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A second look at two new survival competition reality shows

Brady and Claire (back) and Ben and Juliana compete in a challenge on Fox's Kicking and Screaming. (Photo by Parrish Lewis/FOX)

Two new shows this spring have kept my interest, and I wanted to revisit what I wrote about each of them: MTV’s Stranded with a Million Dollars and Fox’s Kicking & Screaming.

They’re both games that involve wilderness survival, but beyond that, about the only thing they have in common is their low ratings. 

That’s too bad, because both have delivered a lot of entertainment, though in very different packages.

A social game, or a sociopathic game?

Stranded with a Million Dollars (MTV, Tuesdays at 10) is the more interesting game of the two, with striking and thoughtful production design. It really looks terrific, and without on-screen references to them, you’d never know it was filmed mostly by drones, locked-off cameras, and long-lens camera operators.

Despite that quality, it’s currently keeping far less than half of The Challenge‘s audience—not a great sign for a second season, though in this television landscape, anything is possible.

But let’s talk about the real story here: the game play and the viscious social game.

A few episodes in, the show and the game took a not uncommon but always startling reality TV turn: the heroes became villains and the villains became heroes. 

The villain, Cody, who initially insistent upon playing a scorched-earth game that attempted to physically and mentally force the others out of the game, found himself in the minority. He was starved out, literally, by the group of people, led by Alex, who seemed intent on building relationships and making practical decisions.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Just when Cody emerges as an underdog I’m actively rooting for, he responds to being backed into a corner by being an asshole—mocking someone’s socioeconomic status or upbringing, for example. 

And just when the campers seem like irredeemable sociopaths, using their majority to spend recklessly and treat the others like shit, we’re reminded of their humanity and/or rationale for approaching the game this way. 

Cody and Makani’s alliance itself has been overshadowed a bit by the conflict with the other tribe, but that a meditating free spirit and a conservative frat boy have connected (and even bonded?) over their position in the game and their shared survivalist abilities is one of the great unlikely friendships forged in front of our eyes on television.

They’re all playing a game that is new to all of us, and pushing up against its boundaries is often uncomfortable and horrifying. The terrible ways others treat fellow human beings—even in a game—can be disturbing.

Alex Apple on MTV’s Stranded with a Million Dollars.

I also think it can be instructive, though—in that we can learn from and have productive conversations.

This is a good point at which to mention that, in case you haven’t seen his pieces, Alex is writing weekly about the show for reality blurred, and a large part of his writing has been answering questions, including critics of his and his alliance’s behavior.

His writing, which is subjective (Of course! What else would it be?), has provided an extra level of insight into the game—and controversy, as some readers and viewers have made clear in the comments on his stories. I’ll let their critiques stand for themselves instead of trying to summarize them. 

Behavior and game play aside, my one complaint about the show as television was that the four/two split was starting to feel one-note. Even the producers’ weekly attempt to manipulate the game by tempting a player with their biggest weakness wasn’t doing much.

But last episode, illness took out half of the campers alliance, and now it’s two-two, so I’m ready to see what happens from here.

The 2000s are dragged back onto TV

As I wrote after first watching Kicking & Screaming (Fox, Thursdays at 9), it felt like a throwback to a 2003-era Fox competition show, back when everyone was trying to emulate Survivor, right down to the misplaced celebrity host. (Hannah Simone is doing a fine job, but she still feels like a celebrity dropped into the jungle for a gig.)

The series’ tone was a surprise, considering that based on the ads, I was expecting another Fox-ified reality show: a decent premise made unbearable by casting. (I’m still stung by the way a new favorite feel-good Fox show was absolutely ruined last summer.)

In the weeks since, I’ve come to enjoy Kicking & Screaming as simply silly and harmless. It’s a not-very-strategic game paired with not-very-challenging survival elements. The challenges are decent. Everything is just sort of okay. 

It’s watchable, though, mostly because the teams competing are more full of love than conflict. The moments of genuine bonding have easily overshadowed and outnumbered the moments of conflict, and that appears to be growing as the season progresses.

The cast just seems to be having fun, starting with Maxwell’s witty one-liners, and you can do worse on network reality TV than watching people playing games and enjoying themselves.

That’s the opposite of what I expected—I was so ready to watch one episode and then turn it off forever, if it was just grating personalities piled on top of grating personalities. This is more like grated parmesan cheese in a can: not the most premium product available, but sometimes really nice to have.

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