackman left a shoot in the panhandle of Florida and trekked over to campus before heading today to Alabama for another shoot. If you haven’t seen the show, Cliff sees clear evidence of bigfoot’s existence, while Ranae, the group’s scientist, is not convinced.

They are both exceptionally passionate about their work, which is unsurprising, as is the fact that they often disagree. The points on which they do agree can be unexpected; a question about the lack of bodies, bones, and even photographs prompted both to talk about how that’s true of most apex predators, whose bodies quickly decompose and who are rarely photographed in the wild.

What surprised me most was their interaction with the group of people who showed up to see them, and those viewers’ level of engagement with the show: there were many college students, of course, but also local families, and professors and their children. This wasn’t a crowd of crazed Bigfoot hunters, though there were certainly some of those, but instead of people who are inspired by what they watch together, including kids who are excited to go outside an explore–because of a TV show.

That show is, of course, edited for drama and condensed for time, and isn’t an accurate depiction of either scientific research nor squatching. (Cliff posts detailed recaps of each episode with his field research that didn’t necessarily make it into the show.) It has evolved since its early days, however, when the editing was more deceptive, to a series that’s more honest about the team’s work.

What it does do is illustrate the process of investigation: meeting witnesses, asking questions, gathering evidence, thinking critically, and considering possibilities, even when that means having Bobo stand in for a possible sasquatch. And it’s clear that is inspiring and educational to a wide range of people.

Even more incredible was that, after the presentation, Cliff and Ranae lingered for more than 90 minutes to sign autographs and take pictures–and not just one picture, multiple pictures in multiple configurations of people. They did not have to do that, and certainly did not have to give the time and attention they did to every single person who talked with them.

They also had serious, in-depth conversations about their work and even their personal lives with students and others. I have never before seen that level of passion, commitment, and impact from a reality show’s stars.

I only wish the show could include some of that. But obviously, it’s doing its job.

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.