Go big or go home, right? “This time,” announces narrator Michael Brown at the start of Naked and Afraid XL, “instead of pairing with one stranger, 12 peers will fight for limited resources.” Discovery’s spin-off from Naked and Afraid promises more survivalists, more days in the wilderness, and more locations.
But bigger is not always better. At the spinoff’s start, the larger cast — six women and six men who survived the 21-day challenge of the first series, now divided into four teams of three — disperses our focus and sends plotlines in multiple directions. It’s hard to invest in any of the participants as we watch them dropped off in various locations in Colombia. Here they face ostensibly life-threatening conditions: Roca Diablo is dry and rocky, with razor-sharp grass, Rio Negro is occupied by merciless bugs, Cano Verde is a swampy jungle, and El Bosque is a tropical woodland.
All are hot: temperatures can reach 120 degrees. And all of the survivalists to strip naked before they wander away from their drop-off point to recover their handy-dandy hemp bags. Each is packed with a knife, a map, and one survival item of the contestant’s choice. Before, they were provided a designated point for meeting their partner, but on XL, they’re merely wished all the best in finding their two teammates.
The teams are composed to develop both internal and external conflicts. It’s the usual sort of social experimentation for such shows, dating back to MTV’s The Real World. Day Two at El Bosque offers just one example of how trite this setup has become, as Alana and Danielle rest on the floor, conserving energy, while Shane spends hours trying to build his desired shelter. When Shane does decide to give up his macho man act, he rants about his troubled life, growing up in foster care, being incarcerated, and receiving psychological treatment.
Following this performance, Danielle and Alana are understandably concerned. “When I came out here, I was concerned about the pit vipers and the jaguars,” says Alana, “Now, I’m worried about Shane.” This idea constitutes a shift from Naked and Afraid, where each pair of survivalists had to rely on each other to make it to Day 21. If that show offered a rudimentary concept — a naked man and woman living in nature — this one is more given to predictable social drama.
When Naked and Afraid XL does focus on the people in the wilderness, it does so by emphasizing the stress of camping out. Brown narrates, “Humans can endure three days without water and three weeks without food. But at 40 days without sustained sources of food and water, the human body cannot survive.” The 12 contestants pose a basic problem: 12 mouths to feed.
Come Day Two, viewers see how the survivalists find food. “Chris, he’s going towards the pond!” yells Luke as he, Chris, and Honora chase a zippy little lizard in Cano Verde. The show underlines the visual gag, that they talk a big game while pursuing such a tiny creature. Soon the teammates are skewering and cooking their kills, the lizard and a very large cockroach, dividing them into three portions as Brown observes, “Though they must split a 15-calorie cockroach and a 90-calorie lizard three ways, this meager dinner is by far the largest meal they’ve consumed on the challenge.” Yes, it will be tough to find enough to eat.
But while we might worry about this problem in the abstract, XL doesn’t provide enough time with any of the contestants to worry about them as individuals. Where the original series devoted entire episodes to one couple, revealing them from day one to 21, this one cuts around repeatedly, checking in with the four different groups, but doesn’t offer details of personality.
Naked and Afraid XL bites off more than it can chew with this larger format. And in suggesting that the people pose greater threats to each other than the wilderness, the show looks too much like other game shows, losing the focus on actual surviving that made that Naked and Afraid engaging.