SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Bigfoot meets “Reality” TV

by Donald Prothero, Jan 13 2014

I can just see it now: Mike Riley and his production team, veterans of previous “reality” TV  shows such as “Yukon Men,” “Cram”, “Tool Academy”, and many others, are brainstorming ideas for another new show. Several new Bigfoot shows have just aired on basic cable TV, so someone says “Why don’t we combine ‘Survivor’ with Bigfoot?”  I’m sure something along these lines occurred: take a classic “reality” TV format, the competition show between individuals or teams (such as “Survivor” or “The Amazing Race”), and give them a new pop-culture task to perform: finding Bigfoot. This, in a nutshell, is what Spike TV’s new show “The $10 Million Bigfoot Bounty” (first aired on Jan. 10) is all about.

Just like the format of other competition “reality” TV shows, they have 9 teams of 2 people told to perform a difficult task: seeking evidence of Bigfoot in the woods of Washington and California. Each week another team is eliminated for failing to come up with something, and the race gets tougher. If any contestant comes up with good evidence of Bigfoot, they win the $10 million prize. During each episode, they follow a standard format: some sort of competition to see if they have the “skills” to do the job, and then a night search for “evidence of Bigfoot”—plus the usual footage of the contestants at the beginning and end of each competition, and a final “elimination” segment when they milk the “who gets kicked out?” storyline for the maximum amount of drama. They follow all the stereotypical conventions of this genre: spooky music, lots of reaction shots of contestants under stress, big pause before they announce the loser then cut to a long commercial break before the reveal, etc. And, like any reality show, lots of footage of the contestants arguing and bickering with each other, saying stupid things, and just plain making fools of themselves in front of millions of viewers. (Word of advice: pre-record the show and watch it later with your remote control. Almost half the time is killed by obnoxious advertisements).

At least, that’s the way the program is set up. Like any similar “reality competition” show, the contestants are picked by casting directors to fit certain needs. In particular, being entertaining or interesting is much important than being a genuine Bigfoot hunter. It’s clear that they tried to get colorful characters who fit certain types: a few pairs of men with women (two of which are hot blondes; one of the men has a weird semi-Mohawk), a pair including one bearded hillbilly (so popular on TV now after the clean-cut millionaire yuppie Robertson family transformed into hillbillies for “Duck Dynasty”), a pair of female bowhunters, a pair of African-Americans, a pair of Native Americans, and miscellaneous odd characters. When interviewed, only a few reveal that they are real “squatchers” (as the Bigfoot hunters call themselves); the rest say they’ve done some hunting, or are interested in Bigfoot. But as we all know from the long history of leaks about these shows, many of these people are probably actors seeking a break, or people just in it for the fame and/or money. It doesn’t matter what show they are cast in, they just need the work or want to be on TV. Not only that, but the “reality” of the show is entirely fake. Leaks from past shows have revealed that much of the “action” is staged or scripted, that much of the “drama” is also staged, and that most of what the people say on these shows isn’t what they really think. But “reality” TV has been for the past decade the major growth sector of all TV production since it costs little to produce compared to scripted dramas or comedies, and it can often draw many more viewers than far more expensive shows.
The judges of the “competition” are much better. The host is Dean Cain, the “Superman” of the old TV series “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” who is apparently much shorter than he first appeared as “Superman” on TV. There is also a female judge, Natalia Reagan, who seems to have been cast because of her looks and because she is an actor and comedian, with a master’s degree in anthropology. She’s supposed to train the contestants in field methods. But in my opinion, the star of the show is Dr. Todd Disotell, a Harvard-trained molecular primatologist from NYU. In addition to deciphering the DNA of many species of primates, he’s long been willing to spend his lab time analyzing “Bigfoot” samples and debunking them. He is perfect for the show: his gonzo looks with the Mohawk and glasses overturns all the stereotypes of scientists, and yet he consistently schools these amateurs in basic biology that they so clearly don’t understand. He’s the constant voice of science and skepticism on the show, tutoring all the viewers on what the scientific method is and what evidence is acceptable.  That alone distinguishes this show from all the pseudoscientific shows out there. Apparently, he even wrote the judging criteria before he would accept the offer. Best of all: they built him a state-of the-art molecular biology lab out in the wilderness, so he can get results in hours, rather than waiting weeks or months as most scientists must in the real world. For the needs of TV show, they get results much faster than even the fictional crime lab in “CSI” does.

