National Geographic Channel is expanding its Life Below Zero franchise again, this time with a cast of only Alaska Native Peoples, and has also ordered two shows that star Black men.
Those are considerably different than NatGeo’s most-recent marquee travel shows—Running Wild with Bear Grylls, Uncharted with Gordon Ramsay, and Breaking Bobby Bones—which all focus on white men who parachute into places and people’s lives. Ramsay even tries to prove he’s better than the people he’s allegedly learning from, while Bear Grylls stages scenes to pretend like he’s living off the land.
Life Below Zero is the network’s biggest franchise, and its most-recent spin-off, Life Below Zero: Next Generation, focused mostly on white people who “abandoned contemporary life in favor of freedom in the brutal Alaskan wilderness,” to use NatGeo’s description. In other words, the opposite of Alaska Natives.
Last year, I asked Life Below Zero showrunner Joseph Litzinger about the diversity of the cast, and he pointed out that half of the original Life Below Zero‘s cast was Alaska Natives, but none of of Next Generation’s cast members were. (Michael Manzo is Mi’kmaq Indian, and Manzo is not in the upcoming season.)
Litzinger also told me that “it’s very important for us to represent and include the diverse voices that are living off the grid” and acknowledged that there’s a limited pool to cast from, especially because, “unless you’re Native Alaskan, it definitely takes a certain level of money and privilege to be able to move to Alaska and live off the grid.”
With this new show, the network is shifting its focus from those people who have that “certain level of money and privilege.” The announcement of Life Below Zero: First Alaskans pointed out that when Russians arrived in Alaska, “Alaskan Native peoples had been there for thousands of years, developing sophisticated ways to thrive in the harshest environments and passing down their traditions and methods from generation to generation.” NatGeo also said that:
[…] in dedicating an entire series to the native peoples of this harsh landscape, our cameras have been invited into a whole new world of storytelling, cultures and customs. LIFE BELOW ZERO: FIRST ALASKANS will follow all-new series subjects: Alaskan Natives who are focusing on their right to preserve their threatened ways of life, doubling down on ancient wisdom to ensure its survival for the next thousand years. The strength of this new series is featuring native representation throughout the on-camera cast of indigenous people, but also prioritizing diversity within the production team, crew, and cultural consultants who have deep connections to Alaska.
That the show is diversifying its crew in addition to on-screen representation is important, and something that other networks have not committed publicly to. For example, CBS has diversified its reality show casts but said nothing about changing things behind the scenes. In general, indigenous people have not been well-represented on reality TV shows over the past two decades.
For the new series, only one cast member, Jody Potts, has been announced. Life Below Zero: First Alaskans will start filming next month, and will be produced by BBC Studios, as are the other Life Below Zero series.
7 Toughest Days on Earth
NatGeo also just announced two other new reality shows, though few details are available now since neither has been filmed.
The 7 Toughest Days on Earth stars Dwayne Fields, whose website bio notes that he grew up in inner-city London but “loved nature and wildlife and wanted to reconnect to his early life in the forests and hilltops of Jamaica,” and became “the first black Briton to walk over 400 miles to the magnetic North Pole.”
In the new series, he will be:
…dropped into some of the most extreme places on Earth — at their deadliest time — for seven whole days when epic natural forces combine to supersize external threats. His task is to keep himself and his small film crew alive and lead them to an extraction point, revealing incredible moments on Earth only a few have witnessed.
That places it at least in the same sub-genre of adventure reality TV with shows like Survivorman and Man vs. Wild, though Fields’ challenge sounds a lot more extreme. The show will be filmed this winter, and is being produced by Nutopia, which produced One Strange Rock.
Appetite for Adventure
NatGeo has also ordered a show starring Big Moe Cason, a Navy veteran who’s been on reality shows such as Chopped and BBQ Pit Wars, was “the first African-American cook to become a season-long ‘Pitmasters’ judge” and “the first African-American contestant to appear on the show,” as a New Yorker profile pointed out.
Cason’s show, Appetite for Adventure, will have him “embarking on an epic global journey to seek out the planet’s most mouthwatering mythical dishes cooked over an open flame,” according to the network. It described Cason’s show this way:
After competing in over 260 BBQ contests in 35 states, he’s ready to hit the road in search of other ways people around the globe are cooking with fire, meeting with stewards of fantastic flavors, walking in their boots, and learning the impact these flame broiled dishes have on bonding their community. As someone whose culinary spark came from his grandmother cooking for big family meals, Big Moe will focus on cooking hearty comfort food over an open flame, with dishes that speak to the traditions and local spirit of each location. Big Moe will discover that no matter how difficult the struggles are to reach these locations and be mentored on new techniques, some things in life are worth the extra effort.
Filming on Appetite for Adventure will start this October, and it’s being produced by Hit + Run, the production company which currently produces Critter Fixers: Country Vets for NatGeo Wild.