Due to binge-watching Netflix's "House of Cards" over the three-day weekend, I had to wake up early on Monday morning and force myself to watch "Ultimate Survival Alaska" and "Wild West Alaska." And for the first time, it felt like work to watch TV.
On this week's episode of "Ultimate Survival," all they did was hype up the bear danger of Afognak Island. After what seemed like the 50th bear encounter, I understood that bears were unpredictable wild animals to be feared and respected (which I obviously understood before watching the show). So I decided to watch a show I've never watched before: Animal Planet's "Wild West Alaska." It took everything I had to get through the episode and not change the channel. "Wild West Alaska" is a show about Wild West Guns, a store just off the Seward Highway in Anchorage. Each episode features the staff of Wild West Guns navigating a kooky, "only in Alaska" situation.
First, I don't understand why this show is on Animal Planet. The only talk of animals in the entire episode was a guy who was going to "spear a bear" (literally -- stand on a platform and kill a bear by driving a spear through its body). This led me to research other programs on Animal Planet. Here are just a few titles of shows you'll find scrolling through their website: "Turtleman Takes Manhattan," "Animal Cops," "Confessions: Animal Hoarding," "Must Love Cats," and my personal favorites, "Pit Bulls & Parolees" and "Too Cute." The programs on Animal Planet are what give reality TV a bad name. "Pit Bulls" follows the operations at an animal rescue center, where they take care of abused, neglected and abandoned dogs and where many of the workers happen to be on parole. "Too Cute" is a show in which a narrator tells the stories of dogs and cats from ages eight to 12 weeks. The show comes with a warning: "The following program contains material that is just too cute." Ugh.
Second, there is a major difference in quality between "Wild West Alaska" and shows like "Alaska: The Last Frontier," "Deadliest Catch" and "Bering Sea Gold." Compared to these shows, "Wild West Alaska" looks like a 1990s blood-borne pathogens employee training VHS tape. The edits are abrupt, the dialogue is terrible and seems completely scripted, and the customers coming into the store must be cast by producers.
Finally, "Wild West Alaska" is a show made to appeal to a demographic that I do not fall into: gun-owning, camouflage-wearing men. The entire narrative of the episode revolved around Ken, the store's manager, not being manly enough to survive in the wilderness, so two young blond women from the store challenge Ken and his salesman, Hans, to a survival challenge somewhere in the Bush. They set up Ken's character by having him drink Turkish coffee, eat a fancy organic breakfast and wear a shirt with flowers. They even have him botch a sale to a customer by talking about his New York City roots and shaking his hand in a strange way. He goes on to pack his bag full of gourmet foods, a French press for coffee and other items that won't help you actually survive in the wilderness.
Meanwhile, his partner Hans brings nothing but a gun, ax and knife. While they wait for their plane to arrive, Hans decides to throw away all of Ken's belongings, because he deems them unnecessary. When the four are finally dropped off in the wilderness (somewhere off a gravel runway), the women have a tent, sleeping bags and all the normal things one would bring backpacking. Ken and Hans spend a cold night outside surviving on berries and sleeping under a tree.
I'm totally OK with contrived situations -- in fact, I love them (examples: survival challenges, placing a diverse cast in a group living situation, a man dating 20 or more women at once to find true love on national television), but in those unbelievable settings they have to let the cast act like sane, rational, unscripted human beings. I believe that the real Ken would be an interesting, funny person to watch on screen, but the character that Animal Planet has created is completely over the top. After watching "Wild West Alaska," a mediocre episode of "Ultimate Survival Alaska" seemed deserving of an Emmy.
• Emily Fehrenbacher lives in Anchorage, where she reviews Alaska reality TV.
By Emily Fehrenbacher