Dan Trout shakes the fish from the end of his crude spear into an ersatz sack made from an old teeshirt. “Originally they gave me the spear because of my name,” he says, his face a mask of concentration. As he peers down through the shallow water to the smooth rocks of the shore he spots another fish and freezes, his arm poised, spear steady. When he strikes he moves with a quickness belied by his considerable girth, and the fish doesn’t stand a chance. The Information Technologist from an Internet-based bank in Atlanta adds the fish to the day’s catch, and peers into his sack, counting them up. “That makes nine,” he says. “This was a joke at first, for them. But my dad used to take us spear fishing when I was a kid. I’ve gotten good at it.”
Three episodes into the Prime Time reality show “Overboard: Nowhere” the disparate cast has already used up the small store of food they scavenged from the ship that brought them here, now capsized. Today’s episode finds them forced to hunt and forage for sustenance, and viewers watch as the cast tests its mettle in one of the harshest environments yet encountered on such a show. The past four years have seen Reality Television explode in popularity in both national and international markets, in part because it provides viewers with a voyeuristic escape from their own problems, but also because the shows are enticingly cheap for networks to produce.
Unfortunately, but not unpredictably, the market has reached a saturation point that makes product differentiation a challenging prospect. “Overboard: Nowhere” Executive Producer at Twentyfour Media Jasraj Tasneem responds, “Failure to differentiate is death in this industry. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the content producers—that’s us—and the advertisers. Consumers need to be able to identify our product as something desirable so they know where to go when they want more. That’s how we keep advertisers, and so it becomes our primary challenge to build that association.”
As far as the programs go, this challenge translates directly into dramatic escalation. In an effort to keep viewers tuned in, the producers of “Overboard: Nowhere” devised a show that raises the stakes for their cast in several ways. Associate Producer Julien Krause: “First of all, unlike the other reality-style shows you may have seen, we haven’t told our guys where they are, and in fact, most of the production process is highly compartmentalized, so that no single individual staff member sees the entire picture.” Culture shock and dissociation foster alliances and rivalries, a mainstay of the format. But “Overboard: Nowhere” only begins there. Krause leans forward in his Aeron chair and rests his chin on his steepled fingers, “Some things are apparent about the island immediately, like that is has no trees. You could hear some of our guys commenting on that even as they were swimming to shore after we sunk their ship. But other things are less apparent, such as the fact that the small fish they’re eating are only there during mating season, which has just ended. And then there’s the cast itself.”
The nine people who make up the cast of “Overboard: Nowhere” include a white supremacist, the eccentric recluse and chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, a Taiwanese snuff pornographer, and former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Hardly the ideal candidates for life on a desolate tropical island, we watch as these individuals face very real trials and tribulations. The show foregoes the artificial competitions seen so often on other reality-based programs, favoring instead the very real goal of mental and physical survival.
“I can see my ribs,” says Sarah Bonner in episode 5, examining her bare, sun-reddened torso with concern. A hotel desk clerk from Baton Rouge, Bonner joined the cast based on the original premise, which concerned the relationships among the crew of a ship bound for the Caribbean. “I don’t even like fish, usually,” she says facing the mounted camera during her video diary segment. “But I’d sure kill for one now.” Indeed, the last fish was eaten during episode 4, but they’ve all but vanished since the weather changed. “We sent Dan out again though, so hopefully we’ll have something by supper. He’s a good guy, I think. Even though he’s, you know. Gee aye why? But I guess we’re all children of the Lord, even still.”
While Dan Trout hunts for fish on the other end of the island, Bobby Fischer seems to have retreated deep into a cave, pornographer Guy Chen is amassing a collection of succulent plant leaves, and Michael Dukakis, now a professor at Northeastern University, is arguing with Jessie Bearden about campfire maintenance. “If you stoke it like that, if you keep agitating it, you’re just going to burn through all of our fuel. I suggest you allow it to smoulder.” Dukakis is standing over her, his palms open in suggestion. But Bearden doesn’t hide her spite as she looks up and barks, “Why in hell should I listen to you for? You talk white but you ain’t even white.” Dukakis just rolls his eyes.
Episode 6 finds the company seriously emaciated, but worrying over a giant manta ray that Trout speared just off the coast, and then dragged for nearly a mile. Trout speaks in voiceover as we watch them saw through gristly flaps of flesh with sharpened rocks. “Yeah, they’re kind of reverential to me because I’ve been the only one who can use the spear to catch anything bigger than inchworms. I kinda dig that, but I’m getting tired of Sarah’s fawning. And I also know who the bad guy’s gonna be when I can’t find any more fish. There’s just nothing out there these days.”
