That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore
The theme of survival has taken on a particular resonance for the latest installation of Survivor. The show’s third season debuted amid a flurry of lawsuits concerning an ex-contestant from the show’s first season, Stacy Stillman, who claims producer Mark Burnett purposefully contrived her elimination from the show. Burnett, for his part, has counter-sued Stillman, but has also admitted to re-shooting scenes from the second Survivor, using stand-ins to achieve better camera angles. This confessed deviation from the show’s “reality” premise weakens Burnett’s credibility and comes at a particular moment in history when reality TV as a whole is losing its popular appeal. Whether the novelty of the genre has simply exhausted itself, or whether viewers are understandably looking for an escape from the actual, disturbing reality of a world at war, Survivor’s motto—“Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.”—applies more today to the show’s struggle for ratings than to its own contestants.
In the face of the varied difficulties facing Burnett and Survivor, the program’s strategy for survival is extremely familiar, following as closely as possible the formula of the past two seasons’ success. The new Survivor has moved to Africa, but only the setting differentiates the latest installation of the show from its two predecessors. All other aspects of the program imitate the previous ones, making the new Survivor seem a tired rehash of the others. This season’s cast of contestants includes Frank Garrison, a Rudy-like, ex-military grouse and Tom Buchanan, a down-home, plainspoken goat farmer (yes, goat farmer) in the tradition of Survivor 2’s loveable Kentucky hick Rodger. The conflicts that have arisen in the program’s first few episodes are also predictable. While last year’s first episode portrayed a scandal surrounding the clandestine consumption of beef jerky, this year’s version documented the outrage caused by a contestant’s eating of a tin of baked beans. And this season’s second and fourth episodes have focused, as every season has, on the mutual agitation resulting from each tribe’s generation gap: the older members decrying the younger members’ lack of work ethic, the younger tribespeople grumbling about the older folks’ demanding attitudes. All in all, the latest installment of Survivor is something that viewers have seen before.
The staleness of the new Survivor begs an interesting question, though, concerning genre. It is, after all, a game show. And game shows are nothing if not formulaic, televising the same game over and over, switching out only the contestants and, on occasion, the models used to showcase prizes. Reality television, however, is essentially a dramatic genre, showcasing the real-life problems of others for viewers’ amusement. Survivor initially hit ratings gold by combining the brief, meteoric popularity of game shows (exemplified by the now sluggish Who Wants to Be a Millionaire) with the excitement of reality television, but the show always played more like a drama (Burnett himself calls the program an “unscripted drama”) than a game show. It may be this particular devotion to dramatic reality, given our modern state of anxiety about anthrax attacks and the uncertainties caused by the specter of war that has audiences looking for more escapist (read: fictional) forms of entertainment. No longer merely a television show conceit, the idea of survival has now taken on a new and frightening immediacy to viewers.
The show’s decision to rest on its formulaic laurels may prove a costly one, in light of the changing attitudes of its once loyal and considerable audience. The premiere of the third season was, for the first time, beaten in the ratings by an episode of NBC’s Friends. And the following episodes’ ratings have all been down from the premiere. Whimsy, for the time being, has been able to gain the upper hand on reality, or at least, Burnett and company’s particular version of reality. Everyday life has demonstrated that survival is not merely a game anymore, to be enjoyed vicariously through our television sets. Survivor‘s once popular premise may now hit too close to home. While Burnett admits to faking scenes in the second Survivor series, the show threatens to capture too much of the stressful, anxious reality it attempts to portray. And though this season of Survivor is a done deal, the makers of the fourth season (already planned to shoot on Nuku Hiva, in French Polynesia, and scheduled to air during the Winter Olympics) might consider adjusting the show’s old modus operandi to meet the concerns of its audience.