In 2003, Fox aired “an outrageous new special,” Man Versus Beast, on which people competed against animals: a sprinter racing a giraffe and a zebra, a group of little people and an elephant each pulling an airplane. It was typical early 2000s Fox reality TV: sensational and surprisingly empty.
That basic idea has returned in Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Bear (Wednesdays at 9), which is exactly what it sounds like: contestants facing off against bears. Though Brandon Tierney’s frequently over-the-top narration would have fit worked just fine in 2003 Fox, there’s more self-seriousness than sensationalism here, and it can’t quite make up for how the show lumbers around like a fat and happy bear.
How does a competition between bears and people work logistically and safely? I interviewed a Discovery Channel executive and producers from Kinetic Content, which conceived of the format and produced the series. First, though, thoughts about the episode I’ve seen.
In each episode of Man vs. Bear, three contestants compete against bears in four challenges, earning points during each challenge. The person with the lowest point total is eliminated before a fifth and final challenge, and the top-three point earners of the season will compete in the finale.
The challenges will stay the same throughout the season, and both Discovery and Kinetic executives compared this to American Ninja Warrior, which has consistent challenges.
The most fun is the first challenge, “King of the Mountain,” on which 1,400-pound Bart the Bear grabs his rope toy and plays with it, and also ends up pulling a contestant off a 22-foot-high platform into water.
While the bear encounters some resistance, it’s just playing with its rope—with incredible force that sends most contestants flying off the platform.
That ends up being more comedy than competition because human strength is ultimately no match for bear strength; it’s just about lasting a little longer until a dramatic fall, and about the super-cocky and super-bulked-up contestants being humiliated.
They’re consistently surprised at being bested by a bear, and maybe Man vs. Bear is a lesson in humility, and in respect for nature.
The final challenge is similar to the first: contestants are in a big steel ball, and Bart pushes the ball into a pit. This seems to take no effort from the bear, so it’s comically easy for the bear while the human strains to try to keep their hamster ball still, all while being breathed on by a massive bear towering over them.
Bart the Bear does impress with his strength: In another challenge, “Brute Force,” Bart and the contestant each push separate, giant barrels, balanced for the contestant to be a percentage of the contestants’ body weight. As usual, it’s no contest.
For a competition with actual bears wandering around, I found Man vs. Bear to be exceedingly slow: Outside of the challenges and brief bio packages for the contestants, the hour frequently drags, and not just with the shots of lumbering bears.
There’s a lot of filler: footage and information that’s repeated again and again—familiar for cable reality TV, but still unnecessary. There are just a few minutes of actual competition in each episode.
My least-favorite challenge is the eating one, “Apex Predator.” The humans are just eating a plate of food that bears eat, some of which is unappetizing, so it’s the familiar reality TV sight of watching people gag on, say, raw fish.
The bear, Tank, basically serves as a timer, as it eats nearby. Watching Tank get up from his giant outdoor lounge chair is amusing, but that’s a sight gag, not a challenge, and can’t do much to disguise that this is little more than a Fear Factor stunt from 2001.
Throughout Man vs. Bear, the editing cuts back and forth to the bears to try to establish character and competition, as if the bears are reacting to their victories or taunting their opponents, and proves that reality TV editors are magicians who can do anything, even create reaction shots from grizzly bears.
But with mostly medium and close-up shots, and few wide-angle views of what’s happening, the editing calls attention to all the work it’s doing to create tension. Meanwhile, Tierney and co-host Casey Anderson, a bear expert, project emotions and behavior onto the bears to make them seem like they’re doing more than they are.
That’s most evident in “Grizzly Heights,” where the bear Honey Bump runs after contestants, who have to navigate an obstacle course and then climb a tree.
This has the potential to be the most thrilling challenge—a bear, chasing a person!—and while it’s probably very scary to run from a bear, on TV any sense of danger come entirely from the editing. We only briefly see the bear directly behind the contestant, and then the rest are hard cuts between the two.
The bear appears to be running in an adjacent field; it doesn’t navigate the obstacles, nor does it go up the tree. During some runs, the bear is almost immediately forgotten. The challenge is timed but on an estimated amount of time it’d take the bear to get up the tree, not based on anything that’s happening.
Of course, what did I expect? Hand to paw combat?
The challenges, it turns out, were designed based on things the bears already did, and also were designed to keep both the bears and the contestants safe. That’s the right and ethical thing to do, of course, but it also softens Man vs. Bear to be less dramatic than it wants you to think it is.
How a competition with bears and people was produced
Episodes of Man vs. Bear begin with this disclaimer:
“Bears featured in this program were rescued as cubs and raised in this sprawling wildlife sanctuary. They could not survive if released in the wild.
Events are designed around the bears’ natural behaviors and play, and are supervised by Movie Animals Protected, providing the highest levels of animal safety and well-being.”
And the credits have this line:
“Special thanks to Doug and Lynne Seus, Bart the Bear, Honey-Bump Bear, and Tank the Bear for their contribution to the series.”
That opening disclaimer seems to be a direct response to the criticism that followed the show’s announcement, primarily from PETA. Both Discovery and Kinetic representatives declined to comment on PETA’s statement about the show, which said the series is “normalizing exploitation” of animals, who are “unwilling participants.”
The bears’ owners, Doug and Lynne Seus, did respond in a statement to Realscreen, saying that their facility “Wasatch Rocky Mountain Wildlife has been inspected and licensed by USDA APHIS since 1976. We have a 40-year record of compliance that we stand proud of.”
