Ed Stafford gets himself into tough situations. The former British Army captain trudged through mud, jungle, and thorns over the course of three years on his way to becoming the first man to walk the length of the Amazon. As the director/star/host/cameraman of the new Discovery Channel show 'Naked Castaway,' Stafford is now wading into both the inhospitable waters of cable television and the South Pacific.
The show documents Stafford's effort to sustain himself on Olorua, a roughly 60-acre bit of paradise southeast of Fiji, after volunteering to be stranded there with nothing but a bunch of camera gear and an emergency medical kit to be used only if his life is in danger. Acting as a one-man film crew, Stafford straps GoPro cameras to his head and audio equipment to his arms. This is a shoelace operation without a shoelace, and the stripped-down premise works well, but exposure, not nakedness, is ultimately the name of the game. It doesn't take Stafford long to make himself some garb – sparing the audience even more shots of his nude behind – but he struggles to keep want at bay. The white sand beach where he takes up residence quickly becomes a prison as Bali Hai turns into Alcatraz.
For would-be Crusoes, the show is not only a reminder of nature's vicissitudes, but also a survival skills clinic. Stafford shows viewers how to make fire with an aboriginal bow system, collect water using fabric wicks, and catch fish with a cleverly re-jiggered plastic bottle. In the first episode, he also attempts to digest raw snails and a still-twitching gecko with mixed results. The experiments he runs on himself as he searches for different ways to cope are cringe-worthy, but ultimately make for must-watch television for hardcore survivalists.
The show does an admirable job documenting Stafford's various efforts to collect water and protein, build shelter, and explore this new home, but ultimately 'Naked Castaway' is about the protagonist's psyche. The real suspense comes from the obvious toll loneliness takes on Stafford, whose beard begins to crawl north over his increasingly hollow cheeks almost as soon as he strides ashore. Stafford is honest about the encroaching madness, and one gets the sense that the camera provides him with the same sort of comfort that Tom Hanks' stranded character got by anthropomorphizing his volleyball, Wilson, in 'Castaway.'
'Naked Castaway' will hit a nerve, especially if you're headed to Rarotonga to go diving or are terrified of getting shipwrecked while sailing the remote Bahamas. Watching reality stars suffer elicits little more than schadenfreude in most of us, but watching Stafford is different. He's as resourceful as he is charismatic. You'll want to buy the guy a drink – and pants.
More information: Naked Castaway will air on the Discovery Channel Sundays at 10/9c beginning Sunday, April 14.