Survivor's Reality--Just Say No

I am not a reality show curmudgeon--not completely. My nephews pointed me first to Junkyard Wars, and after that to Monster Garage--where turning a Ferrari into a pasta maker, and a Porsche into a golf-ball collector that also shoots the balls back at the golfers--is frankly inspired. Door Knock Dinners, in which a chef made dinner from whatever was in the kitchen of a house the show chose at random (usually Pringles, gummi bears, and a can of tuna) was lovely--as was Two Fat Ladies and so many other shows the Food Network has whipped up. Sadly, though, these shows have all gone off the air.

Which brings me to Survivor, progenitor and king of reality shows, which is now in its seventh year, and where creator Mark Burnett's defense of his failed attempt to ignite a race war--he called it a bold social experiment--could easily sound exceptionally dumb. Except that Burnett is of course brilliant. In the early 1990s In 2000, he beautifully tapped the zeitgeist of the Bush era in which deceit seemed an increasingly appealing and even accepted route to corporate and personal wealth. Burnett wrapped this behavior with the standard cultural markers that Americans use to connote what's "real" and "authentic" in modern life--nature and "uncivilized" societies. He sent his conniving contestants into the wilderness, divided them into "tribes," and tossed in some vaguely indigenous mumbo jumbo--all of which gave the goings-on a tone of reality and pious seriousness and validated the show's basic premise, which is that you can do whatever the hell you want as long as there's a million dollars at the end. You can cheat, lie, whine, manipulate, deceive, throw tantrums, knife your friends in the back, and embarrass and humiliate other people and yourself.

So it was hardly surprising when in 2004--the exact year W was reelected- Burnett did away with all metaphor and teamed up with Donald Trump to air The Apprentice, a show that is essentially Survivor--the Id version.

Now we all know reality shows aren't really real--that many of the people who can't build a fire on Survivor or who kiss Trump's feet on The Apprentice or stuff spiders up their noses on any number of other shows are wannabe actors. And that the contestants are coached, and their antics often scripted and always edited. And that's fine with me. It's TV, for goodness sake, and we all know that these programs don't show us reality. They play-act reality. So what interests me instead, and what I think is, OK, just evil about Survivor and its clones, is how these shows play out and define what reality is.

After all, a lot of behaviors are equally real--compassion and viciousness, generosity and greed, honesty and deceitfulness, cooperation and competition, self-interest and selflessness. But Survivor plays out the worst of all these, and says, look, this is what real human behavior really is. And then it rewards our worst instincts, and says, see, this is what human behavior should really be.

And what human realities do a minority of reality shows--Junkyard Wars and Monster Garage and Door Knock Dinners, or even Iron Chef and Amazing Race--play-act instead? Skill. Hard-won knowledge. Passion. Curiosity. Fairness. Respect. A sense of humor. Hard fought competition leavened by all of the above. I can only be grateful that these are the ones my nephews choose to watch.

As it turned out, Burnett's gambit failed because the Survivor contestants proved entirely uninterested in playing out racial hatred. I'd love to think that their motives were noble, but I'm not alone in suspecting that the race-war thing was just getting in the way of stabbing friends in the back effectively. They likely shelved the script for the same likely reason that Burnett wrote it and CBS aired it and then aborted it--the drive to make a million dollars--and for the one fierce principle that Survivor always rewards, which is that money is the only thing that should ultimately matter.

Last edited 11:05 pm 10/23/06

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