Thirty-five years ago, Duane Ose walked for 15 days through the Alaskan wilderness until he found the right spot. Next to a mountain, he claimed five acres of land under the US Homestead Act. He and his wife, Rena, then built a three-storey home from 7,000 spruce trees, despite, you would think, planning objections from local residents (bears).
They have lived there ever since, 100 miles from the nearest road, without fibre-optic broadband or rubbish collections, but with each other 24/7. Neither has been bumped off by a bear nor, more astoundingly, each other.
Now, though, the ageing Oses are seeking a couple to take over their wilderness experiment. Instead of calling in the estate agents, they are participating in the most curious reality TV show I have ever watched. Win the Wilderness: Alaska (BBC Two) follows six British couples as they compete for the Ose’s house. It’s not so much I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here as We’re Non-Entities, Get Us In There; not so much Love Island as Anorak Forest; and not so much Survivor Games With Bear Grylls as Survivor Games With Grilled Bears.
“If you don’t love a challenge, you don’t belong here,” observes Duane, who has a lavish beard possibly composed of bear fur and an eye patch that probably betokens some butch altercation with nature. It’s a good point. Do these Brits, who rightly yearn to live in a land devoid of HS2, VAR, IndyRef2, BoJo, P45s and 5G, have the grit to move to Ose mountain? Midwife Jane tells husband Pete, a retired police officer, that she has noticed something unusual about rural Alaska: not one pub or nice tea room. Lifestyle bloggers Bee and Theo claim they are well suited to the wilderness because they already live off grid. But hold on. If they’re off grid, how do they blog?
How can one rationally decide which of six exemplars of white British heteronormativity (there are no couples of colour, nor same-sex ones) should succeed Duane and Rena? Arm-wrestling a row of decreasingly drugged bears would be my idea. The survivors of that ordeal, if any, would be required to spit chewing tobacco from self-made rocking chairs into spittoons moving on conveyer belts like those at YO! Sushi, until winners emerged.
The BBC has other ideas. The contestants are taken to an Alaskan wilderness activity centre spookily called Lost Lake, possibly at our expense. There they are tasked with erecting A-framed Alaskan wall tents complete with stoves and chimneys without losing it with their spouse, which would have been my most likely outcome. I’m more alas can’t than Alaskan.
Worse yet, contestants must dine on black bear stew. How do you catch a bear? Is it even legal to hunt them? What does bear taste like? Are supper and local men’s beards from the same animal? We never find out.
The following morning, Duane and Rena assess the tents as if judging marrows at a fete, before deciding which couple should be accorded the honour of flying back to visit them at home. While there, the couple will face a cross examination to determine their suitability to inherit. Imagine The Apprentice with Alan Sugar in a flannel shirt and a much bigger beard and Karren Brady played by Kathy Bates at her most rustic and swivel-eyed and you will appreciate the ordeal RAF engineer Matt and accountant Rachel face when they become the first couple invited for a sleepover.
The right couple, Duane tells them, would need to earn. Matt agrees, saying he plans to establish a dirt bike leisure business. Duane and Rena look sceptical. Rachel argues she could run her accountancy business from this log house. Duane and Rena are still looking sceptical. These seemed questionable enough business models, but Duane and Rena seem more concerned that Matt and Rachel are too young to settle. They might yet have kids who, you would think, would die of boredom in this beardom.
The show is such a puzzle. Why only British contestants? What’s to stop the Oses changing their minds? But the BBC, like the wilderness itself, doesn’t do answers.
The biggest question arose when Duane told the contestants something very sad: “I love it there and I think if I leave I’m probably going to die.” Who could live in their home shouldering that psychic burden? It’s not so much a fabulous lifestyle opportunity that’s being dangled as a poisoned chalice.
Incredibly, there are five more episodes of increasingly demented wilderness tasks to endure before we find out who wins. The contestants all look as though they have got what it takes to survive this TV wilderness. But not me: I’ve got the wrong stuff.