When I look in the mirror, I see a guy with a number of addictions. I'm addicted to baseball and have spent entire lunch breaks pouring over statistics who is hitting what on what days of the week and in what situations. And I'm addicted to television. I could probably spend three weeks doing nothing but watching reruns of "News Radio." I understand that I have to structure my time, find projects to work on, in order to keep the monkey off my back. I rarely, for this reason, let myself begin watching a new television show when it premiers. And when "Survivor" debuted last year I deliberately avoided it. It's trash, I told myself (and it is), a manifestation of the relentless decline of American culture. It has all the elements: pseudo-celebrity , fake drama/conflict and the American Dream boiled down to its essence buckets of cash. I didn't have to watch it to know that it represented the very thing in our culture that disturbs me most: the glorification of stupidity and degradation.
Then I actually watched it.
I sat on my couch after an evening run, still sweating, red-faced, just flicking channels. And there was skinny, pretty Elizabeth trotting down to the stream, preparing to fish. I wondered what she could be hoping to catch... And didn't she look good in those clingy shorts... What are those made of? And is it really necessary for her to catch her own fish on this show? Don't they feed these people? Hey, isn't she too smart to be subjecting herself to this inanity?
I quickly switched the channel.
A few minutes later, helplessly, I switched back. Maybe I would just have another peek, what could it hurt? I would be ready to look away, like Lot fleeing Sodom, if I felt myself becoming corrupted. I knew the feeling well from watching too many episodes of "Gilligan's Island" as a child. But I couldn't turn away. I needed to know more. I sat there, drooling, my mind blank, addicted like any junkie: Hey, why the heck are they standing on those pole things... what are those? Could this host be any more wooden? Or patronizing? Aren't these folks awfully tanned? Isn't Jerri kind of a bitch, or is that just me? Who's going to be the next player booted off the island?
My opinion of the show did not change after watching it. In fact, I found my initial impulse had been right: the show was as degrading, melodramatic and phony as I had imagined. But I was addicted to it.
"Survivor" is a decent game show, I suppose, but it's more than that it's more than Bob Barker selling bleach and new cars. To me it's the perfect American television show (even if it actually originated in Sweden and the show's producer, Charlie Parsons, is British). "Survivor" manages to sell all of us blue jeans wearin'/Britney Spears lovin' folk everything we crave in our TV entertainment. It blends the best and worst of what we want most: sports, melodrama and gossipy talk.
In "Survivor," viewers watch what seem to be "real" people hey they're "like us" competing each week to win a million dollars. The contestants try to outsmart and out survive each other they tell lies and half truths, form alliances and then, by necessity, break them. They use every means, short of murder, to win if "Survivor" were a contact sport, it would be some no holds barred, biting-kicking-scratching super grudge match. And we love grudge matches as long as someone gets hurt. Just ask Mike Tyson.
Of course, competition within the show takes on many forms. For example, there is your basic chest thumping: the contestants all want to get noticed by viewers and producers so that they can extend their 15 minutes of fame. And, in most cases, any form of fame will do. Rudy Boesch from the first "Survivor" appeared on ESPN's "Inside Big Game Fishing with Captain Norm Isaacs." Richard Hatch, the winner of Survivor I was a presenter at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards. Contestants have also appeared on "Rosie O'Donnell," "Hollywood Squares," "Late Night with David Letterman," and a few have even hired Hollywood Agents. And, naturally, Playboy is after the hottest female survivors to pose for their magazine (several have expressed interest). Additionally, there are multitudes of "Survivor" fansites rife with pressing questions like, "Which survivor would you most like to see pose naked?" and "Discussion: What will Amber do now?" In fact, most of the Survivors even have their own websites. In short, the players are competing for air time Alicia Calaway will be forever associated with her finger wagging and Jerri Manthey will probably make more money than all the others combined in the "real" world just being herself unpleasant, but attractive.
And as if that weren't enough competition for your advertising buck, the contestants clash in pseudo-sporting events every week called "immunity challenges" (the name sounds like something you might offer, cruelly, to some poor, deathly ill patient "hey, win this tug of war and we'll cure your terminal illness! Ready, go!") Although the sports are so contrived that it's impossible to take them seriously it's like the Olympics, only with fewer pulled groins they are still competitions and we are (I am) drawn to such things. There is more at stake in these challenges than there is in typical game shows: the winners gain "immunity" for one week from being kicked off the island. It's hard to imagine that happening on "Wheel of Fortune." The bottom line for me: "Survivor" is a kind of sport and I know, from my days of having cable, that I'll watch just about anything where folks pit their brains/brawn/money against other folks. It makes me a cliché and it gives me something in common with many other TV watchers.
