Reality television has kept audiences’ increasingly fleeting attention with an escalating series of one-upmanship, a paradigm that Discovery’s latest series fits into predictably well.
MTV’s “The Real World” begat the likes of “Road Rules,” “Big Brother” and the advent of the “group challenge,” which also would become the basis for CBS’ “The Amazing Race.” 1948’s “The Original Amateur Hour” was the spark that lit the fire for the modern talent show formats to come, eventually giving us “American Idol,” “X-Factor” and “The Voice.”
CBS pioneered the survival sub-genre with, fittingly, “Survivor,” which has defied its age and chugged along for 17 years. Its 35th season will air starting in September. Discovery’s foothold in this particular style has largely been staked on extreme deprivation tactics perpetrated on its shows’ willing participants. They took the clothes out of the equation on the jungle-set “Naked and Afraid,” and now the network is turning off all the lights on “Darkness,” debuting Aug. 2
Each week, the show abandons three survivalists on opposite ends of a pitch-black cave and asks them to find each other, resources and a way out within six days. The premiere stars Jeff Tucker, a former Fort Worth firefighter whose survival skills come from his unique background in gymnastics and CrossFit.
He and the other two contestants featured in Wednesday’s series debut, who had not met before they stumbled upon one another in the cave outside St. Robert, Mo., were filmed by a specially trained Discovery camera crew using military-grade night-vision camera equipment.
Tucker, 54, who has a philosophy degree, has his own ideas about reality television’s potential for meaning, and has a discerning taste when it comes to martinis. He was a Fort Worth firefighter for 18-plus years and spent time on the department’s bomb squad.
He left the fire department in 2001 and moved his family of five to a ranch outside of May, in Brown County, in 2012. He knows a thing or two about fear, and about working with a limited field of vision.
But for a guy who thrives on having a firm Plan A, B and C, he had no idea what he was getting himself into when he signed up to spend a week in a cave for “Darkness.”
“I think that’s the hardest thing to convey to people, the concept of not being able to see,” Tucker said. “When I walked away from the light, I never saw light again for six days. I’ll never forget looking over my shoulder and seeing wisps of light, and then when I turned that first corner, it was all gone.
“When it was gone, I instantly had to change my mind as to what I needed to deal with. It wasn’t really about making sure I didn’t fall down. It was about making sure I didn’t go crazy.”
Seeing Porky Pig
The worst of it was when he hallucinated a 3-foot-tall Porky Pig, the Warner Bros. cartoon character, after what he thought was about the first day-and-a-half of total darkness and isolation.
“He’s just staring at me. He’s not talking to me,” Tucker said. “His left ear would twitch and his expression would change, but he wasn’t saying anything to me. I told myself, ‘I’m losing it,’ and tried to keep both sides of my brain occupied by counting backward from 1,000 by two, then back up to 1,000 by 10.”
Tucker’s saving grace was finding a total stranger the next day who would almost instantly become one of his dearest friends. Actually, to say “the next day” is something of an approximation, because both men left all concept of time at the entrance to the cave along with their last dose of sunlight and their prospects for a decent meal.
Brandon Lee, 37, is an active firefighter, in Shreveport, La. Both he and Tucker said proving to themselves they could do it was the primary motivation for going into the cave.
They’re both family men whose wives think they’re crazy. They both knew from an early age that they wanted to be firefighters when they grew up. And they agree that their experience in the cave is further proof that race is just a construct of the human mind.
Race sometimes has been used as cultural kindling on reality TV, a way to fire up conflict, an element on which the genre thrives. Longtime fans of “The Real World” won’t forget roommates Kevin Powell and Julie Gentry’s famous argument about race on the very first season of the show in 1992. But that’s not what viewers are going to get from Lee and Tucker.
When put in a position where they literally could not see the other’s skin color, all they had to go on was their shared goal to get out of the cave.
“We were put in an adverse situation and had a common goal,” Lee said in a phone interview. “Some of this sounds cliché, but being in a cave, a black man and a white man working together, you really get the sense that all of the racial division we see, we create that on our own. Our differences are not inherent. We perceive them and create them, and we can and should be the ones to recognize that, and stop treating one another differently on racial lines.”
“Did I know Brandon was a black man when I met him? After talking to him a little, I did,” Tucker said. “Did he know I was a redneck from Central Texas after a little while? He did. But none of that ever came up. The fact that the goal superseded any of our cultural differences made it almost like race, in that setting, didn’t exist.”
The fact that they’re doing interviews means — spoiler alert — that they did eventually make it out of the cave and into a desperately needed shower. But they’re not offering too many more details on how they found their way out. (And, unlike, say, “The Amazing Race,” no one is much richer as Tucker said he got around $2,000 for doing “Darkness.”)
“We crawled a lot, we fell down a lot, we got hurt a lot,” Tucker said. “When that opening finally came into view, all I saw at first was a tree trunk with some moss growing on it. But that was the greenest green you’d ever seen, and multiply it by 1,000.
“A blue sky has never been that blue.”
- 9 p.m. Wednesday