A chill celebrity reality show – the perfect TV for the era of fuel poverty
Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof (Tuesday, BBC1) begins with a warning: “For your own safety, please seek advice before attempting anything you are about to see.” Even though the show’s challenges this week include weirdly energy-efficient activities like showering and lying on yoga mats, I totally agree with that warning (I’ve been working from home for a while ).
Freeze the Fear is a strange program. Wim Hof is a wellness expert who says scientific things about the beneficial health properties of cold and wants to teach his methods to a random assortment of celebrities. “I want to show celebrities that they can become better!” he says. He sporadically refers to them as “the celebrities” as if they were a special class of human beings. Scientists frequently warn us that experiments that work on mice don’t always work on humans. The same is probably true for celebrities in TV experiments and for us normals with our very different brain shapes and bank balances.
Instead of peer review, Hof has comedian Lee Mack and TV presenter Holly Willoughby
Wim is not quite a scientist, even if he sometimes says “cardiovascular”, so he is in a way a “scientist” (my term). In some ways, he’s better than a scientist, at least for television. While Richard Feynman spent his time writing scientific articles like a moron, Wim Hof does Tai Chi on snowy cliffs wearing a simple poncho. As Rosalind Franklin performs complex experiments to learn the properties of DNA, a nearly naked Wim Hof races towards us through the snow in order to jump through a hole in the ice. Einstein said: “E=mc2”, Wim Hof said: “Stress decreases. The energy rises. And you feel: Wow! St! I feel good.”
Instead of peer review, Hof has comedian Lee Mack and TV presenter Holly Willoughby whimsically observing everything while wearing warm clothes. They rarely harass the Hof with a rigorous analysis of his techniques. Indeed, the closest we have to an actual scientist on this program is rapper and Cluedo character Professor Green, one of the participants. And something tells me he’s a professor of grooves, not biology.
The lack of scientific input is strange because while some of Wim Hof’s broader claims about the power of cold have been verified by experiments, others have not. The BBC clearly heard the word ‘some’ in that sentence and thought ‘pretty good’, and if Lord Reith is spinning in a cold, cold grave, they’re no doubt assuming it’s because he’s a fan of Wim Off.
Right now, making celebrities on TV cry is a bit difficult because nihilistic cruelty is out of fashion.
Freeze the Fear is also the product of other trends. Most contemporary reality shows begin with a whiteboard on which someone has scribbled the words “Celebs in tears?” and also: “Fix the details later”. One day someone will do a show simply called Celebrities in Tears and then television will be over, the sun will finally go out and it will be time for Ragnarök.
Right now, making celebrities cry on TV is a little difficult because nihilistic cruelty is out of fashion (in TV, not in life, obviously). These days, celebrity discomfort on TV has to happen in the context of self-knowledge and hugs. Their suffering must be for their own good and also for the edification of the viewer. If celebrities are forced to plunge into icy water or swoop down from vast heights, it’s less about pleasing viewers’ inner sadists and more about satisfying a quest for meaning. And we viewers should also watch such shows in an educational way, thinking, “I learned something today about the nature of life” and not just screaming hysterically when people fall.
In the first episode of Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof, eight people jump into the ice hole that Wim skipped a few paragraphs into. Later in this episode, they rappel down a cliff face to face. “Stephen got to the bottom,” says Lee Mack, although getting to the bottom of the cliff was never really in doubt (it was about whether they could get there without falling at high speed). Then the eight celebrities go to a big collective tent where they live like vulgar Smurfs. Wim has a whole tent for him nearby, like Papa Smurf.
This week’s episode comes up against the show’s main dynamic problem: being cold isn’t a very television situation. The creators of the programs must know this, so at the beginning of the episode they show us a huge bridge and promise us that before the end of the series, celebrities will fall from it. Wim jumps off the bridge to demonstrate, which sounds like a terrible waste of TV personality until you realize he’s actually hanging by a rope. Smart BBC. They don’t tell us this explicitly, but we have the intuition that this string must be an emergent property of “cold”.
The main activities of this episode are a bit boring. In the first half of the show, catering to very particular tastes, Wim encourages each of the celebrities to take a cold shower while Holly Willoughby and Lee Mack watch. “You just don’t want a cold shower, you just want a nice hot shower,” Prof Green says, outlining for us the danger of the situation. Celebrities have their cold showers. It makes them a) moist and b) cold and c) invigorated. I write everything down in my notebook. Because, yes, I am also a scientist.
In the second half of the show, all the celebrities are lying on the floor and Wim talks them through some breathing exercises until many of them have some sort of emotional breakthrough. I’m not qualified to say what’s going on here, but luckily no one on the show is either. Soon, Willoughby and Mack discuss how cathartic this experience must be. They are “psychologists” for the “scientist” of Hof. More Statler and Waldorf than Freud and Jung.
I get why people are drawn to this delicious weirdo
Listen, everyone on this show is vulnerable, open, and well-meaning. Some, like TV presenter Gabby Logan and footballer Patrice Evra, speak fondly of real trauma in their lives. Wim hits a big gong and soon we see footage from next week’s show which includes, at one point, Wim and his daughter drinking tea sitting in adjacent barrels of ice, like drifters from the era of depression or classical philosophers.
I get why people are drawn to this delicious weirdo. He seems kind and charismatic and wears a poncho while offering an individualistic quick fix for self-improvement. And God knows, when you’re in the ruins of a welfare state, you can’t get enough. Meanwhile, the UK is experiencing an identity crisis. In a nation ruled by revelers and tax evaders, the BBC’s management clearly saw this bearded Dutchman wandering through the snow in near-claw and thought, “Is this leadership?”
I’m not sure how they can justify providing uncritical endorsement of Wim Hof’s methods beyond the meta-narratives of other entrepreneurial health gurus. On the other hand, in an age of inflation, fuel poverty and dysfunctional health care, it surely helps to have a public broadcast arguing that cold has healing properties for an hour every Tuesday.