The early 2000s was full of relatively unexamined, hallucinatory nuggets of pop culture. Exploitative reality TV, bizarre pop star crossover vehicles, and demented action films ran wild, all marked by a relentlessly post-9/11 earnestness. Fox’s reputation as a clearing house for some of the wildest, most tasteless programming on television was well established by this point, leading the charge with stuff like Cops and America’s Most Wanted through the 90s, coming into the 21st century strong with shows like the deceitful Bachelor riff Joe Millionaire, mystery/game show Murder in Small Town X, and the surreal Man vs. Beast, a competition show that featured humans squaring off in a series of physical challenges against wild animals. We’re going to spend a little more time on that last one, because it deserves a closer look.
The show feels like it was inspired by a series of questions posed by a seven year old boy, questions like “can a big bear eat more hot dogs than a guy who can eat a lot of hot dogs?” and “who’s faster: a really fast guy or a giraffe?” These questions and more are treated with the utmost seriousness in a professional sports environment, complete with rapt commentary from a pair of broadcasters narrating the action, as man is beaten by beast again and again. Take, for example, the clip of professional eating legend Takeru Kobayashi, trying and failing to out eat a Kodiak bear.
Congratulations to this bear and his handler, Steve Martin (not that one). One of the wildest things about this show is that it wasn’t a one-time deal, they actually made a few of these things. One highlight of the second edition of Man vs. Beast, a gymnast and an orangutan named Bam Bam to see who can hang from a bar for longer. The tone is a little goofier than the eating contest, the show is a bit more self-aware in its absurdity, which ultimately makes it worse. If you’re gonna be trash, just be trash and proud of it, you know?
The final clip we’ll look at is perhaps the most bizarre and of its time of them all: 44 little people teaming up against an elephant to pull an airplane 25 yards. Everyone’s treated with a reasonable amount of respect and all that but the fact that it exists in the first place is a real tough one to handle. This whole show feels like it’d be on in the background of an on-the-nose satire of Modern American Stupidity and that it actually made it out there into the real world is both distressing but ultimately, unsurprising.
Thankfully, the reception from both critics and the general public was negative, with justifiably upset animal rights activists speaking out against the show’s gleeful exploitation. Unsurprisingly, the creators of the show blame PC culture run amok, rather than people just knowing that something is absolutely dumb as shit when they see it. Either way, it lives on forever in low quality Youtube clips, so we can all remember Man vs. Beast as it was: a caricature of dumb TV that manages to be both weirdly thrilling while also kind of boring.