‘Castaways’ on ABC Asks: ‘Do We Need Each Other?’

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A philosophical reality show sounds improbable. But ABC’s Castaways asks a basic question about the nature of humanity: Do we need other people?

It’s no spoiler to answer in the affirmative. The 10 episodes examine how and why. Some of the setup is familiar: 12 strangers in an exquisite setting, figuring out how to survive by their wits. But there’s no host and no tribal council.

“What we tried to do is stay away from too many competitions,” says showrunner Grant Kahler. “The real rule is you have to survive until you are rescued. The rescue date is unknown. We tried to create a more realistic disaster scenario than other disaster shows have.”

Contestants, ranging in age from 20 to 62, were dropped into turquoise waters from small boats and had to swim 300 yards to islands in West Papua as if they were castaways, their only gear being their washed-up luggage.

For Robbie Gibbons of Birmingham, Ala., it was a difficult challenge. At 390 pounds, Gibbons was in no shape to do much. He wound up on this spit of land because he needed to “find himself,” he says after the show had concluded.

Contestants were found in different ways, and Gibbons was in a database after applying but not being picked for The Biggest Loser. Though he loves his wife, four children and job as a middle-school gym teacher, he needed to get away from them to deal with childhood abandonment issues. Flashbacks show Gibbons at home raiding the refrigerator.

“We try to use flashbacks [of the contestants’ regular lives] to explain how and why they are making the decisions they make on the island,” Kahler says, adding that each person was definitely running from something.

Contestants were instructed to bring what they would for a day at the beach, so even if someone were trying to be canny, knives and fire starters would not have been allowed. All belongings had to be in TSA-approved carry-ons. Everyone was told to pack a journal, and their bags were scattered among the islands so people opened whatever bag they found first.

Gibbons brought snacks, a harmonica and a kite. He had no survival experience beyond being a Webelo in Boy Scouts, yet knew he needed to try this.

“There are so many parallels to what you are going to see and what you have experienced in your own life,” he says.

Having worked on other reality shows himself that examine people’s psychological responses to being alone, Kahler is hoping viewers relate. He was reading about human isolation when he devised this show. He wanted someplace remote and was reared in Indonesia, so he knew this part of the world. No one had lived in this rainforest for 50 years. The only remnants of habitation were rickety fishing huts, which contestants used to build shelters and provide a vantage point to seek others.

Gibbons found he did need others, though he also discovered he did not need as much — for himself. “I have totally transformed,” he says. He lost 170 pounds.

Castaways airs on ABC Tuesdays at 10pm ET beginning Aug. 7