Netflix newest reality competition is a survival series with a $1 million prize. Its name is one-third of Survivor’s “Outwit. Outplay. Outlast” tagline, but it’s cribbed from so many survival shows I’m surprised it’s not called Survive Alone Afraid Outlast XL.
Outlast starts very much like Survivor: people divided into teams, given basic supplies, and sent to a designated area to build their own camp. Some appoint themselves leaders, others separate themselves, and many of them chafe at each other’s mere presence.
So far, this is quite familiar, to the point of boredom. What Outlast has to add to the genre is actually a subtraction: rules. The result is eventually fascinating and atrocious, shocking but predictable. (This review discusses events from all eight episodes.)
Like other survival shows, there’s no host, but unlike those, there’s no structure nor any rules. Well, there is a basic, overarching guideline: to win the “potential” $1 million, players must be part of a team.
“The only way out is to personally give up,” the very limited rules say, adding that “you must remain part of a team” and “you can change teams at any time.”
Without a host or structure, there’s also no real action for several episodes. These episodes may scratch your Alone itch, with scenes of survival in the Alaskan wilderness, and some beautiful drone photography of the area near Juneau.
Yet you can feel the producers straining. The narration, with its bizarre breaks (“While most players. Do not know whom. Or from which camp. The flares were shot. One team. In particular. Does.”) offers Probstian levels of unnecessary exposition. “A helicopter hovers above Team Delta’s camp,” the narrator says, as a helicopter hovers over Team Delta’s camp.
And its cast is, on the whole, not equipped for such a survival challenge. Players drop out fast, for various reasons.
Javier expresses surprise at how little survivalist experience people have, and he solves for that by micromanaging his teammates. It’s hard to blame him, though; one actually says his survival knowledge comes from watching survival reality TV shows.
The producers—excuse me, “game masters”—introduce a few challenges, including the final trek to the prize.
The first challenge gives teams raft-building materials and a map noting that there are crab pots on a small island. They must navigate tides and then, if they make it, decide how many crab pots to take.
It’s a great open-ended challenge, and Angie’s successful trip is the highlight of the first part of the series, as she finds her way into the current and flies past the cocky man, who misses the island completely.
In these early episodes, Outlast‘s players don’t immediately take the producers up on the offer of being able to craft their own game.
An initial attempt comes from 25-year-old Jordan, who says “either follow me or go against me.” He goes to another camp with an even emptier threat, pretending that his team is eating well, and they see through his lies immediately.
The narrator—who, like another host, just won’t shut up, even interrupting people’s sentences—highlights the first real transgression: using a cotton ball from a medical kit to start a fire.
The previews, at the start and end of the first episode, make it seem like this will all swiftly devolve into Lord of the Flies, with a camp on fire and things being stolen.
But it’s not until the third episode that some heat shows up, with the idea of alliances between camps surfacing. Dawn says, “It’s a game, Paul, we’ve gotta play the game.” But Dawn is the one about to get played first.
The first big move comes two weeks in—and it really does feel like two weeks of TV—when Paul bails from Delta. He joins Charlie, which embraces this defection and the supplies he brings.
Paul’s former teammates are not happy. Joel says it was “cowardly [to] grab his things and defect,” while Dawn calls it a “chickenshit way to leave” and calls him a “dirty, despicable, asshole.”
Joel also tells us “you really could see, very quickly, how easily the wheels could come off the bus.” Oh, he has no idea.
Team Alpha, which consists of Jill, Amber, and Justin, senses an opening, and decides to use dynamite to get through it.
While they have some conflict among themselves (Jill: “Jesus Christ, Justin!” Justin: “You might want to check your tone.”). But Jill says, “I’ve had so many traumatic experiences in my life that I distrust human beings in general” but she has “1,000 percent of my confidence in” Justin.
Jill declares “it’s time to get some people out.” Justin says, “Let’s expedite the process.” Amber adds, “Now it’s time to engage and play the game.”
Their first idea is to convince Bravo to reject Charlie and Delta to reject new team members. “Let’s just cut their heads off,” Jill says, presumably speaking metaphorically, although the narrator does not step in to tell us whether or not beheadings would be allowed.
They talk to Bravo’s remaining team members, Brian and Javier. “If they do you wrong first, you’re done,” Jill says, proposing they get Charlie and Delta team members to quit the game by making their lives miserable, and then refusing to let them join their teams. “Put your integrity on pause until we get home,” Jill says.