All the chatter on "Survivor" the contestant's verbal strategizing however, is far more interesting and important to the show's success than the weekly games. It's the competition within the competition that addicts watchers to the show. In this way, "Survivor" is more like a soap opera.. When we watch a hockey game, we can only imagine what's going through Mario Lemieux's head as he races down the ice and slams his body into some hapless defenseman. We tend to rely on sports writers, announcers and insane talk show hosts to drum up all the melodrama when we watch sports. If we want to watch a program where we "really" get to find out who is screwing who, we have to watch some form of soap opera (yes, "ER" counts). The problem is, we all know soap operas are not "real" and so they lack some of the impact of, say, the nightly news.
"Real" plus "drama" equals engrossing.
Enter the genius of "Survivor." On this show we're given melodrama packaged in the form of reality: it's "real TV."
Of course it's not real at all, and for countless reasons. For example, what if viewers were privy to all the conversations where the contestants sat around and said things like, "Well, I guess we'll vote Joe off the island tomorrow. Yup, we all know Joe's the next one to go." That would kill the suspense and the show wouldn't be nearly as absorbing. Or, what if we got to hear things like, "man, this game is pretty bogus. I'd give anything to get off this island so I could get me some McDonald's cheeseburgers." (Apparently, this happened in one British version of the show all the competitors hated it and complained and finally the producers caved and took them on periodic trips to a nearby island for food and cigarettes). But, of course, viewers only get to see and hear what the film editors want us to see and hear; and they're excellent at turning the show into melodrama.
So never mind that "Survivor" is heavily edited (my quick math: the show reduces 1032 hours to a weekly one hour long television show that means they're cutting about 1019 hours). The show does a good job of creating a pseudo-reality that easily involves us: We "hear" the contestants inner thoughts. We "see" the wheels turn in their minds. We "experience" the passion, the jealousies, the backstabbing. And, of course, we watch each contestant struggle with his or her ethics: money vs. friendship, camaraderie vs. money, money vs. starvation. We're all voyeurs watching the cheesiest talk show on TV. And "Survivor" isn't afraid of backing down from cheese. The music is right out of a 30s melodrama and the camera work close-ups of intense, gritted teeth or weepy girls would make any Hollywood director proud.
"Survivor" has one more element that makes it a natural. It's all about degradation. I was watching "Judge Judy" one afternoon when I was home sick from work. Every time the defendant on the show tried to state her case, Judge Judy screamed at her. "You are an ignorant woman. I've never met anyone so useless. You should be ashamed of yourself. Get this woman out of my sight!" And so on. I wondered why the heck Judge Judy kept yelling. Then I realized that that was the point of the show. It was a program about degradation. Judge Judy is a poofy-haired stand-in for all of us who have ever wanted to quiet that loudmouth at the bar or at work or on the subway. She lives out the dreams we have in our worst moments: she really does call everyone she dislikes a jerk. And, even better, she gets to live in a world where she is always right. That's not the way life is, obviously, but it's probably a popular American fantasy we not only want what we want right now, we actually think we deserve it.
Afternoon television is inundated with hours of confessional, degrading shows: Springer, Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones, Sally Jesse Raphael and so on. And, according to CBSnews.com, there is even a show in the works called "Sweet Revenge." On it, contestants will be able to play cruel practical jokes on people they dislike, candid camera style: a man on a hunting trip is convinced he's witnessed a murder; a man believes he has to defuse a bomb or he'll be blown to bits. Ha ha ha, look at him, he's so stupid and I'm not! I don't know what the appeal of these programs is, but it suggests to me something about the viewers: that their lives are empty and their heads are filled with fantasies. Like: I'm better than everyone else and I deserve to be loved and admired by everyone! Real life living with real people requires compromise, effort, compassion, the desire to listen. But if you don't want to bother, there's always your favorite TV show: see, he's really a loser at least I don't sleep with my brother's girlfriend more than twice a year... We seem to want celebrity and acceptance so badly, that we're more than happy we're falling over ourselves to get it in whatever inverted form we can.
