Exclusive clip: FYI’s “Unplugged Nation” tests off-grid living

FYI's Gena McCarthy and Blast! Films' Nick Cory-Wright speak to realscreen about the challenges of filming remote living series Unplugged Nation (pictured) and what it takes to live off-grid.
July 29, 2015

Deep within the quiet, lush rainforest encircling one of Earth’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea, sits an energy independent, one-story home camouflaged by three acres of avocado, mango and lemon trees.

Located an hour southwest of the Hawaii County city of Hilo and a 40-minute drive from the nearest hospital, the isolated 1,344-square-foot house comes outfitted with a catch-water basin and 12 solar panels equipped to sell left-over energy back to the electric company.

Off-grid properties like the aforementioned “Jungle House” are at the forefront of a grassroots movement that is bringing urban-dwelling families to remote locations across the U.S. in search of self-sufficiency. It’s a movement that U.S. cable net FYI hopes to tap into with the series Unplugged Nation, which looks to satisfy the vicarious desires of “off-grid couch surfers” to live rugged, unplugged lifestyles.

“I often dream of going unplugged and wonder if I could live that lifestyle,” Gena McCarthy, senior VP of programming for FYI, tells realscreen after recounting her three-part morning commute to work from the boroughs of New Jersey into bustling New York City.

“I think a lot of people feel the same way,” she continued. “It doesn’t mean they would join the movement and go unplugged, but I think a lot of people have this armchair desire to at least experience it and to escape.”

While the self-contained episodes follow the standard approach to the typical real estate format in which house hunters view three properties before making a decision – as seen on HGTV’s Hawaii Life and franchise series House Hunters– the A+E Networks-owned channel has incorporated a twist into the 9 x 60-minute property series, which debuts tonight (July 29) at 10 p.m. EST/PST.

Jay Gruen, host of FYI’s Unplugged Nation

Before placing a final offer on the house they’ve selected, each family is allotted a four-day test drive of both the home and their new surroundings, in which series host and off-the-grid expert Jay Gruen (pictured, right) mentors the household members on the particulars of living self-sufficiently, such as harvesting food, tending to livestock and generating power.

Once the trial period expires, families will then decide whether to stay off-grid or return to their former plugged-in lives.

“That’s very different and very FYI,” McCarthy says of the program’s distinguishing trait.

The seclusion of each property, however, presented a handful of notable complications for the camera crew, alongside some very real dangers, according to executive producer Nick Cory-Wright for Blast! Films.

For one, crews were required to provide their own electricity in order to recharge battery packs as the majority of properties are located miles from expansive cityscapes and power grids – often situated deep within dense forests, along riverbanks, nestled in vast fields, atop mountain ranges and, in one instance, embedded within an active lava field.

With that in mind, the five-man production crew and each family also had to safeguard against the very real threat of venomous insects, poisonous plants and predatory animals throughout the three-month shoot across the diverse American landscape.

“We have one episode with a ‘hippie’ couple who refuse to carry firearms, but Jay keeps pointing out that it’d be quite wise in serious bear country,” Cory-Wright says. “He tries to teach them other techniques, but really, his point is just to get a gun.”

The greatest challenges awaiting families once they’ve joined the off-grid movement, however, come not from the outside world but from a willingness to adjust to their new surroundings.

Often, the simplest things could derail plans for remote living, both McCarthy and Cory-Wright agreed. Foreign noises like croaking frogs or chirping crickets can be oddly disturbing to individuals coming from suburbia and acclimated instead to white noise. For children, it’s removing the constant use of electronic devices that eat away at conserved solar power. For adults, it’s the realization of being truly isolated from city life and medical care, and preparing for winter.

“There are two seasons when you’re living unplugged,” Cory-Wright notes, recalling his favorite Gruen quote. “One is winter and the other is preparing for winter.”

“I think that no matter how much you think you might want a certain lifestyle change, you never truly know until you experience it,” adds McCarthy.

Asked if she thinks she could live an off-grid lifestyle after overseeing the series, McCarthy noted that it’s a viable option for a weekend getaway, but perhaps not for the long term.

“Beyond a week, it might be difficult for me, personally, but I could certainly daydream about it,” the exec added with a laugh.

  • Unplugged Nation airs on FYI tonight at 10 p.m. EST/PST.
  • Check out an exclusive clip from an upcoming episode, in which one family grapples with a reality of off-grid living – killing a chicken to feed its members.

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