Survivor All-Stars

The latest edition of CBS’s Survivor brings back contestants from prior seasons, the “all-stars” of the title. Despite a few new format wrinkles — three tribes of six instead of two tribes of eight; no food, fire, or potable water to begin — the show is the same as before. The competitors share their ploys with the camera, in between Rube Goldbergian challenges, many reprised from previous seasons.

Player selection seems less dictated by their previously demonstrated “survival” skills than by their telegenic aspects (as well as their own needs, being broke, vain or crazy enough to sign up to do it all again). They include previous winners (Ethan, Tina), colorful schemers (jokester Rob C., obnoxious nudist Richard), sentimental favorites (old man Rudy, Grizzly Adams-like Rupert), and women who appeared in Playboy (Jenna L., Jenna M., Jerri).

While the all-star label implies some special merit, in keeping with the vague notion of meritocracy that animates the show, it’s not the case. The choices highlight the prerogatives that actually undermine merit in a fiercely competitive environment (in the show or the primetime schedule), or at best, force a redefinition of the very concept. Such redefinition is typical during a Survivor season, illustrated in scenes where contestants analyze their own voting decisions. This is especially true of the final vote, where the jury wrangles over who was most “deserving.” Here, merit is recast as a Machiavellian zest for manipulation, then superimposed retrospectively by jury members trying to rationalize the viciousness required to triumph. “He played the game well and deserved to win,” they say of connivers like first-season winner Richard.

By contrast, Survivor‘s team players, earnest and cooperative worker bees, never win. They are essentially boring chumps, and so, none has been invited to return for the All-Stars round. But the game needs chumps just as surely as it does con men. Survivor‘s alluring frisson develops as it forces cooperation among competitors who cannot share their victories the way they share their efforts. The structure invalidates a communist fantasy of equal reward for collective effort while dramatizing one of capitalism’s core tenets: cooperation is a provisional strategy in the game of “every man for himself.”

In this way, the series updates the prototype economic-hero castaway, Robinson Crusoe, for corporate capitalism. Where Daniel Defoe celebrated the entrepreneurial prerequisites of self-reliant industry and stringent accounting, the show reflects the reality of most workplaces, which impose teamwork on competitors for the same promotions, promised to be based on merit but often distributed by way of covert agendas. This helps to explain the show’s popularity: in our game shows, spectator sports, and corporate schemes, we never tire of watching the spectacle of attempted teamwork in a proudly selfish arena.

In these displays, it becomes clear that we reward aggression and explicit covetousness rather than civility (indeed, in a March 2004 Harper’s article about reality TV, Francine Prose argues convincingly that these are the manifest principles of the Republican Party). No one enjoys the muddle resulting from passivity; it’s like sitting at a four-way stop sign with everyone waiting for someone else to go. On All-Stars, Richard’s rudeness and arrogance comprise a strategy. It’s doomed to fail (no one will vote for previous winners to win again), but the curious charisma it lends him is undeniable, even to his fellow tribe members who, in talking about him to the camera, are plainly star-struck.

It may be that we would rather be enthusiastically deceived than delicately respected. We are subject daily to advertising that tries to mislead us, and we know it. We revel in the “power” assigned to our deeply meaningful choice, in cars or detergents. Survivor dramatizes this idea — that consumption determines identity — through its ludicrous “reward challenges,” culminating in the contestants’ delirious excitement at access to goods provided by the show’s sponsors (All-Stars features a Home Depot-sponsored house-building segment).

Survivor also conveys American “values” in the way producers contrive storylines. Viewers enjoy the ritual of the narrative arcs, watching them sustained while marveling at the manufacture of “conflicts.” Since the game is over before the show is edited, the suspense is never “real” (or “live,” anyway); we see nothing that is not part of a planned set of arcs. Because the story is composed after the fact, the seeming suspense is more effective. Like advertisements, the quarrels trumped up in the editing room are no less enjoyable for being obviously false. The blatancy betrays the effort put into making “reality” conform to our fantasies of rationality and justice. And that visible effort must be reassuring at some level, reminding us of the hard work that goes in to preserving our cocoons.

One near-twist is that on All-Stars, the contestants have all been here before. They come in having seen how they were created by previous editions of the show, they come with roles to play or rework. (When their names appear this season, we no longer see their occupations listed, but the seasons they first appeared, as if that has become their new profession.) One potential tension arises here (Will contestants compete against their own reputations? Will they repeat their already-known tactics?). Such tension is redoubled in knowing that the other players also know their opponents’ first performances, and they calculate accordingly. As we watch the contestants try to shed their media-contrived personae (and fail), we learn the grimmest truth of all — that the identity TV forges for us as viewers is similarly enduring.

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