The Meaning of ‘Alone’ – (Discovery Channel)

Alone is a reality television survival show where contestants are sent to isolated locations in the wilderness to see who can last longest living alone, exposed to the elements and separated from society. It’s a show about strategy. It’s a show about the beauty and power of nature. It’s a show about the ingenuity and resilience of mankind. It’s also a show about human fragility, nutrition, and hunger. Mostly, it ends up being a show about hunger. 

But it’s a hunger that is more than literal. What the show wants to talk about is a question of the viability of the American socio-economic project. Is the American social experience capable of providing sustenance to the average person? Is there enough “nutrition” in the daily grind to keep a person going?  

 Alone does not directly answer these questions. It does, however, choose its contestants from a relatively narrow pool of seekers and discontents that make the question hard to avoid, even if it’s also hard to pin down. Then it gives them a chance to achieve the American dream by vaulting into the upper middle class with a big cash prize ($500,000 in seasons 1-6). 

 These survivalists have not thrived in American society. In one way or another, they have been pushed to the margins. Are they trying to find their way into the “center” by winning a small fortune? It’s telling that none of them say they want to use the money to establish a working farm or a sustainable home off the grid.

In terms of its contributions to public discourse, Alone provides an interesting and subtle contribution to a broad critique of the American dream. At its core, the show’s conceit of survival in the wild proves to be a metaphor for survival in a capitalist system for a group of people who have been alienated from any belief in the possibility for conventional success. 

Certain sentiments are repeated on the show from contestant to contestant and season to season: 

  • “I need this money for my family.” 
  • “I would die for my family.” 

Most of the contestants are family men and women who also happen to adhere to “alternative lifestyles” like homesteading (and sustenance farming?). The choice of contestants is an important element in the show, aligning the show with the shared values of people who feel that life in North America cannot fully sustain them. 

Alone in an Economic Wilderness

In a review of Alone, Carl Bronksi points out that “There are no corporate CEOs, union presidents, real estate developers or Wall Street traders on the show’s contestant rosters. Starving yourself to death for money is not a rich man’s game. Golf is much preferred. But if we examine the backgrounds and yearnings of Alone’s contestants, particularly those who compete to the bitter end, we may perhaps get a view into the current state of affairs in much of America and Canada today.” 

Whether they believe themselves to be poor, feel out of place in a society that values technical skills and formal education, or seem to be looking for spiritual fulfillment of a connection to nature, the pool of participants exists outside the confines of American and Canadian norms. Importantly, the contestants are not too far outside the norms to be relatable. This is one reason it’s necessary to establish the background of each person as a responsible member of a family. 

Alone’s participants are not extremists. They are not fringe people by nature. They have the same impulses to pursue a family life, keep a job, etc., that most Americans feel. Yet they have an urge to also pursue hobbies like trap building, foraging, hunting, and camping without the benefit of a tent. 

Of course, the biographies and backgrounds of these characters are subject to editing. There are also exceptions to the rule of selecting disaffected representatives of the lower-middle class. 

However, the show is painting the contestants in a certain light. And it’s consistent. These are relatable people who happen to also feel compelled to look outward from their culture. Generally, these are normal – or nearly normal – people who look to the woods because the city has not provided a way forward for them. 

While the direct-to-camera contestant confessions don’t actually bring the sort of bitter social-political that may seem implied by the description here of the show as a counter-cultural text, these intimate moments routinely draw a contrast between the limited opportunities of domestic life in America and the (long-shot) possibilities of the Great Wide Open. 

Hunger as a Metaphor

Ultimately, Alone seems to use hunger as a metaphor on several levels. Its contestants are obviously hungry in a literal sense after their first few days in the wilderness, but it is a different kind of hunger that leads them to participate in a show where they know they’ll experience brutal deprivation

A more fundamental deprivation is what has led them to spend weeks alone in the woods in the first place. Their testimonials suggest that this group has been deprived of the sustaining faith in the conventional routes to upward mobility.

Either there is not enough cultural nutrition to believe that they can live a sustainable, happy life, or there is not enough reason to hope that a better life is available via boot-straps effort, education, or professional advancement. So, they choose to follow an alternate path.

As Bronski puts it, “Much of the show’s audience—and many of its contestants—come from small-town and rural America. The affinity of this audience with the generally low-wage, working class contestants speaks to the overall social and economic malaise that has become the experience of millions.

Thus the show exists as a kind of proof that there is a hunger for upward mobility and material security that conventional life in America does not provide.

 The families which the contestants represent are already “alone” – toughing it out amidst the harsh realities of the lower-middle classes, exposed there to the upheavals of the labor market and the whims of a global economy.

Published by eric m martin

A writer, teacher and coffee shop owner living in the southern reaches of the Mojave Desert.

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