Channel 4’s Eden wasn’t a failure – here’s what we can learn from it

EdenWhat constitutes a failed reality TV experiment? That depends what it was trying to achieve.

At the most basic level, the producers of Eden aspired for their work to be broadcast on TV over the course of 12 months, so in one important sense things clearly went wrong. But the developments that made Eden fail as a programme were arguably part of its success as en experiment.

It was never entirely clear what remit the producers gave the 23 participants who arrived at the 600-acre site last spring. They were challenged to build a community, but it quickly became clear they all had different ideas of what exactly that meant. Did it mean building a community in which all 23 people – chosen for their specific skills and experience – could contribute and thrive, or might a successful outcome be a smaller, tighter group, united by a shared ideology?

It was only when the final five episodes were eventually shown – a full year after the first four – that viewers learned of an important rule: participants could be evicted from the site if 75% of the resident population voted them out. I can understand why this wasn’t explain to us at the start, because clearly this was never intended to be Big Brother in log cabins and ideally the eviction process would never have been initiated.

It was necessary to have some kind of safeguard in place to ensure those who posed a threat to others in the camp could be removed, but ultimately this safeguard was cynically exploited to get rid of a campmate who was simply unpopular, and whose physical strength and resourcefulness posed a threat to the fragile masculinity of those who considered themselves the community’s natural leaders.

Many others left of their own accord, some due to disillusionment with the project, others for reasons that were never explained to the viewers. Some participants didn’t utter a word to camera in the first series; others who were prominently featured were absent from the second.

Of course we can’t fully understand the dynamics based on fewer than nine hours of footage, but what’s clear is that the group who became known as the “Valley Boys” did not believe inclusion was key to “starting again” and building a community. Instead they explicitly plotted to get rid of the participants they considered a burden.

Some might say the breakdown of Eden’s community is no reflection of broader society, but I’m not so sure. Yes, this group were no random sample of the British public, as only a small minority would ever volunteer for something like this, but they were by no means all trained survivalists. And, as in the real world, they needed to exchange their skills, shares resources and make group decisions.

It was particularly striking to hear Glenn express dismay about the Brexit vote on his return to the outside world. Here was a man who didn’t just go along with a plan to remove anyone “other” from the Eden community but actively helped formulate that plan. In splitting into two tribes, the “boys” declared independence and opted to shun anyone who wasn’t another young, white, heterosexual man.

I understand the frustration of viewers who sought clarity on the aim of the whole exercise, but one could ask the same question about a General Election: what are we aiming to achieve by casting our votes? A better UK for everyone who lives here, or a better outcomes for ourselves, our immediate friends and family, or our wider “tribe”?

Eden may have been geographically cut off from the outside world (contraband deliveries aside) but its politics show that while you can take the man out of the right-wing political system, you can’t take the right-wing political system out of the man. The question we’re left with is whether humans are innately selfish and tribal, or whether political discourse about strivers and scroungers, strength and weakness, contributions and burdens shapes their thinking.

Read my full set of Eden blogs here.

Watch Eden on catch-up (probably UK only, alas)

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