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What the Heck Is ‘Castaways’?

ABC’s new reality show is like a stripped-down ‘Survivor’—that much makes sense. But it also looks like a survivalist version of ‘The Hills.’ One writer watched the premiere to try to sort out all of the confusion.

A contestant on ‘Castaways’ in the water holding a long stick on top of his shoulders ABC/Ringer illustration

There is a surplus of survival-related reality TV shows out there: Survivor, Naked and Afraid, Running Wild With Bear Grylls, Alone, Man vs. Wild—I could go on. As years have passed, and as more of these shows have premiered, it seems like the only way for them to continue to generate hype is to get as extreme as possible. That includes some seriously hazardous conditions in Naked and Afraid that seem ripe for disaster and Bear Grylls doing his Bear Grylls thing, which, naturally, involves drinking his own urine on several occasions. It’s a bit much. Thankfully, we may have finally hit the point when survival shows are going in the opposite direction.

ABC’s Castaways is the survivalist reality show stripped bare. It incorporates aspects of Survivor, only there are no boisterous hosts berating contestants, or episodic sets of challenges, or tribal councils. It’s 12 people scattered and stranded on a collection of remote islands in Indonesia. Nobody can get eliminated: You either live on the island for however long the show dictates, or you ask to quit, and thus, eliminate yourself. That much I understand. What makes Castaways a weird reality show, though, is the kind of reality show it resembles. It’s filmed like the survivalist version of The Hills, utilizing expert cinematography and giving off an all-around sense of high production value. Most survivalist reality TV more closely resembles The Blair Witch Project; Castaways skews closer to Lost.

This doesn’t necessarily make for bad TV, but it does make for a somewhat confusing viewing experience. How are we to believe that these people are stranded on an island when it looks like they’ve just spent a couple of hours in hair and makeup? Are we supposed to know that Castaways isn’t quite reality, or does the show think it’s tricking us? After watching Tuesday night’s premiere, I was left with even more questions. Here are the most pressing ones.

How did the contestants end up in the water?

That no one can tell whether Castaways is a reality show or a bizarre scripted drama sounds like an absurd proposition, but the series did open with its contestants flailing around in the water and swimming to shore.

GIF of contestants flailing in the water All screen shots via ABC

Where the hell did these people come from? How did they get there? Were they shoved off a producer’s boat with a hearty, “Good luck!” and told to swim for their own survival? Did the contestants dive from a helicopter like a tame Tom Cruise? Why didn’t they just start on land? It’s not like swimming to shore is going to make their life on a remote island any less arduous.

Did Terrence Malick direct this?

What Castaways lacks in typical reality show structure it makes up for in an abundance of long, wandering shots of nature. It’s beautiful, and a bit existential—as if Terrence Malick decided at the tender age of 74 that he wanted to dip his toes in reality TV.

GIF showing an overhead shot of glistening water and a beach

Oh, also, one of the contestants, Robbie, finds a book in a bag of luggage—every contestant gets to bring a bag, but in a cruel twist of fate, the bags are scattered throughout the islands—and begins reading it. The book is The Prince from Renaissance humanist Niccolò Machiavelli, one of the granddaddies of modern philosophy. “Among other evils which being unarmed brings you, it causes you to be despised. Victory shifts from man to man,” Robbie recites from the book, and not long after, the show cuts to another shot of the shoreline. I think this is reality TV?

Is this secretly ecotourism sponcon for Indonesia?

I’m not saying these contestants aren’t (maybe, because I still don’t know if it’s real) going through a physical and mental gantlet, but the islands they’re stationed on look incredible.

GIF zooming into grassy islands with a clear sky
Closeup still of the edge of an island, covered in trees

The beaches! The crystal-clear water! The gorgeous tree lines! Give me a water purifier, some matches or other fire-related equipment, and fishing gear, and I’ll be more than happy to spend a vacation over there. Who do I have to call at ABC to “compete” (go on vacation) for the second season of Castaways? The competition could use a blogger to diversify the ranks.

Why is this guy rolling his suitcase in the ocean?

The good news for the contestant Angel is that he found a suitcase. The bad news is … he doesn’t understand how suitcases work?

GIF of a man walking away from the camera, rolling a suitcase through the water behind him

My guy, it is a lot harder to roll those things in the water, and also the shore is right there! Just walk a few steps to your left and you’re golden, and then the things inside your bag won’t get soaked. Luggage high jinks aside, Angel should be a fan favorite: While he doesn’t get much screen time in the premiere, he does tell a harrowing story about his brother getting shot and robbed in Ecuador. We’re rooting for you, Angel, but for your own survival, keep your non-waterproof supplies OUT OF THE WATER.

Is Castaways trying to make and sell Hallmark cards?

There is another, less Malickian aspect to the way Castaways is filmed that is also bizarre, though this falls on the editing room. Sometimes—but not always—when a character is ruminating on something about survival, the text of their thoughts will appear on the screen in a serene font. Combined with the stunning shots of the islands, it looks like a tropical-yet-existential-AF Hallmark card—like one you’d email to your friend on his birthday. (His response: “Why?”)

GIF of an overhead shot of an island with the words “Where am I? I don’t know where I am” appearing in a white font

This might be a feature, not a bug, because I can’t stop thinking about it.

Is Kenzi the Season 1 villain?

The two characters we spend the most time with in the premiere are Robbie and Kenzi. Robbie is a middle school football coach whose main goal for competing is centered on his own health. He acknowledges that he has an eating problem—he weighs nearly 400 pounds—and he’s hoping his Castaways stint can kill some of his bad habits. He has a lovely family back home, and also revealed that he was abandoned by his biological father when he was a kid.

Kenzi, meanwhile, is a young, aspiring country singer from Nashville, Tennessee. She also happens to have Robbie’s luggage, and she eventually meets up with Robbie on one of the islands. They seem to have a good rapport and do some fishing together. But the next day, Kenzi decides that she’s going to abandon Robbie—fewer than 24 hours after she was determined to find someone to survive with. “I do have a trust issue out here,” she says. “Right now, I’m choosing to be selfish.”

GIF of a woman walking away with the words “Right now I’m choosing to be selfish” appearing next to her in a black font

Well, that is … an easy way to get the audience to hate you! You don’t deserve the cool font!

Kenzi abandons the most lovable contestant who literally has abandonment issues thanks to his biological dad, and does so in the pettiest way possible by saying she’s going to go look for coconuts. I hope they reunite this season and make peace, but in the meantime, Kenzi just became public enemy no. 1 on Castaways, a show I enjoyed, despite having no freaking clue what I was watching.