‘Rival Survival’ Strands a Republican and a Democratic Senator on an Island, Unites Viewers in Bipartisan Boredom


Is there a more enjoyable hatewatch than a reality show that reeks of desperation? Sure, it can be argued that all reality shows are desperate in their own unique way, but there are many that go above and beyond the call of duty: when The Real World introduced exes into the equation, Dating Naked and the surprising amount of other nude-centric reality programs, children and adults tasked to create their own society, and so on. The latest is Discovery Channel’s onetime special Rival Survival, in which two senators — a Republican and a Democrat — are stranded on a deserted island to work together and survive. It is as awful as it sounds.

Here’s the thing about hatewatching a reality show: You have to get something out of it. You’re not going to get anything intelligent or illuminating or even particularly entertaining out of it, but you have to get something, even if that something is just an hour of marveling at how bad television can sometimes be. The best hatewatches are shows that are so awful they become addicting, so full of absurdity and pure awfulness that you remain thoroughly engaged throughout. Rival Survival is not that kind of show.

I did not expect Rival Survival to be a good show, but I expected it to at least be laughably bad — its premise is the setup to the worst joke ever: A Republican and a Democrat walk onto an island together! But it disappoints even in that regard.

In Rival Survival, Republican Jeff Flake and Democrat Martin Heinrich are dropped off on a remote island where they have to spend six days and fulfill four basic survival tasks: Find fresh water, build shelter, make fire, and hunt for food. Would you believe that two rich senators aren’t very good at these things? Rival Survival plays up the rivalry between these two men — all they have in common is a love for the outdoors — but they remain civil throughout. I mean, of course they do: They are both adults, both senators, both with a reputation to maintain and a family to go back to. They’re not going to spend six days at each other’s throats because they have to remain dignified throughout. It’s true that we’ve reached a peak point in reality television where fighting castmembers are a bland cliché, but a show like Rival Survival hinges on interpersonal conflict, especially because the crux of it is that these are two enemies who are forced to interact with each other — and only each other — for almost a full week. Someone is bound to break… but they never do.

What we do get is dad-jokey quips about the political parties’ differences (when Heinrich builds shelter, Flake is surprised because it’s “more than what I thought a Democrat could do. They usually stop around 5 PM — union rules!”) and frustration expressed as politely as possible (“I’d vote for any of Martin’s bills if he could just start a fire!”).

When the rival aspect of the show falls flat, Discovery Channel tries to amp up the survival portion. At one point, they find a scorpion inside a coconut and a voiceover informs us that the nearest place to get help is a military base three hours away and the nearest hospital is 1,000 miles away. The men put down the coconut. Crisis averted. No one is on the edge of their seats. There is a very, very long scene in which the men try and fail to make fire, complete with a cliffhanger commercial break (we exit on them trying to make fire; we return to them trying to make fire). I suspect the only thing more frustrating and tedious than this senator’s struggle to make fire is watching this senator struggle to make fire. The fact that it takes up so much time in a one-hour special implies that basically nothing else of interest happened in those six days.

The special revolves around the senators “pushing back their political differences [to] focus only on their mutual survival” but their political differences rarely come up, nor are they ever really in any danger of not surviving. They hunt for fish. They talk about the beards they are growing. They shrug off any worries that working together will alienate their respective political parties (“Neither of us are up for reelection”). They survive six days and go home. They don’t really learn anything, no matter what the voiceover may tell us.

It’s unfortunate (and actually kind of impressive) that a premise full of secondhand embarrassment for everyone involved (what’s worse is that apparently the senators approached Discovery Channel, not the other way around) ends up being one of the most boring hours of television of the year. The only real survivors of the show is anyone who got through the entire show without changing the channel.