“Bears featured in this program were rescued as cubs and raised in this sprawling wildlife sanctuary. They could not survive if released in the wild. Events are designed around the bears’ natural behaviors and play, and are supervised by Movie Animals Protected, providing the highest levels of animal safety and well-being.”
So opens Man vs. Bear, the latest ridiculous reality show from Discovery that makes strong humans who’ve grown bored besting the rest of their species play bear games for our amusement. Mixing the worst of reality TV—over-the-top confessionals, delirious confidence, and hyper-manufactured drama—with the best of nature (bears!), the show is an argument against humanity on every level. And it all takes place somewhere called Bear Mountain.
This isn’t the first time that reality TV has pitted animals and athletes against each other, but at least America has moved away from making a team of dwarves pull an airplane in a race against an elephant. Man vs. Beast thankfully narrowed it down to a single species and dropped at least some of the exploitation. But it’s still so, so stupid. “Hello, humans!” host Brandon Tierney says in his first line of Man vs. Bear, making sure that we are immediately aware that these relatively hairless, musclebound fleshbags are not, in fact, grizzly bears.
Tierney also does the intro voiceover like a manic XFL announcer auditioning for a Key and Peele sketch, listing the grizzlies the contestants will battle: “Bart, his sister Honey Bump, and their friend Tank.” All three get a Special Thanks credit (even Bart, the most serious of the ursine trio, with his regular human name) at the end of the episode, which presumably shows up on their IMDb pages.
These bears proceed to beat the ever-loving hell out of the humans in five challenges:
1. King of the Mountain: Basic tug of war, but with a bear on one end
2. Brute Force: A barrel-rolling race that is the closest event to actual circus performance
3. Apex Predator: Competitive eating big plates of bear food against hungry boy Tank
4. Grizzly Heights: An obstacle course that begins with Honey Bump chasing you
If they’re the best of the dumbest, they move on to:
5. Human Prey: Sumo wrestling with a bear, but you’re in a big metal Zorbing ball
The person earning the most points in these events is dubbed the “human winner,” because of course, the real winners (and stars) here are the bears. The episode I got to see showed me three contestants who all spoke to the camera with unbelievable confidence, all surprised that three giant bears might outclass them in some ways. Bart, the biggest bear, is 8’6” and 1,400 lbs. Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, Game of Thrones’ The Mountain and 2018 World’s Strongest Man, is 6’9” and 425 lbs. It’s not hard to see that the only event at which these competitors could hold their own against the bears is a spelling bee.
But taking perverse pleasure in the bears’ savaging of the competitors is the point. Watching these hyper-fit goofballs fail in seconds is a parody of athletic competitions like Ninja Warrior, where competitors all have inspirational backstories lighting a fire beneath them. It’s easy to laugh when the bear battlers talk about tug-of-warring a bear for their daughter. “Yes, sweetie, you can do anything you set your mind to when you grow up, as daddy proved by eating a bunch of bugs in a race against a bear.”
Revelling in the foolishness it takes to sign up for a show like this, the commentators sound like they’d be perfectly happy if someone lost a limb to Bart. Steve, the 63-year old bodybuilder who comes out on top of the first episode, scratches his arm during the first event and the medic wraps him like he’s sporting a WWI gunshot wound. Casey Anderson, the nature expert color commentator, says that the “big gash” could distract the bear by making it think that there’s “fresh meat.” Is … is Bart going to cross the barrel-pushing lanes and simply eat Steve? He doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean the show isn’t here for it. Violence and danger, despite the disclaimer, is still what’s being sold. It’s too silly to be irresponsible, but it doesn’t feel GOOD.
If only we could remove the human element from Man vs. Bear so that it was Bear vs. Reality TV. It’s not like much would be missing. None of the events last longer than about 30 seconds, so over the course of the ~45 minute show, there’s about 7 minutes of actual men and women versing bears. The show is like 85% filler already. Bart makes strides towards this utopian future in the first episode by dismantling a bit of the final event, bending a steel component of set at a 30° angle out of boredom after knocking old Steve around for a while. It’s the most fun part of the episode. Let us next see Bart disrupt the confessionals, the coaching from producers, and the overactive editing suite. In fact, let the bears invade the rest of the reality world.
Food Network is always looking to torture its chefs a bit more, making them cook under increasing levels of duress. Why not make them run from a bear before whipping up a risotto? The camaraderie forged inside the Great British Baking Show’s tent would only be stronger if they knew a half-ton bear was pacing around outside, waiting for the loser to be ousted. Flirty Dancing could only be heated up if the dancers performed their passionate choreography with a bear panic at hand.
At no point during Man vs. Bear do you ever want to see the humans perform successfully or even provide any competition for the scary-cuddly beasts. This sub-gladiatorial show puts the “damn” in “damnatio ad bestias,” but still proves one thing: bears are incredible to watch. I’m glad that Tank, Bart, and Honey Bump are (allegedly) enjoying themselves during this competition and I’m always thrilled to watch them charge at, yank, or push the humans cocky enough to be on the same mountain as them. There’s a macabre masochism inherent in any reality television, but with a little more imagination, these bears could be doing all sorts of eminently watchable, superhuman events without the need for three tragic jocks to get embarrassed every week.
Man vs. Bear premieres Wednesday, December 4th on Discovery.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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