"Survivor," for me, is also about degradation, though not nearly at the level of a show like "Judge Judy" (in fact, it follows in the tradition of many Japanese programs where outrageous contests or talk shows are simply a means to some degrading end (SEE NAKED MAN, Volume 4, in DUCTS)). It taps into our apparent need to hear and see our neighbors dirty laundry. In fact, it is obviously about this: we see and hear every confession and back stabbing maneuver on the show. The contestants get to point out the worst traits of their fellow players. And then fantasy come true! they do something about it: vote their neighbor off the island. (Actually, they vote them onto the jury which ultimately decides who will win the game. Thus, the folks voted off even get to have their revenge in some small way it's another dream come true). How many people sit around work, muttering about that man across the desk or their horrible boss and wish they could vote them into oblivion? I've done it. I've seen it and heard it thousands of times. Usually we end up trashing our co-workers since we can't vote them off our own personal island, however much we'd love too.
I can imagine the shows creators pitching the idea for "Survivor" to a couple of swanky producers: "Listen, this is the perfect show. It's 'General Hospital' meets 'The World Series' meets 'Jerry Springer' meets 'Judge Judy.' The men will love it. The chicks will dig it. It's for everyone!"
How right they were.
After watching the final show, I clicked off the television and thought, again, about my addictions. What does it say that I am attracted to this sort of thing? I couldn't help thinking in my own maudlin way about people in other countries who are suffering. And I could see how disgusting the show would seem to someone in Chechnya who really is starving while the shows contestants choose to eat almost nothing (Keith Famie lost around 30 pounds) for six weeks just to get a chance to win a million dollars. I can imagine some haughty, starving woman screaming, "hey, I'm starving! Give me a million dollars! I'll buy enough food for my whole country for the next 60 years!" (I wonder is the suffering in Chechnya a good example to use here? I don't know because I've been too busy watching "Survivor" to read the New York Times).
I don't think "Survivor" signals the end of civilization. Television is "junk food" for the soul and "Survivor" may simply be junkier than most everything else (hell, it's Shakespeare compared to "Judge Judy" and "Sally Jesse"). It does say something about what Americans care about and the truth may not come as a surprise to most: we care about degradation and money. We care, selfishly, about ourselves. It's ironic to me, though, that the final few contestants talked ceaselessly about how much they missed their families. It was tough to believe, since the show seemed to be so much about their desire to become pseudo-celebrities (whoever thinks of "family" when they think of "celebrity?"). But even if they were being sincere, it doesn't much matter. Our fantasies, as we watch, of individuality that we could be like those contestants and be special and celebrated and have an island to ourselves are separate from the real needs and desires of the actual contestants. But, of course, all that talk of family and fuzzy warmness does allow the show, in its sneaky way, to have it both ways. What we see and hear as we gaze at the TV might be all about family and community: Coby hugging his mom when she pays a rare visit to the contestants' desolate hell. But the show, ultimately, celebrates separateness: the one that is most able to outlast and outplay the others, wins, she "survives." The show is feeding our fantasies of being John Wayne. (Though I do find it ironic that the show has been imported from Europe. To me, "Survivor" exemplifies Americanness and I can only guess that its origins have something to do with the way in which the whole world is becoming a giant Disney-fied USA. We've exported so much "culture" that it was bound to start bouncing back over the ocean. It's interesting, too, that degradation on television became so prominent in other countries, before establishing itself here. Perhaps this degradation reflects a national self-hatred in Japan or elsewhere the feeling of collective loss of an entire nation that has abandoned its own culture in order to embrace the land of McDonalds.).
When I watched "Survivor," I imagined myself competing on the show. I was Coby, winning challenges. I was starving myself. I was kicking people off my island. I was living in my own fantasy world and it was difficult to resist. I saw, reflected in the television screen, myself, my middle class origins.
Now I think that the next time "Survivor" comes on television, I'll try to find something more productive to do with my time. I'm addicted to the show I admit the truth and I have to do something to help myself. Maybe I can find a Little League team to coach.
The experience has made me think about what passes for entertainment, though, and it makes me a little sad that we are so easily satisfied. We love the lowest common denominator: a way to see ourselves reflected on the screen, but made large, turned into someone infallible, like Judge Judy, with the power to kick every one we hate into oblivion, until there is no one standing except ourselves. It makes me think that the typical American television viewer is sitting alone in his living room, staring blankly at his own reflection.
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