We Will Survive
Survivor is back, and I, for one, have sorely missed it. In its absence, we’ve had to make do with a stream of lesser reality shows, including Big Brother, The Mole, and the porn-without-the-payoff embarrassment called Temptation Island, none of which match Survivor at any level. Let there be no doubt, when it comes to reality, Survivor is the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? of its genre.
Survivor redux is very similar to Survivor number one, meaning that it features a cast of predominantly white, semi-attractive adults engaged in a bizarre mix of Lord of the Flies and Days of Our Lives. Sixteen people are divided into two tribes and deposited in an exotic place, the exact location of which is known only to the crew that follows their every move. Anyone can be voted out by fellow contestants, and when that happens, the psychological fallout and sociological reverberations within the group—along with a sizable cash prize—combine to give the proceedings a sense of drama. Like its predecessor, Survivor II is expertly edited to create layers of plots and pseudo-conflict at every turn. The first episode (which initially aired following the Superbowl) establishes the immediate friction between those who want to lead their tribes in the building of the shelter—Michael and Rodger—and those who want to complain about who gets to lead. The most vocal of these complainers is a social irritant named Debb, now known as the first Survivor voted off the show.
Survivor transforms its contestants from ordinary people into easily identified types, for example, Kel, the military intelligence officer who may not be trustworthy, and Maralyn “Mad Dog” Hershey, the possibly crazy and surely soon-to-be-voted-off ex-cop. The new show titillates with plenty of partial nudity and adult sexuality—we now have buff, shirtless guys; a buff, near-shirtless woman in Alicia; and the bouncy, flighty sex kitten Kimmi, who jogs around in her tight top and then laughs that her biggest concern is how she’s going to masturbate with seven other people in the tent. Make no mistake, after going through the production process, this “retro-scripted” show is every bit as plotted as any of the “pre-scripted” shows on television.
I love Survivor. To me it exemplifies exactly what television does better than any other medium in history, namely, take absolutely inane human experience and make it entertaining enough to hold, even rivet, our attention. We, in turn, get nicely packaged and easily consumed stimulation while sitting on our couches, taking refuge from our often dull and overworked existences. The producers of Survivor skillfully concoct a totally faux society that every viewer knows is fake and still give it enough punch that it is worth an hour of our “extra” time at the end of our days.
Although I say the second series is very much like the original, there are, of course, dimensions to Survivor II that were not part of the first go-round. The promotional machine is turned up to full power now, and CBS is pitching the show everywhere—on commercials, talk shows, and the biggest hype event in history, the Super Bowl. And I say, more power to them. I like to watch publicity at work. It has all the force of art with no complexity, truth, or morality to slow it down. So what if they claim on a much-rotating commercial that Survivor changed television forever. Maybe they’re right. In the long run, the emergence of fictionalized reality that is more interesting than lived reality may encourage us to make lived reality a little more interesting. Boredom is the scourge of the modern individual, and maybe it’s time to take a lesson from television and make some changes in our everyday lives. Hell, let’s vote a family member out of Christmas every year; that’ll spice things up.
The other new factor that Survivor II must deal with is the existence of the original Survivor, known to almost everyone on earth. The new show will be compared to its predecessor on every count, from the attractiveness of its cast and the deviousness of their politics, to the outlandishness of their actions and, of course, the series’ resulting ratings. Will SII hold up? Absolutely. It’s just going to take a little time for us to choose those Survivors we love and hate, and then the ball will be rolling again and we’ll be as hooked as we were when the evil but successful Richard and the evil but less smooth Kelly faced off on the final night to be voted on by a jury of their pseudo-peers.
Survivor II will yield a new pack of known faces who will be just as able to step out of the Outback and into the arms of the media industry that awaits them with temporary job offers and fleeting fame. It’s fascinating to see original cast members now jaunting their way through the TV minor leagues. They look and sound awful when matched with the beautiful people who show up regularly on Entertainment Tonight and all those silly talk shows. Which means the Survivors are still giving us reality, because even as we watch them botch and bumble their way through professionally written scripts, we are made aware that real people don’t talk the way television people talk. And that’s pretty cool to see. It may even become a new technique, the way the “nervous” camera went from a sign of bad amateur video to a state-of-the-art production crutch for such shows as NYPD Blue. I fully expect Tom Brokaw to start doing “reality news” one of these nights, hemming and hawing and acting embarrassed by the attention little old him is getting for slickly summarizing all the tragedy and trauma across our world.
So in the end, I say Survivor II works for the same reasons its predecessor worked. It gives us a microcosm of people existing inside a world constructed by media experts. It’s a story of humans in the artificial wilderness, and we get to observe how they act, think, and feel without going to the trouble of actually having to know them the way we do our neighbors, co-workers, and loved ones. And Survivor even goes a step further, in that it gets rid of people before we grow tired of them. Given all that it’s got going for it, I don’t see anything stopping the Survivor juggernaut for quite a while. In a decade or so, there’ll be a ten-year reunion of all the Survivors, broadcast on a two-hour special on CBS, and I have a feeling it will win its time slot for the week by a whopping margin.