TORONTO — Reality television super-producer Mark Burnett’s new series Expedition Africa shares many esthetic similarities to his hit franchise Survivor: there are the same lush jungles, exotic wildlife and danger of a perilous, uncontrolled environment.
But in lieu of his other show’s torches, tribal councils, and teeny-tiny bikinis, Burnett hopes Expedition Africa — a show in which four explorers recreate Sir Henry Morton Stanley’s legendary journey through Africa to find Dr. David Livingstone — hooks viewers with something a little less sexy: history.
“When this came up, it was such a challenge — how to create programming that would be adventurous, have dramatic storytelling, but have its foundation in history,” Burnett said. “It was very, very challenging to try to pull that off. It was exciting.”
Expedition Africa has completed its eight-episode run in the U.S. but makes its Canadian debut tonight.
The show tracks four explorers — navigator Pasquale Scatturo, wildlife expert Mireya Mayor, survivalist Benedict Allen and journalist Kevin Sites, the least experienced of the quartet — who use only a compass and hand-drawn maps as they attempt to retrace Stanley’s famed 1,500-kilometre expedition to find Livingstone.
Along the way, they sidestep potentially dangerous confrontations with lions, crocodiles and a variety of deadly snakes, while finding plenty of time to bicker amongst themselves about the best way to accomplish pretty much every task they encounter.
And that, Burnett says, can be the key to good reality television — though he maintains he had no idea which personalities would clash.
“No, you never really know what’s going to happen like that,” Burnett said. “All you can do is choose people who you think have big personalities. ”
“Without conflict, there’s no drama. And this is authentic conflict, for experienced people.”
Early on in the series’ premiere, the stubborn Scatturo establishes himself as the explorer most likely to rub the others the wrong way.
Upon meeting the rest of the group, Scatturo stakes his claim to a leadership role by announcing that he was the first person ever to lead a blind man to the top of Mount Everest. Later, his refusal to slow his pace as he leads the expedition results in one of the porters collapsing from heat exhaustion.
It’s also not long before Mayor, the only woman on the expedition, accuses him of treating her with a condescending attitude.
“I had no idea who would take over as a leader, who would be dogmatic . . . but it ended up being Pasquale,” Burnett said.
“It was very interesting to see from the very beginning they already knew that he was only willing to be the leader. And of course, it made it a much harder journey in some ways, but on the other hand, it kept them going.”
Of course, the busy Burnett has plenty of other projects occupying his time.
In August, he launched “Shark Tank,” the American version of the international hit “Dragons’ Den,” in which entrepreneurs pitch business ideas to a panel of millionaires. The U.S. show borrows two tycoons from the CBC’s successful incarnation of the show: Kevin O’Leary and Robert Herjavec.
Burnett said he contemplated recruiting an all-new cast for the U.S. show but ultimately decided against it.
“We considered that, but I really like the guys,” he said. “I really like them, and they really wanted to do it, and I felt they really added something.”