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I watched the first season of Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid”  with a great deal of curiosity. I appreciate the concept of an “honest” reality show and survival challenge, or should I say, “more honest than most.” Any way you slice it, the challenge cannot possibly be easy for the contestants. To be dropped off in a tropical setting, buck naked, and survive for 21 days is a feat. To do it all in front of cameras is even more ridiculous. The show has piled up plenty of injuries, enough to establish a good level of legitimacy.

And I must say, it typically makes for good TV. Watching the interpersonal relationships and support structures that develop between the teammates as they care for each other and help one another survive feels like a pretty genuine display of humanity in many episodes. This kind of thing made me watch season one as much as I could, but it did not prepare me at all for how crazy the season two premiere was, earlier this week.

First there were the format tweaks. Two teams of two were put on the same island and not told of the other’s existence. The special was two hours instead of one, following both teams simultaneously. And for the first time in the show’s history, one of the contestants simply appeared to have NO INTEREST in surviving the ordeal.

That contestant was a pretty young woman named Cassie DePecol. I have no idea what kind of skills she demonstrated for the casting directors to convince them she would be up to this challenge, but it must be said: She had no place among the other survivalists. In fact, she was so woefully unprepared that I started suspecting part-way through that the producers included her simply to see what might happen. In DePecol, they found the perfect mix of overconfidence and stubbornness, the kind of person who was totally sure that this challenge would be no big deal and refused to admit otherwise. She turned out to be very, very wrong.

This is all completely different from the structure of previous “Naked and Afraid” episodes. Occasionally there have been gaps between the survivalist skills of two teammates, but nothing like this. Likewise, the drama and tension of each episode in the past has almost always stemmed from the survival situation itself. In this episode, the drama was less about what needed to be done to survive on this island, and more on what needed to be done for each partner to survive EACH OTHER. And the vast majority of these issues revolved around Cassie DePecol.

It quickly became clear that something about this woman was different. On the very first day on the island, only a couple of hours after arrival, she was already talking to the camera crews about how her partner should stop “showing off” with his survival and naturalism knowledge. It was like she had forgotten they were on a show where those things were essentially the entire point. Only a few hours into the experiment she was starting to hold bizarrely deep, abiding grudges against her partner. Sitting on my couch at home, I started to wonder how she expected to get through 21 days with this person after acting so hostile right out of the gates.

Things only got worse from there. After setting up a makeshift shelter, Cassie just kind of…relaxed. For several days. In the rain forest. While her partner was off scavenging for food and attempting to fish, Cassie said she wasn’t hungry. Even when he offered to bring her food, she rejected it. When he said they should be looking for more things to eat, she said she wasn’t hungry and had no trouble fasting because she “did juice cleanses twice a year.” I think she may have expected to go the full time on the island without food at this point, but it’s impossible to tell what she was thinking.

Repeatedly, and on a variety of topics, she told her partner “What’s the hurry? We have plenty of time to do ____.” It was an attitude that completely blew me away, given the nature of their challenge. Never in all the preceding episodes can I remember any of the contestants saying “We have plenty of time to (find food, make shelter, accomplish tasks).” Every other person worried about not having ENOUGH time to accomplish these things. Everyone else seemed worried about success, failure and their own well-being. But not Cassie DePecol.

Eventually, Cassie and her partner met up with the other two survivors and joined their camp together. Quickly, all three of the others came to the same consensus, something along the lines of “Cassie is a valueless leech.” Never on the show has there been anything like the vitriol these people heaped on DePecol, but from what the audience saw, she deserved every bit of it. When they told her she had no business being in a place like the rain forest, you had to agree. When they said she would probably have died out there without them to feed and care for her, it was hard to argue. And still she stubbornly cast herself as a victim, all while continuing to contribute nothing to the group’s overall endeavor.

Finally, on the 20th day (less than 24 hours before the end of the challenge), DePecol had an emotional display before the other three contestants, apologizing for her behavior. They accepted it rather graciously, but personally I wondered whether DePecol simply decided it was time to buy her way back into their good graces before things wrapped up. Regardless, she was incredibly lucky to have these three people as partners. They chose to care for her even when she acted completely ungrateful to them, simply because they were decent folks. They could just as easily have shunned her entirely, leaving her to malnourishment and a trip back home via the producers’ private helicopters.

I can’t emphasize enough what a strangely compelling two hours of TV this really was, showing both the worst and the best of human nature. DePecol’s portrayal was one of the most scathing I’ve ever seen on TV, and I honestly find myself hoping that’s just a case of editing room trickery. Regardless of how grating she really was, the show’s producers didn’t seem to think too highly of her either. In the closing credits, when they rate each person’s final “Primitive Survival Rating,” she received the lowest score ever for someone who completed the 21-day challenge. Without her teammates, I imagine her final score would have been “Whatever rating you give to someone who leaves after three days because she realizes ‘not eating’ is a poor survival strategy.”

I’m not sure if future episodes of “Naked and Afraid” will continue with the dual partners format, but I think it’s likely we’ll never see someone so unprepared as Cassie DePecol again. If we DO, it will lend credence to the theory that producers are now actively searching for “poor survivors” to mix in with the more experienced ones. But to find someone like that with the petulant attitude of DePecol was a perfect storm. In the days following the broadcast, she responded on Twitter to detractors, inviting them to sign up for the show themselves. Sorry, Cassie, but that’s not how it works. People still get to criticize your behavior without signing up for the challenge themselves. The reason they don’t sign up is that they’re not foolish enough to think a group of kind-hearted strangers will carry them through the rain forest for 21 days. You’d have to be extraordinarily self-centered to make that assumption.

You got lucky, Cassie. I don’t recommend trying something like this again.

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Entertainment Reporter for the Herald & Review

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