The premiere of Survivor: China began like every season has since Richard Hatch showed his large bottom on the beaches of Borneo. Contestants were transported to their new home in a beautiful new land, its potential dangers emphasized by tight shots of snakes and spiders. And, according to host Jeff Probst, these contestants are again diverse, including a former Miss Montana’s middle school lunch lady, a Christian radio talk show host, and a gay Mormon flight attendant.
These 16 competitors, Probst explained, would be forging a new “society” in China. It does seem odd that a show about “roughing it” is set in one of the most economically developed and populated countries in the world. But Survivor could be filmed in my own suburban backyard, as long as my neighbors and I promised not to give the contestants food, blankets or keys to the Volvo hatchback. Cue the extreme close up of my neighbor’s feisty terrier.
Indeed, after 15 installments, the vaguely tropical, vaguely woodsy locations into which our survivors are tossed have begun to blur together. To distinguish the new location, Survivor‘s theme song, always filled with drums, maracas, and “authentic” native chanting, has been revised to include Chinese wood instruments.
Moreover, the contestants’ first task was to participate in a traditional Buddhist ceremony, generating the usual mixed responses from the show’s carefully selected personalities. Denise Martin, the mullet-sporting middle school lunch lady, testified, “What a great experience. It almost made me cry, to tell you the truth.” By contrast, Courtney, a blonde waif from New York City, glared and rolled her eyes when a monk corrected her lazy hand position during a prayer. Yes, Courtney actually rolled eyes at a Buddhist monk, explaining her behavior thusly: “I’m a waitress, dude… I’m not trying to be a monk here. I’m tired.”
Though Courtney’s official bio cites “learning new things” as one of her many hobbies, she has so far proven to be quite unwilling to learn new things. For example, within the first few hours of meeting her new tribe, she expressed distaste for the following types of people: flight attendants, Sunday school teachers, and anyone who makes stupid comments like, “You’re doing a really good job with that.” According to Courtney, “People in New York don’t act like this.” How do New Yorkers act? If Courtney is our model, New Yorkers wear too much eyeliner, skinny jeans, and a perpetual air of disinterested superiority.
The fact that I already hate Courtney is actually one vote in favor of this latest edition of Survivor. But is the presence of “characters” like Denise, Courtney, and hunky gravedigger James (who responded to the query, “What do you do for a living?” with “I bury people”) enough to generate audience interest when today’s reality TV showcases quirky narcissists as a matter of course?
Reality programming’s success is, of course, fueled by our collective schadenfreude. We know that we would most certainly never defecate on the floor in front of people while wearing a formal gown (as occurred on Flavor of Love) or puke into our hands at the dinner table (Rock of Love). We know, instead, that we are better—smarter, faster, more self-respecting—than that. Survivor offers something else, placing viewers alongside contestants. And more often than not, it inspires ordinary Americans (mullets and all) to extraordinary achievements.
In the premiere episode, for example, the contestants’ luggage suddenly disappeared, leaving them to survive with only the impractical clothing they had worn for publicity photos. Ashley, the professional wrestler, was left wearing fishnet stockings and a pair of knee high Doc Martens. And when Jaime, the college student, complained, “I’m not wearing a bra,” Probst quipped, “Well, that’s going to make you either very popular or a big liability.”
Beyond the potential titillation of a braless coed, there is not much yet to distinguish this season of Survivor from previous ones. As usual, there was the conflict between those who want to work and those who want to play. Peih-Gee, a jewelry designer, was floored by her tribe’s lack of focus. With storms approaching and no available food or fire, Peih-Gee confessed, “I feel like… so serious.” As well she should: in past seasons, contestants have gone for days without food or water. Also as usual, a survivor who boasted strength nearly collapsed: Ashley, who claimed to have once wrestled while fighting 104 degree fever, was afflicted by a wicked stomach virus and almost eliminated. But again, the first contestant to rub his tribe the wrong way was the first to be voted out (Chicken, the aptly nicknamed chicken farmer).
For all its repetitions, Survivor remains compelling. Players build shelters, attempt and fail to start a fire or catch a fish, lose an absurd amount of weight and sustain a variety of bites, bruises, and sometimes alarming skin conditions. Such spectacles lead us back to comparing ourselves to what we see on TV. I wonder, “Could I hack it?” or “What would I wear to the first day of Survivor?” (Certainly, a sports bra.) And nothing will ever match the joy I felt back in Season Two, when Elizabeth Hasselbeck (then known as Elizabeth Filarski) pulled out a clump of her own hair, a side effect of malnutrition. She accepted it and kept on playing the game.
It’s true that Survivor‘s ratings have steadily dropped over the years. But I’ll continue to tune in, if only to see how people who resemble me handle the adversities that I, snuggled up with my remote and my Doritos, will never have to face. Let the hair loss begin!