The Discovery Channel’s senior vice president for production and development, Joseph Boyle, did tell me “that Discovery is always looking for creative ways and ideas that help people fall in love with animals and the natural world, and to learn more about them, and I think Man vs. Bear is a perfect example of it.”
When I initially wrote about the show, I said it was men facing off against bears, but was corrected by the network because there are six female competitors during the season, despite the title.
The title “Man vs. Bear” is “short for mankind,” Boyle said. “In our mind, it’s inclusive of everybody, of course.”
While I understand that Discovery’s target demographic is men, it just seems weird that there are female competitors in a show called “Man vs.” After all, Man vs. Wild was about a man in the wild, not sometimes a woman and sometimes a man. (Here’s a great history of “mankind” and “man” that explores whether they refer to all people.)
Boyle said that when the show was pitched to the network, “We needed to figure out: could a competition show like this even be accomplished, and if so how? It really came down to: if we’re really going to try to do this, what is the appropriate way to do it, what is the responsible way to do it?”
Kinetic Content CEO Chris Coelen said that, when they conceived of the format, “We didn’t want to do something that was a ridiculous, stupid show that would be putting anybody in situations” that were dangerous.
“We wanted to do something that nobody had ever seen,” he said. “We wanted to be able to showcase bears, which are obviously very North American and unique to our part of the world. We wanted to showcase them in a really original way, which I think we’ve done.”
The bears on the show have had cameras on them before: they live at Doug and Lynne Seus’s Wasatch Rocky Mountain Wildlife Ranch, which says it “has provided animal stars for over 25 major motion pictures, hundreds of TV shows, commercials and documentaries.” (Bart the Bear previously appeared in Game of Thrones and many feature films.)
“We wanted to work with bears, and it’s certainly a much easier and practical and probably reasonable to thing to work with bears that have some familiarity with humans,” Coelen said.
The production worked with Movie Animals Protected, which says its “only function on-set is to focus on ensuring the safety and welfare of animals during production.”
Eric Detwiler, Kinetic’s executive producer in charge of programming, said Movie Animals Protected was chosen because “we wanted somebody experience working with bears.”
He said “they were there every day monitoring everything that happened, making sure that the bears were well-cared for, that they had protected space, that the temperature on the ground was not too hot for them to work, and to make sure that the agreed-upon, mandated rest time was adhered to by production at all times. They were vigilant in terms of maintaining the bears’ well-being.”
“We went to great lengths to make sure that the bears were not overworked in any way, and really temperature had a lot to do with it. We shot the show in the summer in Utah, where it can get pretty hot during the day, even at the elevation we were at. Most days we were wrapped on the bears by noon, so things started very early—earlier than was most convenient for production, but we did it to make sure that the bears had the most-comfortable work environment,” he added.
The bears and their behavior also guided the challenge design.
Designing challenges for humans and bears
When the challenges were designed, Discovery’s Boyle said, “the most important piece was the idea that all of the challenges, that everything the show would be, would be a celebration of bears. The bears would be the heroes; they’re the stars. But also, that activity had to be based on true natural, bear behavior: the play that they do, the motions and actions that they like to undertake naturally.”
“To put it pretty bluntly: you can’t make a grizzly bear do anything a grizzly bear doesn’t want to do,” Boyle added.
Kinetic’s Detwiler said that “the challenges were designed so that we could have as much connectivity with bears as safely possible.” In “Grizzly Heights,” he said, “It just wouldn’t be safe to ask the bears to climb the tree after a human, but it still gave us a great simulation of what kind of actions the bears do in the wild.”
Honey Bump “absolutely loves to run,” and “giving her that opportunity was great to see and gave us some pretty dynamic shots in terms of tying humans in proximity to bears. That’s always the goal: to get humans interacting with bears as much as possible, but really working within the limits of what the bears naturally do,” he said.
Should Man vs. Bear be renewed for a season two, Coelen said they have even more insight now that could lead to new challenges: “it’ll be fun because we learned so much about what they’re good at.”
Each episode was shot separately, going through the full set of challenges before repeating. (In other words, the bears didn’t do the same challenge over and over again in one day.)
While “the bears are the stars of the show,” Detwiler said, the contestants are key, too. In casting, producers “were looking for all types,” he said, “not just looking for massive bodybuilders, but looking also for humans that love to compete.”
Contestants learned “early on in the casting process” that they’d be competing against bears, and Detwiler said that those potential contestants had “overwhelming excitement: people that have just great respect for bears” and were eventually “completely humbled” in the presence of them.
They probably never stood a chance, though they do try.
“Is it realistic that a human of any size is going to be stronger and capable of beating a 1,400-pound bear? Maybe not, maybe not,” Coelen told me. “But there’s things that people can do to try employ strategy that works in a better way, and I think you’ll see that over the run of the series.”
Man vs. Bear’s goal was “to try to let humans interact with bears, or simulate things that might come to pass in encounters with bears without actually putting them in danger.”
“The idea that you would have a grizzly bear sprinting closer to you than the 50 yard head-start that we gave people would be insanely dangerous,” he said.
Even though safety precautions limited what they could do, Coelen said, “I’m thrilled with the outcome.”
So is Discovery Channel: “The health and safety of the bear has to be the starting point for anything we do, but we’re actually very happy with the way it turned it out,” Boyle said. “They all had an incredibly challenging experience.”
And Coelen emphasized how truly dangerous it was. “If a human is going to be that close to a bear,” he said, “no matter how used to being around humans a bear might be, it’s incredibly, incredibly dangerous.”