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Race to Survive Alaska says it’s unique, but follows a familiar path

Race to Survive Alaska says it’s unique, but follows a familiar path
Elizabeth Killham and Robin Moore in USA Network's reality competition Race to Survive Alaska (Photo by Patrik Giardino/USA Network)

Many survival reality TV shows have been set in Alaska, and plenty of competition series have used its landscape, from The Amazing Race season one in 2001 to Netflix’s controversial rule-free show Outlast earlier this month.

We’ve had everything from NatGeo’s Ultimate Survival Alaska, which was accused of being staged, to Animal Planet’s peaceful and gorgeous The Last Alaskans.

So I rolled my eyes when the narrator of USA Network’s new Race to Survive Alaska (Mondays at 11) calls it “a competition unlike anything ever seen before.”

The teams of two and their light bickering are reminiscent of The Amazing Race: father/son, brother/sister, brothers, a dating couple. (The cast includes two indigenous Alaskans, a record-setting gay mountain climber, and a team you may recognize from Discovery’s Naked and Afraid franchise.)

Pairs of two racing across Alaska while being followed by camera operators on foot does not sound like the most original idea.

But Outlast seemed like a knock-off, too, even borrowing its title from Survivor, and then surprised us all as it set the Internet ablaze. Is there something new here, too?

A person in a harness dangling under a cable in the woods
Cason Crane traverses part of Race to Survive Alaska’s first leg (Photo by Patrik Giardino/USA Network)

To its credit, Race to Survive Alaska is transparent about how its race will unfold. The course consists of six legs over 40 days along the Alaskan coast.

Each leg has a producer-created challenge along the way that teams must complete before moving along.

Teams can only race 12 hours a day, and have to stop and camp at the end of that time. They also only have four days for their first leg.

Whoever finishes the leg last is out; whoever finishes first gets nicer accommodations at their camp.

It’s less clear how they can win the $500,000 prize. Will just one team get it, or will multiple teams share it?

Two people wearing backpacks hike through high grass; one uses walking poles
Justice Norman and Hakim Isler hike during Race to Survive Alaska episode 1 (Photo by Patrik Giardino/USA Network)

Race to Survive Alaska is competently produced by Deadliest Catch producers Original Productions, which managed to get me to keep watching the same crab pots and big waves season after season by focusing on characters.

Here, bio packages give backstories, but the teams blend together, perhaps because the beats are familiar and repeated, like the son who wants his father to stop telling him what to do.

Maps keep us apprised of the teams’ progress, and while the actual on-the-ground footage isn’t always that interesting—it’s a lot of walking and hiking—there are gorgeous shots of the Alaskan landscape.

Based on the first (and only) episode provided to TV critics, it’s perfectly serviceable but lacking anything to really grab my attention.

One person kneels and another bends over to look at a laminated piece of paper
Race to Survive Alaska contestant Oliver Hoogendorn and Wilson Hoogendorn in episode 1 (Photo by: Patrik Giardino/USA Network)

The race and course is no doubt challenging. And there is a scary medical event in the first episode.

But as real as that moment is, it’s something that we’ve seen again and again, unfortunately. The only real difference is that the narration, which comes after we see an injured and delirious person saying “I’m going to see you in heaven.” The narrator says, “Alaska already claimed its first victims,” and that’s just gross.

The preview for the season, which highlights some rousing and scary moments, tells us “it’s not just a race, it’s a fight for their own survival.” When a show is pretending people might die, you know that it’s grasping for straws, especially when we’ve already seen on-site medics and producers ready to help the second something goes wrong.

The genres aren’t comparable, but I see some similarity with USA Network’s 2020 competition Cannonball, which I wrote was “bland, pointless, and barely makes a splash.” That’s similar to how I felt watching this.

We do get a better sense of the competitors on Race to Survive Alaska, and perhaps the arc of the series will be spectacular. But its opening act doesn’t suggest it’s adding anything new to the genre. It’s not bad, but not great.

Outlast produced some shocking game play, and whether it was a sign of the end of times or a deeply fascinating study of human behavior, the format unquestionably produced something original.

Race to Survive Alaska, however, is just following a familiar path.

Race to Survive Alaska

Race to Survive Alaska is doing a competent job of following the same, familiar path as so many Alaskan competitions before it. C

What works for me:

  • Interesting teams
  • Explaining the rules

What could be better:

  • Inserting an original idea somewhere
  • Not treating life or death like entertainment

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Tuesday 4th of April 2023

Have you seen the BBC's Race Across the World? (Can't see any reviews - think it might be on Discovery+ in the US)

Similar concept but without the challenges - the challenge is the travel and staying within budget - they must travel by land for the cost of the airfare, but can earn more with jobs along the way.