How do you compete with Survivor or The Amazing Race or any of the hundreds of other reality shows where regular people are placed in situations of extreme hardship? You scale down. Castaways takes a well-worn premise and strips it of many of the overproduced trappings of its genre, resulting in a scattered but effective premiere (I only got to watch the first episode) that left me wanting more rather than way, way less. That’s a rarity in reality TV, where going big and brash is often the strategy to sell survival (see, for example, Naked and Afraid). Castaways offers a similar premise with a tad more maturity and an appeal to pathos.
Abandoned on a series of Indonesian islands, stuck with someone else’s bag and the promise of rescue sometime in the indeterminate future: It’s the kind of disaster that movies tell us encourage personal growth after a few dramatic acts of trauma. Here, Tom Hanks and his volleyball are replaced by a dozen folks whose only hope for companionship is each other. And everyone’s got a story. The twelve castaways range in age from 20 to 62, and in occupation from supermom to retired Green Beret. The series premiere focuses on Robbie, a 400-pound football coach, and Kenzi, a country music hopeful.
Reality shows owe more to their casting departments than any other genre on television, because even if the producers push the storyline developments and the editing department cuts together conflicts, it’s the eccentrics that suck us in. We want to watch the weirdos, but they can’t be too weird: Casting directors need to find contestants who are ordinary yet engrossing—the kind of person you’re delighted to meet at the bar.
An obese coach—especially one whose weight issues stem from an addictive relationship with food that he recognizes as mentally and physically unhealthy—is a fascinating person to watch survive on an island, and as one accustomed to hyping up middle-schoolers, he’s an expert at delivering middlebrow inspiration. The camera doesn’t ogle him. The editing never shames him. He’s treated, in the most detailed of the series’ attempts to give all its castaways complexity, as someone whose personal life affects his current situation. No more, no less. Everyone brings baggage to these islands (literal and not), but Robbie’s—as the most visually apparent—is addressed right out of the gate.
Unfortunately, with each one going on his or her own hero’s journey, there’s neither the time nor the structure to give everyone a satisfying arc. While some of the castaways are utterly unique and enjoyable to watch, you sometimes spend way more time distinguishing which scruffy white dude is running through that exotic location than should ever be spent on such a question. (Not counting the Hollywood Chrises, natch). But that’s understandable, as the point of the series—or at least one of its overarching hypotheses—is that regular people will survive extreme situations better together. The downside is, Castaways’ attention span tends to flit among the disparate islanders trying to survive, find each other, or some combination thereof, while tending to settle for longer periods on the more efficient (in both time and drama) group settings: One way to avoid lulls in the action, perhaps, but not to create interludes where dread, disappointment, or malaise can grow.
The Planet Earth-like cinematography makes the most of its tropical setting—it’s impossible to watch the pilot and not think of the lovesick sloth making his desperate journey at sea—while a refreshing lack of confessionals—replaced by voiceover and the “life-back-home” character-building flashbacks that make the contestants on Great British Baking Show so endearing—keep the conceit of isolation relatively intact.
And that sense of loneliness is important. When contestants read the journals they find included in the stranger’s bag they’re stuck with, we get the same wistful longing for companionship that—to tap into another Hanks favorite—made something like You Got Mail so arresting. Castaways also invests in the idea that any two people could become friendly, could need each other. That there’s a mix of races, ages, and economic statuses fills the potential group dynamics with political subtext, though the contestants are all more concerned with building shelters than walls. That doesn’t mean everything is sunny togetherness, though: The first episode, “Abandoned,” covers the castaways’ first two days, when Robbie and Kenzi find each other and then—thanks to one party’s selfishness—part ways.
The series promises many of the same complex relationships forged in struggle that other reality shows offer, with the more tangible needs of a Bear Grylls vehicle substituting for the connective tissue of Survivor’s games. With the structure so loosened, the emotions bear the brunt of the responsibility for both entertainment and logistics. It means Castaways lives or dies on the vicariousness of its relationships—even those between a contestant and an island—and the comprehensibility of its mental states (the series boasts two Ph.D. “Psychological Consultants”). If Castaways can keep its focus on the relationships (or lack thereof) over its first season without needing gimmicky framing devices, it has the potential to tap into the beating heart of why we watch reality TV. If not, it’ll concede its exciting ambition and resign itself to being a knock-off.
Castaways premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on ABC.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.