Come Back, Gilligan

The unreal world of Survivor

Hell is other people. In the normal dead swelter of summer programming, this existentialist adage has become the key to something no less important than the continued existence of network broadcasting. As the outrageous fortunes of CBS's Survivor (Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m.; WCCO-Channel 4) inaugurates what is sure to be a fall schedule rife with Gilded Age contrasts (will anything bridge the gap between wannabe millionaires and wannabe millionaire castaways?), it might be worthwhile contemplating why this series has proved so riveting.

If you've somehow missed it--perhaps you've been stranded on an island in the South Pacific--the setup is simple: Sixteen assorted castaways, divided into two tribes, Pagong and Tagi, wash up on two beaches off the coast of Borneo with minimal survival tools and unlimited sunscreen. Every few days they engage in a contest of some sort (think of summer-camp color wars); losing tribe meets in "Tribal Council," complete with flaming torches, and votes one member off. (His or her torch is then doused, followed by a walk across a bridge into darkness.) Thirty-nine days later, last survivor standing emerges a millionaire.

Dramatically, the show can be less than exciting: How much footage do we need of failed fishing expeditions? Brute realities of survival, though necessary, don't necessarily make great viewing. The producers' frequent recourse to dull episodes of shelter-building and long shots of contestants running to retrieve their "tree-mail" offers clear hints that no carnage on the order of Lord of the Flies, or even The Beach, will be in the offing. And in truth, isn't that what we want? Middle-class viewers adore Darwinian revelations about our competitive nature, goosed up here by large doses of primitivist mumbo jumbo. Such discourse rationalizes our malignant neglect of the homeless woman beached on the sidewalk near our office, and the way we conscientiously toss those charity solicitations into the recycling bin.

No, what keeps us coming back to Survivor is the density of social dramas on display, the many subtexts we must sort through to make sense of the interpersonal dynamics, much less create a rooting interest. (As this analytical language suggests, if ever a show begged for an accompanying grad-school seminar, Survivor is it.) The process of viewer identification may be the real genius of the program: It addresses the much-decried fragmentation of the audience by giving everyone a stand-in, be they truckers, white-collar professionals, or frat boys.

The most primal subtext: middle school. You're unpopular, you're dead, simple as that. Or the modern therapeutic office. Consider the daily tree-mail checks, the teamwork exercises, the recurrent board meetings to which everyone on the island meekly submits. Not to mention the refusal to recognize the pot of gold that's at issue: At the first tribal council, the smarmy host paid tribute to "the journeys many of you are on," as if these somehow outweighed the financial reward. If this struggle describes your station in the world, your hero is pudgy Richard, corporate trainer, and nervous spearfisher ("You keep me, and I'll provide you with all the fish you need," he pleads, hoping the cool kids will let him hang around). Richard is also the first gay friend for crusty ex-SEAL Rudy, at age 72 by far the oldest survivor going. When faced with the younger man's offer to get in touch with his feelings, Rudy growls, "No, I don't want to talk." But later he lets on that "me and Richard got to be pretty good friends. Not in a homosexual way, that's for sure"--which comment is snarkily followed by footage of Rudy rubbing sunscreen across Richard's back.

Another way to see this showdown is by the generational angle, which played itself out almost immediately. Building contractor B.B. (age 64) toiled through the day setting up quarters, Greatest Generation-style, while his younger compatriots chilled and whined about his work habits. ("I never get burned out. You don't know me," he barked when urged to relax, the perfect pre-feminist man.) It should be no surprise that the Pagong tribe voted B.B. off the island at the first opportunity. But here the questions grow more complex. Plucky cancer survivor Sonja, age 62, sang an ode to antidepressants on her ukulele before being voted into exile, then generously called her ex-tribe "a terrific group of people" and declared she would have done the same thing herself. Whereas when snippy young lawyer Stacey got the axe, she gracelessly snarled, "You changed your vote!" at a fellow tribe member before making her exit.

So maybe this program is, at heart, a sop to the average, aging CBS viewer. Whereas the older people offer (or offered) sharply defined, adult personalities, the mosh pit of young'uns is an indistinguishable stew of body piercings, baseball caps, and ponytails. Perhaps this is how CBS executives conceive of the 18-to-34 demographic. Who can separate Sean from Luke from Jenna from Dirk from Kelly? The subliminal commentary we're invited to provide on the sameness of Gen X "rebellion," and the lameness of Gen X work habits, is unmistakable: Don't trust anyone under 30.

Though age has figured prominently in the story lines, race, to date, has not. Even on a verdant tropical island, it seems, TV execs can see only one color. The two black members were assigned to the same tribe and seem to fit in fine, (though sickly chemist Ramona remarked last week that "poor as we get in the ghetto, we don't ever eat the rats," just before chowing down on some rat). From what I can tell, everyone else is white.

So the only real question remaining is, Who are you pulling for? Personally, I've got my money on practical, levelheaded teacher Gretchen or "Ivy League graduate" (I'm sure somewhere his mother is proud) Greg, a goofy-haired cutup with a crush on pixyish Colleen. Both seem reasonable, likable, and more or less sane--everyday heroes whose triumph wouldn't reinforce the discouraging high school tutorial that jocks and their followers always come out on top.

And though it's possible to appreciate the show ironically, there's really no need to detach oneself from the immediate excitement of the competition. The show may be bereft of deeper value, but it's genuinely involving and mostly harmless. (At the same time, the programs that are sure to follow will get worse: The rat BBQ is just the beginning.) The real secret of Survivor is perhaps its hidden niceness--the lurking hope it awakens, though we may not be able to admit it, that maybe this time, mean people suck, and nice guys won't have to finish last.

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