This is truly brilliant strategy, because they’re not on, say, Alone where the game is to outlast each other. Why sit around and suffer?
“There’s nothing wrong with playing dirty,” Justin says. He then proposes stealing their sleeping bags, though he dismisses it at first as “just a thought.” Jill says, “I like the thought, I just think it’s dangerous”; Justin says it’d be “catastrophic” for that team.
Perhaps I’m desensitized after two decades of watching competition reality TV, but while taking a way a team’s ability to stay warm at night is devious and almost sure to end those players’ games, it’s also perfectly acceptable and smart game play.
Of course, there’s no actual risk to people. If you browse social media, you’d think Alpha wrote death warrants for Delta—even though in the very same episode, after Jordan passes out, we hear a radio call from “Safety Four” saying “we need a medic on scene at location Delta,” and we see crew members helping evacuate Jordan.
Speaking of social media: Consider whose idea this is (Justin), and who does the stealing (Justin), and then scan Twitter to see which two players are being called the c-word. Netflix really makes bank inflaming misogynists on social media, doesn’t it?
The strategy works. Joel is ready to leave, and Dawn wants to fire the flare up someone’s ass. Dawn eventually finds the raft Justin tried to camouflage, and pops the inner tubes in the raft, and tries to find him.
The narrator then tells us that “Delta players commandeer the production’s equipment in a desperate move to find answers.”
This, too, is brilliant: They’re on a reality show, so of course everything will be taped! Dawn eventually finds footage of Justin stealing their sleeping bags. (Of course, the production ultimately made the decision to let them look at the footage.)
Javier watches from across the river: “It’s Lord of the Flies here.” Then, despite having encouraged his teammate to join in this game-playing, he decides to disassociate himself from everything: “You are batshit crazy; we don’t have an alliance.”
His teammate, Brian, is the one who actually quits because he doesn’t want to be associated with this, leaving Javier alone.
And then the fan really hits the shit: Jill and Amber prevent him from joining another team by destroying both his shelter and raft. Then Justin leaves Jill and Amber, destroying Alpha’s tarp, which eventually prompts Team Charlie—who’ve known what’s going on this whole time—to reject him as a teammate.
All of this is drenched in hypocrisy and sexist condemnations of Jill and Amber, with players rejecting each other’s behavior while justifying their own. I’m not going to defend any of the players, but I also won’t attack them for playing the game they were presented with.
Whatever you think about what happens, it’s allowable, smart, and exactly what Outlast was designed to create. If Netflix wanted a show where survivalists sat around and waited to outlast either other, they would have cast actual survivalists, and then just ripped off Alone’s format.
They also wouldn’t have ended the show with a hike to the prize, they would have just waited for people to actually, you know, outlast each other.
While Outlast’s format resulted in exactly the kind of drama one would expect from a rule-free game for $1 million, the producers are distancing themselves from it.
“We didn’t want to handcuff people by any means,” executive producer Grant Kahler told Rob Owen. “I told them I was not going to give them any rules. Did I think that there would be some foul play, some dirty play? Yeah, because we gave them the opportunity. But I didn’t expect it like it happened.”
What kind of foul play would one expect? Poisoning? Knife wounds?
The only rules are that players have to 1) choose to drop out themselves and 2) be part of a team to win, so players trying to stop others from doing those two things is a logical, foreseeable outcome.
Kahler did tell EW, “I’m not some completely innocent bystander here. It would’ve been very easy to make rules to avoid things like stealing from each other or burning down your shelter, waving knives at whatever… but as long as someone didn’t feel like they were going to be physically threatened, I was okay with it. As long as everyone was safe.”
Even if nothing was scripted or staged, the producers and Netflix manufactured exactly what they wanted: behavior that’s spurred outrage.
And by spending several dragged-out episodes on just the survival part, Outlast acts as if its turn into Lord of the Flies is some kind of surprise.
Ultimately, Alpha’s Jill and Amber lost the game to Charlie’s Nick, Seth, and Paul, meaning their behavior did not pay off.
Is there something to be learned from this? Is there a moral to this story? For me, it’s that you can hate the players’ game, but you’re hating them for playing the game they were given.
Netflix’s Outlast is an average survival show that has shocking but predictable behavior to get its $1 million prize. C
What works for me:
- The cinematography
- The creative game play, however awful
What could be better:
- The expository. Narration. And it’s. Unnatural pauses.
- Not pretending that this isn’t exactly what the producers wanted