How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Survivor
It’s easy as a critic to dismiss seemingly simple shows when they come along, even if they are wildly popular (maybe especially if they are wildly popular). Such was my impulse when I first saw the CBS juggernaut Survivor. A silly show watched by the omnipresent, silly audience “out there,” I smugged to myself. A game show in a pretty setting, an adult summer camp fantasy for the shallow and easily manipulated. How little they know.
I was wrong. Now, I’d like to say, after watching the show nearly to its conclusion, that I think it’s a wonder of modern television. I think this because Survivor has that elusive quality that takes a show from moderate hit to cultural phenomenon: it appeals to multiple audiences on multiple levels, simultaneously reaching and pleasing people who would probably never even talk to each other if they met on the street. I’d like in this article to delineate at least a few of those audiences, and say why I think Survivor appeals so strongly to each.
First, for those who admire how popular media can tell stories, Survivor is a masterpiece of current television technology and aesthetics. It takes ordinary people and bathes them in the modalities of tv narrative. Look closely at how well Survivor executes the strengths of television, beginning with setting. The visual texture of Survivor could compete with the most beautifully shot beach films of all time. Each week opens with postcard shots of a sky blue ocean. An isolated beach. Tribal music. Exotic and dangerous animals. Everything that happens is captured in magnificent color and sound, spiced with music, sound effects, camera angles and smash cuts.
Not only is the setting television-friendly, the contestants themselves are smoothly transformed from “people” to “characters.” By this I mean they are essentialized according to the roles they will play, beginning with the introductory shots and continuing through every emotion-laden close-up. Richard is gay, corporate, and scheming. Rudy is an old ex-marine, not very bright, and will be a pawn to Richard. Jenna is overly sensitive and clumsy, where Richard is deft. Sue is a truck-driving redneck with more on the ball then people think. We know the characters in ways we almost never know people in real life. We are privy to their thoughts, their intrigues. And because we watch them without them watching us, we gain this intimate knowledge without the usual interpersonal obstacles that we must negotiate. It’s easy to feel we know these people because they are presented to us in discrete packets we can easily consume.
What’s more, Survivor‘s plot is wonderfully crafted. Boring days are edited into short vignettes tinged with comedy, drama, even tragedy. Every episode has a beginning, a middle, and end. Two or three contestants are “foreshadowed” as most likely to be voted off, and we focus on them throughout the episode. We begin to feel suspense about who will leave, and our emotional attachments are tugged when we believe a favored participant might go. We start to urge characters to do this and not that, and we are bothered when they don’t follow what we know would be the best course of action. These are all classic audience reactions to a well-crafted plot. And with events that are as easy to follow and melodramatic as a soap opera, Survivor is perfectly set up as for audiences who like their entertainment neat, predictable, and above all, artificial.
All of which makes Survivor a really great piece of television, and explains why it appeals to a mass audience that appreciates what television can do. But the show doesn’t stop there. It also offers much to people who don’t really like television’s manipulations. For those more “intellectual” viewers, Survivor employs all sorts of documentary techniques, for instance, interviews juxtaposed with images to create irony or offer proof that a chosen angle on a story is “legitimate.” So, we see quick interview-clips in which participants complain that Gervase is lazy, Richard is duplicitous, or Sean (as Sue loves to point out) is stupid, followed by shots that demonstrate clearly that Gervase is indeed lazy and Richard is indeed two-faced and Sean is indeed stupid. And for people who like to take tv products apart and interpret them for how they tie into broader issues, Survivor offers a nudist homosexual, practicing feminists, a witnessing Christian, all acting out the effects of late capitalism on small social structures. It sells itself as a sociological study, and while there may be little that can be taken from this and applied directly to larger cultures, the focus on social processes makes them seem every bit as compelling as they are when they take place in real settings in the broader world.
And for those viewers who are even more abstract-minded, Survivor teases us by wavering on the line between complete naivete and postmodern self-awareness. The way the producers craft and cut the show suggests that they know this is all artifice, but they never allow either the host or the contestants to complete the wink that would allow us to know that they know they are being ironic. Take, for example, the supernatural element in Survivor. The castaways receive mysterious messages from a Media Presence. A “host” appears to direct important rituals, administer rules, and reward the worthy. He even tells tribal lore and points out how the torches of those about to be voted off mysteriously go out each night at tribal council. But at the same time, he has this bizarre half-grin that says he is always on the verge of not taking any of this seriously, even as he is completely earnest about patently ludicrous contests—such as adults standing on a plank in the ocean, trying not to fall off. The show constantly moves between total contrivance and a solemn, ritualistic respect for what it is doing. Its tone is very difficult to locate, and while this elusiveness may be more than the producers intend, it’s just as possible to surmise that they know what they’re doing and that teasing the audience with its own naivete is their way of undermining the medium even as they exploit it so well.
So, Survivor appeals to both the so-called masses and the intellectually refined. It’s also almost pure pastiche, which means it appeals to Generations X and Y, the “media” generations that understand superficiality as an art form unto itself. For the people who can watch things just because they know that what they are watching is bad (i.e., all the twenty-year-olds who actually watch the reruns of old shows on Nickelodeon), Survivor is cheese, cheese, cheese. I even know people who are hosting Survivor parties where one guest every hour is voted out of the party.
As in all great television, there is a lot more going on in Survivor than immediately meets the eye. Without a doubt, the strongest entrant in the reality show derby, Survivor leads a list of television series that seems to grow every day, partly because they find ways to splinter their appeal across a variety of unconnected audiences. There are reasons why very different people can watch Cops, Big Brother, America’s Funniest Home Videos, When Animals Attack, Rescue 911, The Real World, Road Rules, American High, The Awful Truth, and HBO’s Taxi Cab Confessions. Taking time to find those reasons does far more to explain the popularity of reality meets television than simply dismissing the audience as too stupid to know what’s good.
And so I stand corrected. Survivor is a truly interesting, worthwhile, watchable show. Even if it is about adults living out a summer camp fantasy.