Virtually nothing is taboo on TV these days. Full-frontal vomiting, penises, the C-word, and masturbation are almost de rigueur in highbrow quality drama. This has made the advisory labels attached to nighttime programming— warnings of “mature content” unsuitable for minors or those of nervous disposition—seem quaint. But the caution at the start of Going Tribal caught my eye: “This program . . . contains indigenous nudity,” it reads, flashing you back to the days when desperate teenagers sought out their parents’ National Geographic, ogling the saggy boobs of loin-clothed natives from exotic corners of the globe.
Now entering its second season on the Discovery Channel, Going Tribal fuses the spiritual questing of a Terence McKenna with the hardcore thrill-seeking of MTV’s Wild Boys. Call it ecstatic tourism or extreme ethnography: Each hour-long episode sends the show’s star, Bruce Parry, to live with a different indigenous people for an entire month, during which he gradually becomes accepted into the tribe, a process that usually culminates with an initiation ritual of some sort. Parry is neither a hippie nor a macho Jackass type, though. He’s an expedition leader and former lieutenant in the British Marines, with a jovial, self-deprecating manner that vaguely recalls that other likable English globe-trotter, Michael Palin. Parry’s doe- eyed, gentle aura clearly helps him win the trust of his aboriginal hosts. The tribes- folk aren’t threatened—in fact, they often treat him as an endearing half-wit who needs to be schooled in basic skills. In one episode, the village elders marvel at the clumsy way Parry spits cow’s blood in their faces (spattering your peers being a ceremonial gesture of respect). “Wow, he spits like a child,” one old man mutters with genuine bemusement. “It’s his first time,” another allows, in a rare moment of cultural relativism.
Parry has another trait necessary for this kind of travelogue: an openness to unfamiliar experiences that goes well beyond
Fear Factor territory. He’s willing—though not always eager—to try anything, whether it’s chowing down on maggots, slaughtering an animal, or sucking hallucinogenic tree bark to commune with the spirit world. After gulping a serving of clotted cow’s blood with pained politeness, he confesses to the camera that the blood smoothie reminded him of “the hairs and goo you find at the bottom of the bath plug.” I’ve seen him truly flinch only once, when a tribe introduced him to the local custom of shoving one’s penis back inside the body. Parry gamely had a go, immediately fainted, and then stumbled off-camera with an apologetic “no, no, that’s not happening” as his warrior pals looked on in puzzlement.
Going Tribal is partly about demysti-fiying these unutterably alien-seeming cultures, revealing not just the common humanity underneath foreign behavior and beliefs, but also the economic struggles for resources and territory. The show suggests that, yes, we are all brothers under the skin, while wringing drama out of extreme cultural differences. The editing and the low-key docudrama feel of the production help avoid a sense of sensationalistic voyeurism, a remarkable feat given some of the things these tribes do. Take the cannibalistic Kombai tribe of West Papua, Indonesia. Parry listens gravely as his new friends explain that they consume the stomach and brains of dead enemies as a way to banish evil spirits. “I can see no reason why they would lie to me,” he remarks. “And I find that I am not shocked.”
Parry’s diary-style narration envelopes you in the experience of being there, but he does try to widen the frame by sketching in some political and geographical context. On his way to meet the Babongo tribe of Gabon, Parry notes how the logging industry is swiftly transforming the region, turning these traditional forest folk into roadside people. Then there is the Suri clan of Ethiopia, whose region has been rocked by constant civil war in nearby Sudan. After bonding with the Suris last season, he decides to meet their sworn enemies, the legendarily vicious Nyagatom tribe, “to find out what they have done to deserve such a terrible reputation.” Leaving the Suri’s lush green landscape, Parry discovers that the Nyagatom subsist in a parched desert wasteland where they scrabble to survive. All the natural assets border on Suri land; this is a battle for dwindling resources, made more tragic and bloody by the AK-47s that have replaced traditional spears. Belying their fearsome image, the Nyagatom are incredibly merry for people who are half starving. The children sing and dance with Parry, the women mischievously tease him, and the guys teach him to guard the goats and eventually initiate him into the tribe.
These ceremonies are central to most episodes, partly because Parry’s focus is almost always on the menfolk (a female-centric version of the show would be much more daring, if unimaginable). In southwest Ethopia, Parry must perform a cattle-jumping stunt to be considered a tribesman. During his month in Gabon, he goes through an amazingly protracted and strenuous ordeal featuring the psychedelic iboga plant. After puking all day, Parry sees visions of his past misdeeds from the perspective of the people he harmed— a fascinating experiment in empathy that inadvertently parallels the show’s aim to glimpse the world through others’ eyes.
Deftly blending entertainment and edification, Going Tribal is also an exercise in serial enchantment, for Parry and for us. The most disorienting thing about the show is not that he gets so immersed in these cultures but that he is able to leave. Over and over, Parry bonds with the families he meets and has his worldview shaken. Often he leaves with tears in his eyes—yet leave he must, on to the next life-altering epiphany.