Bear Grylls, a man who now lives because he drank a lot of piss and ate a lot of bugs and knows how to climb a rope, is back with an interactive Netflix survival show where you, the viewer, can make him shoot the smallest crocodile alive with a pebble.
That's the price of survival in You vs. Wild, a show where Bear does his usual routine of having a strong core while swinging a machete around. The catch is, You vs. Wild draws from Netflix's recent experience with choose-your-own-adventure storytelling seen in Black Mirror's Bandersnatch, and applies it to Grylls' familiar life or death situations. Grylls will still explain how to stay alive in some grueling scenarios, but when it comes to how—sleeping on a bone pile in a jaguar cave or in the trees with some mad monkeys—the choice is yours.
Disappointingly, your choices don't matter too much. I mean, I didn't expect You vs. Wild to advance the interactive TV genre at all, but it's still a bummer we can't watch Grylls truly fuck up for once. It's clearly aimed at young people, and I'm not sure watching Grylls' limp body bounce off a cliffside and tumble into a ravine is a great image for young minds, especially if they're at fault.
But a lack of genuine consequence means an abundance of contrivance, producing some of the dumbest survival show television I've ever seen. It's glorious. A few examples:
The very first choice in the first episode is picking the last piece of gear Bear stuffs into his bag: a slingshot or a rope attached to a grappling hook. There are only ever two options. I choose the slingshot because it looks weak and flimsy, an almost assured death for Bear, I'm thinking.
Bear leaps from a helicopter into a river, which he tells me is full of crocodiles, and swims to shore where we meet our first foe: the smallest crocodile that has ever lived. Even the crocodile is ashamed at how small it is.
It probably recognizes Bear and knows that this is how it'll always be remembered, as the tiny croc scared of pebbles and British men. I work with a lot of British people. They're very nice. So embarrassing for the croc.
I'm rewarded for choosing the sling shot here. Bear crouches and pegs the poor thing with some rocks, sending it scuttling away, though I'm sure a grappling hook would have the same effect. It's an impressive display of how to keep a career alive, that acting.
10 minutes into Bear's trek through the bush he begins sifting through the dirt for bugs to eat. My local corner store is a 15-minute walk away and I've never once dug up my neighbor's lawn to eat bugs, but Bear is giving me the confidence to try.
I make him eat the grub because that'll be gross, so he rips its head off and bites the thing, black juice spewing from his mouth. (Note for my psychiatrist: I briefly imagine I am the grub.) Bear makes a face like it tastes gross, but I know he likes it. He likes eating the juicy bugs and making a face for the camera. And I like it too.
Bear doesn't die, but I have a sudden realization. He also had to eat the termites, right? I find solace in this fact. Bear had to make every bad decision you see on screen and enact it on camera. No one's going to let him die, and not 100 percent of the poor choices are actualized, but this guy is going great lengths to teach me how shit I am at being outside. Respect.
Passing through a small sect of Central American jungle ain't easy. Big cats are on the prowl, so says Bear. And in this particular area, Bear finds a tuft of fur signaling the presence of a jaguar. We get two options: 1) Mask our scent by rolling around in the mud, or 2) Dress up like a giant cat toy using tree branches.
As a bush, Bear is the most visible object on earth. I watch him struggle to convey that he's doing the right thing, waddling around like a huge theater prop. I'm sorry to report that Bear is not mauled by a jaguar as a repercussion.
He makes it through the jungle just fine because the big cat is actually a small cat, a jaguarundi which is like a scrawny poser cat that gets picked last in wildcat dodge ball. Were it an actual jaguar, Bear assures me, the bush would've been a bad choice. It was a bad choice either way, guy, but it was still the right choice.
In episode four, we're relocated to a frigid, snowy area in an effort to rescue a rescue dog. (Aside to dog: Hey, buddy. Do your damn job.)
Crawling across the frozen lake is obviously the safe choice, but Bear is always harping the viewer about their limited time. I dig the false sense of urgency, but no way in hell is Netflix going to let a dog die. So I continue to throw Bear at the wall and see what sticks. We're walking across the damn lake.
It's my first real fail state. Bear falls into the water immediately—the guy actually falls into a frozen lake. More impressive, he calmly explains how to get out of the terrible situation I put him in. I mean, if PC Gamer told me to press my bare ass on a faulty, sparking power supply to demonstrate what not to do, I would politely decline. Bear would do it.
He climbs out of the collapsing ice and says, oops, my pants are wet and it's cold as hell out here before giving me the option to try again. So we crawl across the ice and rappel down a cliff (not before trying to sled off it on a shovel and into another fail state) and rescue the incompetent, beautiful rescue dog. The premise, choices, and consequences are a bit shallow, but I'm finding myself endeared to the whole goofy mess.
I appreciate that when I make Bear do something that is clearly the worst of two choices, he's forced to recap my decision and the processes involved with as much enthusiasm as if it were hardcoded, essential survival knowledge—except for the slight furrow of his brown and strained half-grin telegraphing my bad brain. In You vs. Wild, Bear Grylls is my prisoner, he is my toy.
It's more potent commentary on interactivity and control than anything in Bandersnatch's fourth-wall-breaking entirety because he actually has to eat that awful stuff or jump off a damn cliff or walk across a frozen lake. The growing popularity of interactive media means we're all complicit in Bear's suffering. He wouldn't have to do any of this if videogames weren't so popular with the kids.
We, collectively, made Bear walk across a frozen lake. We made Bear walk through razor sharp grass as tall as him. We made him eat bear poo rather than look around for literally anything else to eat.
And right on cue, he responds to our cruel choice, saying, "How did I know you were going to pick this option?" There's no reality where Bear doesn't eat the bear poo, and even Bear knows it. We're that far gone.