Wouldn't it be fun to have a "survive-off" between Survivorman's Les Stroud and Man vs. Wild's Bear Grylls? That's what I keep asking myself when I watch both of these similarly themed programs which aim to show survival skills from a first person perspective. As most fans of either show probably know, Grylls was caught up in some controversy due to the fact that he is obviously being tagged by a crew, and word snuck out that he may have been brought some of the niceties of home by these hangers-on, not to mention another rumor that he actually stayed overnight at hotels, at least some of the time. Ultimately that didn't detract too awfully from his intense, extremely athletic presence in Man vs. Wild. Nonetheless, I'd have to say my money would be squarely on Stroud to come out on top in a face off with Grylls. Stroud prides himself on filming his own episodes, insisting that in order to show what really surviving in the wild is like, he has to be out there by himself. In fact, the toll that took on him over the course of three seasons of Survivorman is one reason he's called it quits, at least for now.
If Stroud is less over the top than Grylls (you rarely see Stroud leaping out of a plane into the ocean, for example), he has the calm assurance of someone who has "been there, done that" and lived to tell about it. With his camera aimed at himself on a sort of rigged up pole device, each episode is an up close and personal look at Stroud in a variety of exotic locales, from deep, humid jungles to vast arid deserts. There is of course some overlap between Man vs. Wild and Survivorman, especially in the kind of stomach turning moments when either host is forced to consume "food" that any sane person would probably prefer to die from starvation first rather than eat.
Stroud makes no bones about various mistakes even he can make. In one of the few episodes where he's accompanied, he and his hunting buddy split up on the first night. Stroud it turns out forgets to turn off his GPS unit, so it runs out of battery power, and he has a harder time finding his companion. Now the entire thing may have been planned (and indeed Stroud even seems to allude to it that way in a passing comment), but it shows what can happen even to the "experts" when they rely too much on technology and not any native survival skills.
What also sets Stroud apart from the pack is, strangely enough, his musical skill. Stroud started his career at Canada's version of MTV, and he is one hell of a harmonica player, something he shows off in a number of different episodes. It may have absolutely nothing to do with survival, but it puts a unique spin on the series and seems to make Stroud less of a superman, and more of an everyman you wouldn't mind hanging out with (maybe in a backyard, though, instead of Papua New Guinea). Stroud also contributed the guitar-laden theme to the series.
Though the show follows a formula (Stroud descends into the wilderness, manages to overcome many an obstacle, and then is ultimately rescued at the end by his rescue team), there is enough variety here to keep most viewers entertained throughout the season, though this is probably not a show most will want to watch all at once. Stroud visits a number of stateside locations, including the Sierra Nevadas and Colorado Rockies, but also branches out worldwide to the Arctic tundra and Australian outback. It gives the series a huge variety of ecosystems that Stroud must make his way through, and it provides ample opportunity for great glimpses of various wildlife and insects that inhabit these places. (Squeamish viewer alert: Stroud is not above showing carcasses of dead animals, some in pretty bad states of decomposition).
Survivorman certainly feels like the more authentic survival show when compared to Man vs. Wild. Grylls may be showier and more in your face, but Stroud's calm and quiet mastery of whatever domain he finds himself in, ultimately makes Survivorman the better show. Hopefully after a well-deserved rest Stroud will be back with more survival tips. Or at least some killer blues harp.