Survival of the vilest

Is "Survivor" simply a 13-week TV series or a conceptual island of shame where the moral disgrace lasts forever?

By Cintra Wilson

Published June 14, 2000 7:05PM (EDT)

I have come to the conclusion that the CBS horror show "Survivor" (the first high-profile American TV show to humiliate its contestants on a level previously enjoyed solely by the Japanese) is strangely compelling, because all of the people on it are so wholly detestable.

I am the perfect audience for this "reality drama" experiment. I know what they want me to feel, and I shall feel it: It will be knee-slapping hilarity to me when I watch these grotesque, selfish, uncooperative dullards suffer, especially when they start starving and getting rashes and delusional fevers and puncturing each other over charred rat legs.

I will chortle at their misfortune uproariously, and it will make me feel validated and alive. I will tune in religiously for a chance to view such well-placed cruelty. "What idiots! What colossally repellent greed-bags!" I will shout at the TV, from the comfort of my king-size bed, when they start really delving into the hardship and squalor of their Island of Shame.

Rarely is such revenge possible; rarely do we get the deep satisfaction of seeing such amplified personality flaws punished so swiftly, so vividly.

I am anxious to see the whining office girls brought low, especially the one who oinked out, "Like, that guy might be a Navy SEAL, but, like, that doesn't make it his world."

It will be a great moment in American drama when she's wracked with dysentery, begging the crotchety 72-year-old for clean water. I hope he steps on her head and fills her ears with urine.

I see Richard, the fat, fatuous corporate trainer and alleged child abuser, as the real pivotal character. Everybody hates him to distraction, but his corporate training has rendered him capable of killing small animals with his hands, and he is large and strong; he is going to be able to lift heavy rocks for the centipedes they are going to need for protein.

I imagine Richard will become like Idi Amin the second the tribe gives him any authority -- demanding weepy debasements, sexual favors and facial branding in exchange for fetid insect meat. It will be a constant dilemma for his people; the churning question: Should they retain him for brute labor or beat his head in with a rock when he's sleeping and eat him?

I want to see the episode where the Christian dairy farmer is swollen beyond recognition by some obscure allergic reaction, loses it, blackens himself with his own feces and runs into the camera screaming, "Why hast thou forsaken me?!"

I want to see the doctor with the nipple ring and the hot African-American biochemist hold knives to each other's throats and have brutal, unhealthy sex against hot rocks, both of them returning to their groups wild-eyed, blood-streaked and covered with bite marks, enslaved by lusty mutual hatred.

Worst of all, I want to see the hideous compulsory competitions of strength and athleticism from the dirty, weakened, exhausted half-people -- the trials that will flatten them against the icy wall of humility, the tortures equal to the lengths they will go to for money.

Hopefully, Jeff Probst, the bloodless proto-host, will have a rifle on hand, if the spectacle grows too ugly, and the contestants start screaming in gnarled desperation, clawing at each other's ankles and having seizures. They shoot horses, don't they?

Still, the real torture will be unseen. It will come later, when the "Survivor" contestants sit down and watch themselves during the game-show ordeal on videotape. No personality can withstand such constant scrutiny, especially under pressure, and since their personalities are all unusually dreadful, they'll all have to run away to the mountains, take vows of silence and renounce their links with society altogether -- in order to pray for redemption.

The unforgiving eye of CBS will be forever upon them -- they will know, and we will know, their every ugly weakness forever; how they cracked like bad eggs and refused to rise to the occasion; how they would have fed their teammates to bobcats for a Hershey bar; how unheroically the desire for money made them crawl naked and shivering with mouthfuls of filth and the boot print of fleeting celebrity on their cheeks.

Perhaps one of the contestants will see the error of his ways and go for the Long Swim, preferring death to having his soul flayed out on major network television and recognized by all of America for the shabby, ethical abomination it truly is. "Apologize to my wife" will be written in the sand at the site where his footsteps vanish into the sea.

There will be no turning back from this poorly augured adventure for any of them. Dogs will eat dogs and rats will eat rats if push comes to shove, but the moral disgrace will linger long after the show goes off the air.

Pass the Jiffy Pop!

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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