Pam Morse is a yoga instructor, and she’s sniffing at a piece of the manta ray’s fin. “God, it’s so briny,” she says. “And aren’t rays intelligent? I heard they like to play with humans. That means they’re smart, right?”
Pornographer Guy Chen and Bobby Fischer have struck up an unlikely friendship, and merely laugh in response as they rib each other. “Whatever, guys!” Pam snorts. “I’m supposed to be vegan, okay?”
Executive Producer Jasraj Tasneem: “Look, it is more than just a vehicle for diet cola. We see this show as a lesson in social anthropology,” he says over video of Morse performing deep tissue massage on Dukakis’ hirsute back. “And the question is, how far will a person go? We have a controlled environment in which to explore that very question, and the fact is the FCC is far more lenient for documentaries, which, technically, this is. Meaning that—bonus—we can show full frontal.”
Stirring controversy, episode 8 finds Chen incapacitated by foot infection, and battle lines are drawn over how best to deal with the additional burden. As tempers flare, Trout appears from the south end of the beach hauling a blood-soaked sheet of canvas. Gasps are heard as the payload comes into view for the first time: a massive porpoise. “I think he musta been sick,” says Dan Trout in voiceover, “because he was a pretty easy catch. I just had to keep sticking him.” Dukakis looks horrified, and Pam Morse falls to her knees weeping, “Oh, how could you,” she sobs. “Dolphins are intelligent!” Dan says, “It’s a porpoise,” and Morse shoots him a black look. An hour later the sun is setting, and through gaunt cheeks we see jaw muscles working through porpoise steaks. Guy Chen addresses the camera, “Yeah, I see it as victory. Of course I never have eaten a porpoise out in the real world, but I need to keep up my strength now, because of my foot problem.”
Amid public outcry, episode 9 opened with the cast—save for Pam Morse and Guy Chen—feasting on chimpanzees. “I don’t know where Trout got these little guys,” says Dukakis, “but right now I don’t really care.” He wipes the blood from his chin and then sucks the tender marrow from the end of a femur. Morse has yelled herself hoarse, but continues to try to appeal to the morality of her comrades. “Monkeys are intelligent!” she screeches. “You know that! You don’t eat monkeys!” Sarah Bonner interrupts her pleas, “Hey! You need to shut the [beep] up, honey. You afraid we got one of your relatives or something?” Trout moves between them, “Ladies, come on. We don’t know how long we’re going to be here, so we just have to get along and make do with what we have.” Later, Trout confides to his video diary: “I don’t know how much longer we’re going to last. I think Guy killed Bobby Fischer, and that’s how he screwed up his feet. One thing’s for sure though: I haven’t seen any more dolphins, and I don’t think I could catch another chimp.” As the evening bonfire dims to a ring of glowing embers, Guy Chen pulls off one of his toes, and begins to weep.
Episode 10 was only seen on the east coast, before it was pulled off the air entirely. “I’m not touching him,” says Jessie Bearden, casting a wary eye on the corpse of the snuff pornographer. “Looks a little bloated,” Professor Dukakis says prodding Chen’s chest. “Most likely it’s deathgas.” As Trout looks on with visible relief, Morse’s eyes are fixed on the body. “He died from natural causes, right?” she asks quietly. “Hey, it was natural causes, am I right?” She rubs her stomach.
Jasraj Tasneem doesn’t seem disappointed at his series sudden cancellation. “‘Overboard’ was a success at the end of the day. Just getting the show on the air was a success, a milestone. And we only shot the ten episodes, so it basically aired to the end, which we couldn’t have choreographed better. As far as whether the experience benefited the cast, the jury’s out. How can you quantify that? It’s hard to say, this isn’t a gameshow.” And what of monetary prizes? “Like I’ve said, it was a documentary, so there are no prizes per se. We paid their air fare home though. And funeral arrangements, that was all on us. The real question is about mindshare. Our advertisers made a tidy profit, and I think our customers—or viewers, if you prefer—I think they got some food for thought too. The narrative tells us about the human condition, and opens it up to question. Conversation is good. Controversy is good. Win win win situation here, as far as we’re concerned.”
What’s next for Twentyfour Media? Associate Producer Julian Krause has a thought that he runs by his partner. “Two words,” he says. “Mars. Hillbillies.” Tasneem’s eyebrows raise as he considers the notion. Krause continues, “Rednecks on the Red Planet. If we work our connections we might be able to snag some sponsorship and tag along with Bush’s Mars deal.” Tasneem is nodding, “Perfect timing, maybe for the Fall 2015 run. I know some conservatives in the space thing, ex-military. Damn fine angle too,” he says. “Let’s send out some feelers. After lunch.”
» “Hair” (21 of Dec, 2004)
» “Figuring It Out” (11 of Jan, 2004)
» “Procrastination” (31 of Dec, 2003)