The 16 contestants selected for new reality show Outlast, who will compete to survive in Alaska’s freezing wilderness for an $11m prize, are “lone wolves”, which I think is American for “introverts with outdoor skills”. Some of them (and I’m naming no names, not least because it is near-impossible to tell them apart under 20 layers of survivalwear apiece) are clearly deluded alpha males, who last about 10 minutes before the medivac team is called in to administer internet and coffee. But the rest – most of whom attest to hardscrabble childhoods spent under the wings of semi-prepper grandpappies, or in impoverished towns surrounded by woodland that offered a more hospitable environment once you’d learned how to purify water and set snares for dinner – are the real deal. Yoga instructor Amber learned a wider set of survival skills during her time as a heroin addict and felon, and after “being shot in the face by the man I loved”. You have to put her in with a chance.
The twist is that these lone wolves must form teams and work together in order to win. No one who crosses the finish line alone will qualify for the prize. It is the American ideal of togetherness and/or the sadism the country would like to perpetrate upon its introverts. E pluribus unum, whether you like it or not.
What unfolds over the next eight episodes will be familiar to any competition show viewer, but it is taken to the absolute extreme. At first it seems as though we are in for an enjoyable if derivative combination of Survivor, Alone, Bear Grylls and The Hunger Games. There is bonding. There are high fives. There are bows and arrows for hunting. Then cooperation and enthusiasm give way to growing resentment of both the idle and the competent. Men ignore women and women wait for the men to realise the wisdom of their initial suggestions and then grudgingly adopt them. There are moments when you marvel at human ingenuity and others where you scream, from the comfort of your warm, dry sitting room, at the stupidity of them all.
And then one team realises that there are no rules specified by the programme-makers other than “Don’t be alone when you make it to the finish line” and all hell breaks loose. Soon people are borderline hypothermic, visibly starving and you wonder if it was a good idea to arm them with all those bows and arrows. When did we move from evocation of the Hunger Games to full-on Lord of the Flies? Around episode five.
It’s completely addictive, ridiculous and great. Not only is there plenty of action and drama (and BEARS), there is also enough focus on the skills they are using to survive to create a genuine sense of wonder at the magic of civilisation and, as contestant Angie puts it a couple of weeks in, “a strange, true appreciation” of everything we have. Though as you watch the teams implode, you may also wonder how we ever, ever managed it.
• Outlast is on Netflix now