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Does Anyone Else Love Survivor?

  • Published Mar 09, 2001
Does Anyone Else Love Survivor?
Editor's Note: Written on Wednesday, March 7.

Last Thursday night, I came home late to find the house empty, the TV on, and a note in my roommate's handwriting taped to the screen. "Do not turn off!" the note read, in bold, urgent letters. "Taping Survivor !"

Lately I've found myself at a loss to comprehend the sudden fascination of network television with "reality shows" such as Survivor. My roommate (generally an intelligent woman) seems to understand it pretty well, judging from her VCR acrobatics last week. But she hasn't been able to explain it to me, and I had pretty much concluded that the popularity of these shows is due to some mysterious marketing force similar to the one that drives fads like boy bands and bell-bottoms. Some things never quite go away, but they only appeal to the least discriminating audiences. Every generation has its own appetite for nonsense.

True, Survivor has a lot of ingredients for entertainment - teamwork, competition, betrayal, greed, adventure, exotic locations, and people in bathing suits. The currently airing second season, located somewhere off the coast of Australia, could have been advertised as some kind of Baywatch-meets-Crocodile Dundee. But - and here's my rap with the whole concept - that's not how it was advertised. It's marketed as - of all things - a reality show. Somehow, just because there's (allegedly) no written script, it's supposed to give television some semblance of reality. I just don't buy it. Would people really turn that nasty for a million dollars? What's the big difference, anyway, between the first- and second-place prizes? Heck, even the first person kicked off gets a tidy "cash compensation," according to the Survivor Web site, not to mention an all-expenses paid trip to some exotic locale, a unique vacation, and instant fame. That's for staying only a couple of days, and though I'm not sure how much the cash is, I have a feeling it's more money than I make in a month. Maybe I should apply for next season ...

I guess I'm just an idealist. But is it really possible for that many people to suffer from such a lack of depth and wisdom that they could turn so cutthroat over a game? Is it really possible for a competition between two teams to stay so dramatically neck-and-neck without being set up? And is it really possible for any woman's hair to look that good after 14 days of camping with no electricity and only one luxury item? It all just seems a little far-fetched to me.

In fact, I was considering starting a campaign to prove that the whole show is a set-up. But as part of the preliminary research for my campaign, I decided to watch last week's episode with my roommate. Big mistake. I guess campaigns like that should always be run without research, because last week's show changed my mind. In fact, I think it might have converted me entirely. But I have a good excuse for my change of heart.

Last week's show was completely different. It might have been the turning point of reality television. It has the potential to be a turning point for the television industry. Last week's episode of Survivor gave a glimpse of reality.

So what happened? Even on the surface, it was dramatic enough: one of the survivors was injured. He was a member of the then-winning team, and he burned his hands so badly in the campfire that he had to be evacuated off the island. That put the two teams at a tie with five members remaining each, and it ought to have started all the players thinking really seriously and selfishly about the upcoming individual competitions. Or so I anticipated.

Of course, the reaction of the other team, unexpectedly catapulted into a tie instead of solidly losing another challenge, was predictable. Their concern on learning of an injury only thinly concealed their relief that none of them would be kicked off that day. That's the kind of shallow selfishness I expect from Survivor.

It was the reactions of the injured man's teammates that surprised me.

First they cried. They comforted each other as they tried to recover from the emotional trauma of watching a good friend flown away in a helicopter ambulance, the burned skin hanging in ribbons from his hands. Not surprising; anyone would cry after an experience like that.

But then they rallied. They looked ahead with purpose, not as individuals, but as a team. There were no words, apparently no thoughts, of what the loss of a likely ally would do to their individual chances of winning. They spoke only of a rock-solid determination to continue to play as a team. "We'll win or we'll lose this together," said one member. "There are some things more important than the million dollars."

And finally, they prayed. Every other episode of Survivor has ended with a tribal council, centering around the vote to send one more person off the island. The last few minutes of the show usually depict one player leaving alone, their torch symbolically snuffed out, and the remaining survivors walking back to camp in the darkness. The now-familiar mantra of the show rings in your ears as you turn off the television: "The tribe has spoken."

But last week's episode ended with the team who'd lost a member sitting in a circle around a campfire, holding hands. They didn't look like competitors. They looked like teammates; they looked like friends. One member prayed quietly-not for victory, but for healing, for wisdom, for safety. He prayed for the kinds of things I pray for every day. And the phrase that rang in my ears as I turned off the VCR was far older and more familiar than the one this show made popular: "In Thy Son's holy name we pray, Amen."

So maybe Survivor can be realistic after all. Maybe it will portray the depth, the beauty, and the loyalty of real life as well as the shallowness and selfishness. Maybe even ugly attempts at art can sometimes be good mirrors of life. I'm certain of one thing: I saw aspects of my own life portrayed last week. I caught a glimpse of truth in the loyalty of friends and in the quiet prayer around the campfire. I wouldn't categorize myself as a fan of the show yet. But I am certain of one more thing: this week, I'll be taping Survivor.

By Lisa Tedder

For a story on Temptation Island click here.