Judges Natalia Reagan and Dr. Todd Disotell, with host Dean Cain in the middle

Judges Natalia Reagan and Dr. Todd Disotell, with host Dean Cain in the middle

After introducing the cast through a series of short interviews, the pilot episode begins with the first competition: each pair has a air rifle to shoot a tissue-sampling dart at some live animal on a game ranch (which includes yaks and bison, as well as elk and other local animals). Quickly, we find out that this cast was not selected for their hunting skills. Most are in no shape to trek miles across the woods (two teams are particularly overweight); most have never actually hunted with a gun of any kind, and can’t shoot straight; and many of them spend their time talking loudly as they (and their cameraman) walk across the terrane, spooking most animals away long before they arrive. Finally, three of the teams manage to dart a tame yak that is just a few yards away (one scares it away when they miss, and the other party gets a decent shot), and they race back to the start to win the first competition. Presumably, the other six teams never managed to shoot anything, even though the cameramen got plenty of shots of bison, elk, and even rabbits.

During the break after the first hunt, we are treated to a group meeting with Dean Cain. He asks how many believe in Bigfoot, how many have seen Bigfoot—and then the bearded hillbilly, Justine Smeja, brags that he’s killed two Sasquatches, including strangling a baby Bigfoot. He says over and over again that he just wants to hunt and kill them, not observe them. Naturally, he gets lots of horrified looks from the rest of the “hunters”. When asked why he didn’t bring back the body and become famous, he gives some lame excuse. He said he sent hair samples to be analyzed, and they came back “feral human”! As Disotell points out, there is no such thing as a “feral human,” so if he did kill two of them, he’s just confessed to murder! Of course, it’s clear that no one believes him, and regard him as a blowhard. Ironically, he’s one of the few cast members who is actually part of the “squatcher” community, but their websites don’t seem to be too happy with him.

Justin Smeja, the "Bigfoot hunter" who claims to have killed two Sasquatches

Justin Smeja, the “Bigfoot hunter” who claims to have killed two Sasquatches

The second segment shows their first night out in the woods. Once again, they blunder about like complete tenderfeet, overreacting to each sound in the woods (such as the call of the nighthawk), pouring plaster into a random hole in the ground they think is a footprint, and mostly collecting scat from animals—as if any of this is relevant to Bigfoot. At one point, several groups converge, and react to a strange sound they don’t identify—but I’ll bet any qualified field biologist familiar with that area would know whose call it was, and it wouldn’t be Bigfoot. (Or, just as likely, the show sent someone out to create the call and get footage of their reaction). Justin Smeja and his partner find a lava tube they think is a “cave” (they’re in lava beds just south of Mt. Adams in southwestern Washington), and brings back…. rodent-gnawed pine cones! Another brings back a bone which has rodent gnaw-marks they attribute to Bigfoot. Worst of all, the Native American team (who brag about their native tracking skills) brings back what they think is “hair”—and it turns out to be moss. All of the teams are gently rebuked by Disotell and Reagan the next morning, when they quickly point out that none of their “biological evidence” has any relevance to Bigfoot. At the very end, the team that brought back nothing is eliminated.

If you go to comment strings of the squatcher sites, they are reacting to the show as if somehow it would be better if more true Bigfoot hunters had been cast. But that experiment has been tried—many times! Nearly all the pseudoscientific “documentaries” about Bigfoot and other cryptids on cable TV are populated by the dedicated amateur “hunters”, blundering about in the woods at night, and revealing the they have no clue about the basics of field biology. Every sound is a Bigfoot call, every scratch on a tree is Bigfoot sign, every mark on the ground is a Bigfoot track to them. As Sharon Hill puts it, they are practicing “sham science”: wearing fancy night-vision goggles or using expensive camera traps without actually knowing how real science operates. (Luckily, on this new show, we have Disotell and Reagan to throw cold water over the contestants’ incompetence). As Daniel Loxton and I pointed out in our new book Abominable Science, field ecology is actually quite a sophisticated science now, no longer just tramping in the woods looking for new animals as it was a century ago. It’s no accident that trained field biologists never see signs of Bigfoot, any more than trained astronomers see UFOs in the sky—people who know what they’re doing know what’s really out there, and never mistake it for something outside the realm of known science. The fields of cryptozoology and UFOs are inhabited almost entirely by amateurs who have no clue what they’re doing, and don’t realize that their blunders on camera in “documentaries” just reveal to us with scientific training how incompetent they really are.

In an additional bizarre twist, the P.T. Barnum of the Bigfoot world, Rick Dyer, is going around the country displaying his fake “Bigfoot carcass” to anyone who will pay up. Never mind that he was also the man behind the 2008 Georgia Bigfoot hoax, or that most of the “squatchers” don’t trust him. Naturally, he wants even more attention, and is complaining loudly that the Spike TV show didn’t give him a chance to submit his “evidence.” But until he gives a real tissue sample to Disotell or some other molecular biologists, and lets real scientists see his “Sasquatch body,” no one will take him seriously—not just in the scientific world, but even in the credulous world of TV.

