Monday, September 24, 2012

Mantracker 6-05: Priscilla & Colt

The dual trends of reality television and cable proliferation has produced a host of shows that manage to produce several seasons without the vast majority of the population being aware they exist.  Such is Mantracker, a Canadian[1] reality series that my too-complicated wildcard system happened to stumble across.  It's a cheaply-produced show, obviously formulaic, and on some levels laughable, but critics would be foolhardy to ignore the vast bulk of cable detritus, which taken together is a pretty significant cultural phenomenon.  So down the rabbit hole we go.

As much as I can gather from one episode, Mantracker is basically The Amazing Race (or, more accurately, extreme tag) crossed with the plethora of nature-based reality shows, with the titular mantracker (given a name in the intro but mainly referred to by "Mantracker" or "Tracker") filling in the role of grizzled host.  The format involves a team of "prey" travelling on foot across the wilderness, trying to evade the team of "Tracker" and "Sidekick" (yes, that's the actual name the show gives him), who don't know where they're headed but get to travel on horseback.  It's a basic one-off competition format, with the contestants either winning by reaching the finish line or losing by getting caught.  There's a bunch of extra stuff to attempt to balance out the asymmetric nature of the game, but that's the gist of it.

Of course, the fact that this chase takes place across wilderness -- in this episode the Canadian shield -- is crucial.  For one, the setting helps change the central metaphor of the competition from "tag" to "hunting", which is much more dramatic.  Moreover, the wilderness provides inexpensive beauty -- when the drama of the series fails, the opportunity to experience nature from the comfort of our sofa is enough of an appeal.  There are even a number of educational bits about local wildlife (possibly just there to justify government grants).

The natural setting also helps produce an ideology in which the show is meaningful.  "It's more than just a game," the overly-agressive narrator insists in the opening.  "This thing called Mantracker is a return to the animal instincts hidden deep in the human DNA."  It doesn't really get much more explicit than that, folks.  Mantracker positions itself as a return to something real -- the wilderness, life-or-death struggle, and biological imperative -- in contrast with the postmodern world.

This is a distinctly gendered discourse.  Priscilla is constantly portrayed as an anchor on her husband Colt, ranked (very scientific-like) as having less physical ability and being easier to capture, and the narrative of the episode goes on to confirm this.  On a broader level, the nostalgia for a time when trackers on horses were really societally important is at least in part a longing for a physical, masculine world where men could actually fulfill all the aspects of their traditional gender identity.

The narrative of the episode plays out cyclically: the prey come up with some plan or scheme tto fool the tracker, and we then cut to the tracker immediately figuring out what they've done.  Priscilla & Colt are portrayed in the time-honoured manner of minor villains, making half-hearted jokes about the tracker's age and scheming about leaving prankish traps for him, which the tracker interprets as nice gifts in one of the episode's more amusing interation.  The usual reality TV staples are all used in an attempt to create tension, ranging from confessional interviews to pre-commercial previews which make the upcoming events look much more dramatic than they actually are.  (In one egregious exampe, the preview suggests that one of the teams encounters a bear, which never comes close to happening.)

For all these tricks, though, there isn't much actual tension in this episode.  Whether it's the imbalance of the format or simply the weakness of these two particular contestants, Priscilla and Colt never really seem to have a prayer of winning.  The tracker basically finds them not far from the starting line and lets them get away, presumably because they need to fill up an hour with this chase.  Reality competition shows usually don't ask for much suspension of disbelief, as their format openly and obviously forces competition and drama, but this scene ruins any ideas that the narrative is not entirely predetermined.  On a slicker-produced show, I might have bought Priscilla and Colt's escape, but here it comes off as blatant manipulation, which kind of spoils the whole "survival of the fittest" aspect.  But that's the danger with reality television.  The producers may think they're in control of what really happens, or at least what makes it to air, but so often reality is in control of them.

Next week: "That's the only connection I have between my Mom and I.  It's not a weapon!"

[1] This may help to explain my ignorance of this show, as I (like most Canadians) don't pay any attention to Canadian TV.

No comments:

Post a Comment