The oldest trope in literature – Man vs. Nature – dates back to cave walls and cliffside dwellings, where ancient mankind emerged from prehistory by telling itself stories about its experiences in the untamed world. How little has changed. We’re still enraptured by tales of the wild, despite the gap between “Survivor” and survival and the difference between the glow of the plasma screen and the heat of the fire. There are many nature-connected TV shows to choose from, but the best, like the nine below, capture some essential element of the outdoors – as a harsh environment, an inspiring spectacle, a brilliant backdrop for human folly – or all of those combined.
Men in Kilts
It’s the Outlander spinoff that fans dinnae ken they wanted. Scotland natives Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish—best known for their roles as Jamie Fraser and Dougal MacKenzie from the time-traveling drama on Starz—filmed an eight-part, whisky-soaked romp that celebrates their country’s rich history, music and cuisine. Both charming and easy on the eyes, Heughan and McTavish travel by camper van, kayak, bikes and boats to pursue the show’s unbilled star—the raw beauty known as the Scottish countryside. It’s funny, instructive and the perfect fill-in for the dog days of Droughtlander (the name given by fans for the dry period between Outlander seasons).
World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji (Amazon)
Before introducing Survivor, Mark Burnett had the crazy idea to rip off the Raid Gauloise—a gonzo 600-mile/12-day team adventure-race that was first held in 1989—by creating an extreme version of his own for TV. The competition that followed teams of four over a 300-mile course ran for seven years in the late ’90s—and seduced thousands of thrill seekers into becoming round-the-clock, sleep-deprived mountaineers in their own right—before Burnett decided to fire the starter’s pistol one more time in 2019 for Amazon Prime. Following 66 teams in an epic race is damn near impossible, which is why Burnett in his crew mostly stuck with the American teams (and received valid criticism as a result). But he still does a magnificent job of showcasing the race’s grueling length and perilous turns (like having to hike in a pitch-black jungle in the dead of night). It’s a visceral reminder that Mother Nature still runs the house.
A Wild Year on Earth (BBC America)
Remember American Journeys at Disneyland? It was the 360-degree film shot with nine cameras that was shown in a Tomorrowland circular theatre during the ’70s and ’80s. This is where A Wild Year should be playing on an endless loop. Narrated by Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael, this visual feast charts breathtaking seasonal events from all over the globe, from cherry blossoms sprouting across Japan to migrating seabirds in the Arctic and coral growth on the Great Barrier Reef. A sobering must-see for climate deniers—or anyone concerned about the future of the natural world.
Gold Rush (Discovery)
After 11 seasons, this reality show about family-run companies that mine stream beds for precious metal remains the network’s most watched program. With millions of people still out of work because of the global pandemic—and the value of gold at an all-time high—the promise at the heart of the program may be particularly attractive to rookies who think anyone can head into the mountains of Oregon and strike it rich. It certainly demonstrates that it’s possible: by season four, Parker Schnabel—one of the original cast members—dug up an astonishing 2,538 ounces that ended up selling for just under $3 million, but the rugged Alaska wilderness exacts a price, especially on those who don’t cash in.
Naked and Afraid (Discovery)
This seven-year-old reality show preys on a universal fear: having to strip nude in front of an audience—then ups the ante by challenging contestants to survive in the wilderness butt naked for 21 interminable days. Somehow, the producers still find suckers to gut it out in the boonies of Panama and Nicaragua and on Alaskan’s frozen tundra. And there are always plenty of viewers (present company included) who are eager to watch them suffer. Though the nighttime camera work looks like a scene out of Paranormal Activity, you feel like you’re actually there in the rain-soaked jungle with them (but fully-clothed, natch).
Our Planet (Netflix)
Perhaps you caught a scene or two of this streaming hit while shopping for big-screen TVs at your local Best Buy? It is, after all, the best program to show off the miracle of high-definition TV. Narrated by nature daddy David Attenborough, the British documentary takes a breathtaking look at wildlife from around the world while making an urgent call to action for conservation. It’s the first nature doc that Netflix ever made; consider watching before succumbing to another season of Virgin River. You might just be moved to do something about the world that’s disappearing around us.
Launched in 2015, this show should have been called Survivor, but that name was already taken by what is essentially a melodramatic social experiment in the woods. Alone, instead, drops contestants off in remote areas before the start of winter and challenges them to survive isolated, cold, and alone for up to 100 days. No one has ever lasted that long, but those who tough it out the longest take home a $500,000 prize. Unlike Burnett’s CBS show, contestants are not surrounded by camera crews and scurrying producers. They get a few necessities, like a first aid kit, a pocket knives and a camera to film their every solitary move. As the sunlight dwindles to a few hours a day, the contestants battle hunger, sleep deprivation and frostbite while clinging to their sanity with varying degrees of success. Grim but highly engrossing, it’s like watching an unplugged version of Castaway—sans the coconuts and pithy banter with Wilson.
Long Way Up (Apple)
Ewan McGregor —yes, Obi-Wan in Attack of the Clones—is an absolute delight in this on-the-road series that has him motorcycling across South and Central America with an old mate from England. It’s actually a sequel to Long Way Down, a 2007 series that featured McGregor and Charley Boorman wheeling it through Europe and Africa. Sure, there are jaw-dropping vistas and far-flung habitats—but at heart, it’s really a delightful show about kindness and friendship, told over 13,000 miles on a pair of converted Harley-Davidsons.
Running Wild with Bear Grylls (NatGeo)
Hollywood insists that nothing is truly great unless a celebrity is attached, which explains why Grylls, the 46-year-old British adventurer from Man vs. Wild, has starry companions to join him in tests of survival. The show features actors as diverse in size and stamina as Scott Eastwood and Channing Tatum to Julia Roberts, Mel B and model Cara Delevingne, all of whom join Grylls on adventures such as rappelling from a helicopter, parachuting into the woods, and eating rattlesnakes they just killed. Occasionally, the celebrities let their proverbial hair down while dangling from a cliff: In 2014, Zac Efron paused while eating worms long enough to tell Grylls how being a child star led to his drinking problem. In such moments outdoor TV captures the best of the actual outdoors, sharing experiences in nature that both bond us and free us enough to exhibit our true selves.
Lynette Rice is an editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly and her new book about Grey’s Anatomy is called How To Save A Life. She sometimes opens the window while watching TV.