The premise is equal parts fantasy and nightmare: Imagine being stranded, alone, on a string of lonely islets in Indonesia with nothing but scattered resources (a machete here, a can of sardines there) and remote cameras filming your every move. That’s the situation facing the people featured on ABC’s new docudrama Castaways — I say “docudrama” rather than “competition” because the only thing these folks are trying to outwit, outplay, and outlast are their own personal demons.
Castaways follows 12 people — ranging in age from 20 to 62 — as they land on a solitary beach. Each person has a different reason for wanting a temporary escape from their own life: Robbie, 42, is a grossly overweight father of four who hopes a crash course in survivalist living will help him kick his food addiction; Kenzi, 24, is a struggling country singer from Nashville whose ambition has led to the demise of several relationships; Eric, 31, is an African-American Navy vet who hasn’t yet met his in-laws because his wife, who is white, is afraid to tell her parents about him.
Once marooned, the castaways must decide whether to look for their fellow players or go it alone until “rescue” team arrives — at some point. Producers strategically scatter the castaways’ luggage across the islands, giving us (and them) the voyeuristic pleasure of rooting through another person’s stuff for resources (“Rosemary peppermint detangler?” sighs Eric during his search) while also spurring the castaways to venture out and find the bag’s rightful owner. (Not-really-a-spoiler-alert: Very few of them are alone for long.) Along the way, the show flashes back, Lost-style, to everyone’s life at home, but the efforts to tie the contestants’ personal struggles to the outward-bound challenges they face on the islands are only intermittently successful. (Kenzi’s vaguely-defined relationship drama, for example, isn’t enough to distinguish her as anything more than your average attention-seeking reality TV contestant.)
Beautifully shot and leisurely paced, Castaways is essentially Naked and Afraid without the winking titillation, or Survivor without the obstacle courses and interpersonal fireworks. If that makes it sound just this side of boring… well, that’s about right. C+