When I heard that Discovery was airing a show titled Man Vs. Bear, my first thought was of a new kind of legal drama, something involving animal rights — salmon fishing disputes, maybe?
Nope. As the booming announcerly voice of Brandon Tierney informs us in the opener, “For the first time in history, humans will enter the grizzlies’ own turf! To take them on in a competition unlike anything that’s ever been seen before!”
Turns out Man Vs. Bear is a reality-competition show, one that is exactly like every other reality-competition show and yet, weirdly, unlike anything that’s ever been seen before… because bears. Real live bears, the very same “godless killing machines” that once haunted fake Stephen Colbert’s dreams. Three massive grizzlies pitted against 21 of the strongest, toughest Ninja Warrior castoffs Discovery could find, in a fight to the death. And by “fight to the death” I mean being eliminated from the show and having Brandon Tierney sternly ask you to “please leave the mountain.”
There are so many disclaimers, direct and implicit, in Man Vs. Bear that if it were a pharmaceutical ad it would need to be five minutes long. And yet, I have to say I enjoyed the hell out of it. As a competition it’s pretty lame. But as a specific kind of reality subgenre — the one where humans of mediocre talent are goaded by TV producers into taking on a challenge way above their heads and failing spectacularly — Man Vs. Bear is more than… well, bearable.
“In the wild, only one species claims unchallenged dominance … the grizzly bear!” we hear Brandon Tierney intone. I’d fact-check that statement with Animal Planet if it weren’t irrelevant for the purposes of this show. For as we learn from an opening graphic, the grizzlies on Man Vs. Bear were rescued as cubs, have spent their lives being pampered by humans in a Utah sanctuary, and “could not survive if released in the wild.”
The bears — 1400-pound Bart, his sister Honey Bump, “and their friend Tank” — were taken in by Bob and Lynne Seus, a conservationist duo who have dedicated their lives to raising awareness of endangered wildlife in America, largely by getting rescued animals on camera. The Seuses were responsible for introducing millions of moviegoers to an Alaskan brown bear named Bart, who had dozens of movie and TV appearances, notably 1987’s The Bear, before his passing in 2000.
Technically the Bart in Man Vs. Bear is Bart 2 (though I’m not telling him that to his face). If anything, he’s had even more screen time than the original Bart. He and his sister had their childhoods chronicled on TV and he’s had many dramatic roles, including a storied Game of Thrones episode and a horror film about a killer grizzly on the loose. If you’re trying to protect a species under threat, playing a godless killing machine doesn’t seem like the best career move. But what do I know? Did I think up Man Vs. Bear??
Anyway, the hapless humans serving as the bears’ ringers for this week’s premiere include a 63-year-old bodybuilder and a millennial mom who brags of having “lost 100 pounds, twice.” And here is how they lose:
Challenge 1: “King of the Mountain,” aka the dunk tank. Bart’s job is to take a rope in his mouth and pull the human off a platform into a pond. The human’s job is to not look like a rag doll being thrown off a diving board. I think we all know how this turns out. So, moving on…
Challenge 2: “Brute Force,” aka Bart’s circus trick. While the humans try rolling a barrel five times their weight, Bart rolls one that’s less than twice his, and looks almost bored doing it.
Challenge 3: “Apex Predator,” aka the bear version of a hot dog-eating contest, only the humans eat crickets instead of hot dogs and Tank is Joey Chestnut.
Challenge 4 is a race that really isn’t a race. The humans have 37 seconds to run an obstacle course, climb a tree, and ring the bell. Why 37 seconds? Because that’s the amount of time it would take for Honey Bump, the fleetest of the three bears, to make up a 100-yard gap on a fleeing human. This is the strangest challenge. Honey Bump doesn’t even take part in it — she’s just in the shot while we watch our human scurrying through the course. Also, why would you make a game out of the one thing you’re not supposed to do when you get on the wrong side of a grizzly? Best not to overthink it. Which brings us to…
Challenge 5, “Human Prey,” aka bear handball. The human stands inside a metal cage ball poised on the edge of a pit. Their job, as in the dunk-tank challenge, is to forestall the inevitable for as many microseconds as possible — in this case, getting rolled into the pit by a creature seven times their size.
Ira, a 43-year-old MMA enthusiast, was all bluster going into the metal ball — “Now we’re comin’ into my territory, the steel cage!” — and lasted two swats. “Busted my mouth,” Ira says afterward, looking dazed. “I was intimidated, and that doesn’t happen.” That’s because it’s a grizzly, sir. You’re supposed to be intimidated, even if the bear in question is more familiar with chowing down at the catering table than the picnic table.
Man Vs. Bear is chock-full of reality-TV tropes, whether they belong there or not. My favorite is when Tierney informs the show’s runner-up that it’s time to “please leave the mountain,” and then not 30 seconds later he turns to the winner and says, “You may leave the mountain.” Why not just tell us you’re all sharing an Uber? Viewers who don’t follow stunt shows like this may be disappointed to learn that they don’t live up to the hype, but really, that’s part of the entertainment.
And like all winning reality formulas, Man Vs. Bear has that one added ingredient that gives the whole thing a slightly different, and in this case irresistible, flavor. When you’re trying to win the ultimate competition known as the Nielsen ratings, that’s usually enough. As my former newspaper boss told us when layoffs started, “You don’t have to outrun the bear. You just have to outrun the guy next to you.”
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.