This was only the pilot, and we have 7 more episodes to go, and no one who taped the episodes can speak out yet about what they found. Certainly, if any convincing evidence of Bigfoot had been found during the taping of the show, the information would have leaked by now and not waited until the show finished airing all 8 episodes. If the teaser clip about future episodes they aired at the end is any indication, the show will spiral further down the rabbit hole of UNreality. Lots more squabbling and fighting between contestants, lots of bad behavior and stupidity on camera, lots of blundering around in the dark finding nothing. I’m betting that the last contestant standing will have nothing more convincing that we got in episode 1. But unlike most “reality” shows, which are tedious wastes of time, this one has at least one redeeming virtue: the judgment of science. In the end, I’m hoping that what most people remember about the show is that the people chasing Bigfoot are incompetent amateurs, and that they will have picked up at least some scientific thinking from Disotell and Reagan.


9 Responses to “Bigfoot meets “Reality” TV”

  1. Curtis Croulet says:

    “…any more than trained astronomers see UFOs in the sky” I’ve been an amateur astronomer for 56 years, and I’ve never seen a UFO or even a “what’s that?” The human mind works very hard to make sense of what it doesn’t understand, and often an invented explanation (i.e., pulled out of one’s a**) is considered an adequate substitute for real knowledge. This is one of the sources of religion, the other source, of course, being a gimmick for exerting controlling power over others. I haven’t seen the bigfoot show described in Don’s blog post, but I’m reminded of an ancient TV show, “Treasure with Bill Burrud” (1958-1959). The theme of the show was a hunt for legendary buried treasures, mainly in the western U.S. At the climax of each show, they would seem to be on the verge of actually getting their hands on the treasure, but some sudden disaster (shoring of an excavation collapsing, a rock fall) would stymie their discovery. I suspect that the final bigfoot show will arrive at a mysterious shape moving in the shadows, the imagined glint of a peering eye, or something similar. And that’ll be that!

  2. Scott the Aussie (in Devon!) says:

    Sounds like one of the very few times real science has had a fair chance in these shows. Quite recently over here a 3 part series was aired that wasn’t bad, and in the end they did find some interesting DNA results; an archaic Polar Bear/Grizzly cross that they purported to be the Yeti.

    BTW I just finished your book and recommend it to everyone in my local Skeptical group, and a few others besides. 101/10 guys – its a masterpiece.

  3. Pete in Chanhassen, MN says:

    Nice write-up. I think you were a little harsh on Reagan though. Everything else was spot on. I almost found it unwatchable. However, I hung in for the end and am glad that they didn’t really mince words about the “evidence.” I think I’ll DVR and watch the others but fast-forward to the judging portions where you’ll be able to hear the scientists speak. If nothing else, maybe it will teach some basic scientific reasoning to the general public.

  4. Bill says:

    Reagan and Disotell were featured on last week’s ‘Monster Talk’ podcast. It was a very interesting show – both sounded adequately grounded in science and skepticism, and pulled no punches about what the quality of evidence that they’d accept. Both, however, acknowledged that they would be subject to the editing process, and neither could promise how much of the scientific method that they tried to impart would survive to airtime.

    Based on their ‘Monster Talk’ program, I give them full credit for trying to inject actual science into the woo-reality nonsense that we’ve been seeing. I hope the show preserves at least some of their efforts at actual scientific analysis.

  5. Karl Withakay says:

    It’s funny how the reward for doing the closest thing to good science any of the teams do (not doing bad science or at least not bringing back bogus evidence) is to be eliminated.

    Shouldn’t the team that gets eliminated be the one that brings back the worst/ flimsiest “evidence”?

    • Yeah, that was the complaint on a bunch of the squatcher comment strings on their websites: the one couple that refused to bring flimsy evidence or non-evidence back was eliminated, rather than praised. I suspect that the judging is also based on signs of ANY effort as much as the quality of the evidence. None of them worked that hard, or brought back much after hours in the woods….

    • tmac57 says:

      Doesn’t sound good for the null hypothesis does it?

  6. I finally figured out what the “Bigfoot calls” were on the show. They’re Barred Owls, a species common to all the pine forests of the northern and eastern states. Here’s a sample of their “primate-like calls”:

    • tmac57 says:

      Very weird for a bird call! No wonder someone not familiar with it would get the wrong impression.
      I once spent a week in Moab Utah in a condo on the edge of town,and one night around midnight or later I heard what at first sounded like a bunch of rowdy teens coming down the street making a huge racket,but then realized that it was coyotes howling/barking/shrieking,as they roamed the area.
      Not the typical sound that you have been conditioned by movies and TV to expect,but an almost human keening.Very strange indeed!