tv reporter

'Man vs. Wild' now truth vs. deception

First there was Santa Claus. Then came the Tooth Fairy. And just when you thought no one could fool you into believing in mythical figures again, along comes Bear Grylls.

Grylls is the star of "Man vs. Wild," an increasingly popular series on Discovery Channel that recently concluded its second season. In each episode, he parachutes into a different uninhabited territory without a map or much else in the way of camping equipment and spends several days trying to find his way back to civilization.

But this British adventurer is now the subject of an investigation by U.K.'s Channel 4, which already has confirmed that Grylls checked into motels on a few occasions when he was depicted on TV as having slept under the stars. Other allegations have been made suggesting that the crew that records Grylls in action isn't as hands-off as it might appear to viewers.

Knowing what I now know, I don't think I could ever watch "Wild" with the same zeal again. Naive as it now seems, I bought the notion that Grylls really was roughing it. If he cut corners here or there, what's to stop fans from doubting every facet of the show?

Discovery has made vague allusions to moving forward with the series, but repackaged with greater "transparency." What exactly that means will be an interesting question for the network, which hasn't had a headache like this since the late Steve Irwin decided to dangle his infant child within the reach of a hungry crocodile.

If Grylls thought the barren landscape of the Outback was a challenge, wait until he faces the ultimate endurance contest: celebrity notoriety. With a handsome face and endearing accent that makes him a dead ringer for actor Christian Bale, Grylls has more than star quality; he exudes integrity. There was an effortlessness to his appeal; he was charming without being a charmer.

I think the appeal of this series has always been that its verite style reverses a subtle untold effect of such shows as CBS' "Survivor" and ABC's "Lost." The way they depict average Joes living off the land with relative ease has made the specter of being stranded in the wilderness not as scary as it once was. Heck, even Gilligan managed to subsist on coconuts and bamboo.

But "Wild" restored a sense of realism to being marooned and sold us on the fantasy that we could learn the actual skills for survival.

Truth be told, though, "Wild" isn't so much 21st century "Gilligan's Island" as it is a hybrid of "McGyver" and "Jackass." Grylls has a knack for improvising solutions to dangerous predicaments and isn't above grossing out everyone in the process.

Who can forget the time Grylls, burning up in the heat of the Moab desert, urinated on his own T-shirt, which he then wrapped around his head to cool his soaring body temperature. Or the time the hungry Grylls bit the heads off maggots he found in a frozen animal carcass crushed by an avalanche, cheerfully explaining they were a good source of nutrition?

For all its self-professed realism, "Wild" always required some suspension of disbelief. Grylls often commented on the painful loneliness of being alone in the wild, but unless his camera crew was staffed by bears, he did have some company out there.

In retrospect, Grylls' preternatural unflappability in even the most dire of circumstances always seemed a bit too good to be true. I recall one episode in which he made an interminable slog through hip-deep snow drifts in the French Alps. Braving the frigid conditions, his frustration was evident only in the following comment: "I'd really murder for a cup of tea."

For all we know now, perhaps he was sipping English Breakfast on fine china between takes.