What can I write about Survivor that has not been already written by countless television critics, popular culture analysts, and scholars? They’ve all discoursed on the intrinsic values and cultural significance of living for 39 days away from any form of Western comfort, surrounded by venomous creatures, exposed to nature’s elements, and competition among 16 contenders to a $1 million prize. They’ve also looked at the show’s game aspects, where alliances among different members are crucial to advance to the final round, and that only the smartest and ruthless one will go home with a fatter bank account.
Since all this work has been done, much of it critical of the series, I want to consider why Survivor is still so popular, namely, viewers’ desire to put some basic values to the test. On one level, Survivor is still fun to watch because it is not shy about celebrating greed, and occasionally revealing its deleterious effects. Inevitably, each season, the cameras follow contestants as they transform from apparently pleasant and community-oriented human beings into selfish backstabbers.
It’s also clear that contestants—at least those since season one—have some idea of what they’re signing on for, and may even anticipate how they will make their transformations. And in this way, the series is one of the most interesting social captivity experiments ever to air on television. Fredric Jameson argues that too many cultural analysts stress the negative connotations of mass cultural texts, such that utopian elements get lost. Survivor purports to incorporate most of Jameson’s pet notions, for examples, solidarity, collectiveness, social harmony, and classlessness, but demonstrates that such values are really utopian, since no contestant can adhere to them and still win.
It is still too early in the fifth season, set on Koh Turatao, a small island 600 miles from Bangkok, to tell who might reject those values first. But the applause that greeted Ken, the police officer from Brooklyn, New York, left me wondering whether the other contestants will show some post 9-11 “patriotism” and crown him as the sole survivor, and so create their own sort of “utopian” principles.
Still, the producers have never pretended the show is about anything but money, in the form of ratings. This season’s promotional spots set up a “new” possibility: that Survivor: Thailand would occasion the biggest twist ever in the game’s rules. The tribes were going to be divided along gender lines: girls on one side and boys on the other. This rumor was reinforced in the premiere episode’s opening credits, where the six women were presented first, followed by the six men. In past editions, the opening credits introduced the tribes; now, the terms look different.
Such a blatant gender division might have raised provocative questions, concerning stamina, smarts, and competitive urges (would the boys be able to bond in order to win)? But then, I thought, such a twist would have omitted much of that tension that makes reality shows increasingly voyeuristic (see, for examples, The Real World or Big Brother).
Survivor can’t afford such omission. And so, the series began as it always does: Jeff Probst called on the two oldest contestants, Jan and Jake, to select their tribes. Jan gathered the oldest and probably smartest group (Chuay Ghan), whereas Jake picked some of the most obnoxious and vain castaways (Sook Jay). So much for all the rumors about having all-female and all-male tribes: the only thing that the girls and the boys did as unisex groups was to paddle to the island where they first met their host.
Ever helpful, Probst reminded everyone that, on Survivor, assumptions are always wrong. We were wrong in assuming that the tribes would have been divided among gender lines. We should have known that such misleading was a function of money, as the advertisers and producers endeavored to engage us in the game, to watch each week to be surprised or to have our guesses about the “changing” rules, as well as the contestants’ personalities and attitudes, confirmed.
This invitation to play the game at home (in office chat, or on the internet) is one of the series’ enduring successes. After four previous seasons, and only two episodes in this one, I have already picked my favorite team (Chuay Ghan), and which survivor I want to see voted off the next episode (Rob, the guy who decided to bring as luxury item his skateboard). To my dismay, Chuay Ghan has already sacrificed two members: John the pastor, and Tanya, the youngest participant, and ill since the series started. But I could predict this much: every Survivor aficionado knows that if a player pukes every day, she’s gone.
That’s the secret of reality game shows: the fundamental rules and player motivations remain the same, and so we feel satisfied when we “guess” outcomes correctly. Before each show, some of my friends write down who they think will get the reward challenge, who will win immunity, and who will be voted off. They have small prizes for who hits the mark, emulating the dynamics of the show, with the difference being that they sit comfortably on their couches, nails trimmed, and beards shaved. From a safe distance, they might observe (and enact) some cultural truths. By the end of the season, we’ll admire the winner and readily forget those utopian values.