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“Alone” is reality TV. But is it real?

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The producers of Only love to throw a good curveball to their audience.

(Spoilers ahead.) The survival reality show’s ninth season’s fifth and sixth episodes contained a handful of narrative tricks. In episode six, contestant Teimojin Tan, 31, a Montreal doctor, climbed high into a rickety pine tree to retrieve a stray arrow, and the episode was cut short by a commercial break just as Tan appeared to crack. a limb and fall. My pulse pounded in my throat as I waited for the episode to return, only to see that Tan grabbed an arm and scrambled away after falling a few inches.

Later in this episode, actor Juan Pablo Quiñonez, 30, of Guadalajara, Mexico, was struck with grief after shooting and killing a cute weasel. Having watched the entire Only series, I got used to the familiar rhythms of the series. So when I heard Quiñonez longing for his girlfriend and home life, I was convinced he was about to quit. A scene later, Quiñonez upset his proverbial frown and recommitted himself to his life in the bush.

But the biggest misdirection so far in this season occurred in episode five. After 26 days in the wild, Benji Hill, 41 of Bellevue, Wash., had turned the Labrador wilderness into his own personal all-you-can-eat buffet, gobbling up several fish and a few feathered tetras. Hill, 46, had even tracked and killed a beaver, then scraped off enough energy fat from the aquatic rodent to fill a hollowed-out log.

Competitor Benji Hill fell ill after rendering a beaver’s fat. (Photo: History Channel/A&E Network)

Midway through the episode, the producers juxtaposed Hill’s seemingly carefree script with scenes of contestant Adam Riley, who was battling a crippling stomach virus. When Riley started to gauge how badly he really wanted the $500,000 season winner purse, my Spidey senses were triggered: Will Riley give up? West Only fool us again?

In the scenes that followed, the fortunes of the two men completely changed. Riley made himself a cup of steaming birch bark tea and pushed back his stomach pains. Meanwhile, Hill caught an intestinal bug after eating another fatty beaver meal and became completely incapacitated with diarrhea, fever and body aches.

“I have beaver fever in my stomach,” Hill moaned on camera between bouts of vomiting. “I’ve never had this kind of incessant churning in my stomach.”

After a night of illness, Hill made the right decision to call for medical help, becoming the third contestant of the season to return home.

Steering errors like this happen from time to time on Only, as producers spice up the storytelling to keep viewers like me on the edge of our couches. These moments recall the duality of the show: while the hunt, the stomach aches and the moments of sadness on Only are all real, the series is still very much reality television, an entertainment medium in which producers and directors ultimately weave the narratives that tie these moments together. And the production teams use plenty of reliable TV tricks, like cliffhangers and plot twists, to do just that.

Only is real, but it’s also a TV show.

I spoke to several former contestants about this dynamic, and all admitted to feeling some disconnect between their own survival experience and how it was portrayed on screen.

“It’s hard to describe – everything they show is something you did on camera,” season six winner Jordan Jonas said. “But the way it looks may not be entirely true to your experience.”

Callie Russell, who was the season seven runner-up, told me that watching herself on Only forever changed the way he viewed the series. Russell shot thousands of hours of footage, and only a tiny percentage was released.

Only candidate Teimojin Tan.
Only contestant Teimojin Tan nearly fell from a tree. (Photo: History Channel/A&E Network)

“I have a lot more compassion and openness to a person’s journey, and I’m not quick to judge someone for what they do or don’t do,” Russell told me. “I know this is only one version of what happened, and not all of the details that led to a person’s decision are shown.”

Jonas, Russell and others were unfazed by how their respective stories were told. For every minute of footage producers choose to air, there are dozens of hours left. But it took being on the show to realize that the images they captured and the experiences they had were just the raw material the producers used to tell the story they wanted.

Ryan Pender, Only executive producer, said the pursuit of truth is the philosophy that drives Only narration. “I think we’re the most honest reality show on television,” he said.

While the show focuses on wilderness survival and elevating bushcraft skills and self-sufficiency, Pender said he and his staff also seek to explore the emotional fibers that help people navigate the adversity. So, they tend to sift through the thousands of hours of footage to find moments where cast members find catharsis, mourn the loss of a loved one, or discover an inner truth about themselves.

“At the end of the day, the show isn’t about winning, it’s about hearing about someone’s relationship with their family or their children — or lack thereof — and how that comes out,” Pender said. . “That’s what sets us apart from other survival shows.”

In order for these moments to connect with the audience, however, Only must provide a narrative arc, or type of scenario, to frame each person’s emotional discovery. And showing those moments means sacrificing other stories that could be told.

For example, in season two, contestant Larry Roberts admitted to himself — and viewers — on camera that he hated his job as an electrician and was exhausted from his suburban existence. This moment was made all the more profound due to Roberts’ scenes in previous episodes, in which he constantly dropped the F-word and directed his ever-present anger at mice, rocks, trees, and whatever. he met in the forest. He came across as someone who was battling his inner demons out in the wild.

Roberts probably had some happy moments during that streak that just didn’t hold up.

Roberts’ story makes me wonder what’s to come Only episodes have in store for Tan, Quiñonez and the remaining five contestants. My guess is that we’ll see more narrative curves, but also powerful and very real moments.