To the last "Survivor"!

In an age when no secret is safe, the reality show kept us guessing)

By Joyce Millman
Published August 23, 2000 8:18PM (EDT)

On Wednesday, the Summer of "Survivor" comes to an end with a two-hour finale in which Richard, Rudy, Susan and Kelly are subjected to trial by fire (walking) and jury (of the peers they screwed to get to the top). I have no idea how this thing is going to play out -- my sentimental favorite to win the million bucks (Gretchen) has long been voted off the island. But not knowing is fine with me, because the surprise factor was one of the reasons why "Survivor" was such a tasty slice of summer TV cheese. In an age when no secret is safe, "Survivor" kept us guessing, and if that was its only contribution to the enhancement of our leisure time, it would have been enough. But "Survivor" was more than just a summer fling. It has left its mark on prime-time programming, for better and worse. Here are a few reasons why.

It transcended the "reality" label. To say that "Survivor" was a "reality show" is like saying "Twin Peaks" was a show about pie. "Survivor" was as over-the-top dramatic and bitchy as a nighttime soap. It was as nastily funny as an episode of "Seinfeld." It was a suspenseful and splendidly plotted game show, filled with the sort of strategy and subterfuge you don't see on, you know, "Wheel of Fortune." It was a hokey fiesta of bad behavior, hubris and canned pathos, perfect for watching in large groups and for hurling snarky remarks at the screen -- it was the equivalent of the Academy Awards every week! "Survivor" was plain old good television. Compare its panoramic vistas and no-holds-barred intrigue with the unwatchable "Big Brother" and its bunch of simpletons locked up in an ugly house, sharing their frickin' feelings every night. Yes, "Survivor" wrote a new rule into the TV programmers' handbook: It's hard to go wrong with back stabbing, bug eating and a haughty, naked gay guy.

On the downside, look what "Survivor" hath wrought. Tantalized by the show's stratospheric ratings (the Aug. 16 episode drew 28.7 million viewers, while the other five networks drew 20.7 million viewers combined), the networks are signing up every "Survivor"-inspired reality/game show in sight. ABC has "The Mole" in production (contestants undertake a series of cross-country tasks while trying to root out the imposter in their midst), and has also bought the U.S. rights to "Jailbreak," a series in development for Britain's Channel 5, in which contestants will be incarcerated in a specially designed prison and must brave psychological and physical challenges in an attempt to bust out. NBC is all hopped up about "Chains of Love," from the same Dutch production company that gave us "Big Brother"; a contestant is handcuffed day and night to four potential romantic partners, who will be jettisoned one by one until the contestant finds Mr./Ms. Right. And Court TV has just announced a new reality show called "Confessions," which shows convicted criminals' actual videotaped confessions.

To those who despise "Survivor" for its alleged freak show appeal, I ask you: Doesn't "Confessions" sound 100 times freakier than anything "Survivor" brought into our living rooms? Sure, network programmers will load up on shock and titillation in their quest to outwit, outplay and outlast "Survivor." What they don't understand is that the key to "Survivor" was its relative restraint. The show hinged on the castaways' personalities, on the intricate, civilized savagery of group dynamics and on individuals' abilities to correctly read their competitors. It was a Jane Austen novel with monitor lizards.

"Survivor" was more compelling than 90 percent of what passes for network dramas. The show was deliciously unpredictable. Usually on a prime-time drama, you know when a major character is about to be killed off or written out of the show because you've been reading about the star's intentions to move on for months beforehand. Very rarely is a prime-time episodic drama able to surprise you with sudden, irreversible changes.

But "Survivor" had a beautiful dynamic going -- in effect, a major character got killed off in every episode. And it was nearly impossible to predict who it was going to be. Oh, sure, you could make an educated guess, especially after the tribes merged and the Tagi alliance started picking off the former Pagongers one by one. But then there were always those immunity challenges to trip you up. "Survivor" was like that episode of "The Sopranos" in which Richie Aprile got whacked by Janice at the dinner table. He never saw it coming, and neither did we.

And that "anything can happen" element is addictive. After a summer of "Survivor," are viewers going to be able to get back into the familiar snoozy rhythms of network prime-time programming? CBS has been using "Survivor" as a billboard to hype its new fall shows. And judging from the commercials, those worn-out premises -- Craig Nelson as a tough police chief! Bette Midler as Bette Midler! Tim Daly as Harrison Ford in a remake of "The Fugitive"! -- look dangerously yawnworthy. "Tim Daly is the ultimate survivor!" shouts the "Fugitive" promo. I don't think so.

"Survivor" reminded us how much fun bad guys can be. Unlike most fictional prime-time series ("The Sopranos" and "NYPD Blue" are exceptions), "Survivor" was populated by rough-edged, uncensored, weird and unlovable characters. So you hate Richard? Well, tough! This was no Cub Scout sleepover camp; this was the survival of the craftiest, and Rich and Sue were the only ones who really seemed to get it. I adored Rich because he was never boring. He was droll, he was sassy, he was suitably Machiavellian and he was smart. He played the game. I was rooting for him all the way. But, then, I'm also rooting for Tony Soprano.

Sure, "Survivor" was edited and shaped to highlight personality conflicts and individual eccentricities. Maybe Rich isn't quite as sneaky, or Stacey quite as bitchy, or Sean quite as stupid, or Gretchen quite as saintly as they came off. But, hey, it worked. And judging from the castaways' mad dash to cash in on their 13 weeks of fame with endorsement deals, talk show appearances and showbiz gigs (Dr. Sean just landed a job as the "health reporter" for the infotainment show "Extra"), none of these nonactors seem to resent their portrayals too much.

But the main difference between an embarrassment like "Big Brother" and a piece of expert, high-gloss entertainment like "Survivor" is this: The "Survivor" producers were not foolish enough to trust the American public with the show's life-or-death decisions. I mean, this is the same American public that voted to banish Jordan the exotic dancer and Karen the drama queen, the only remotely interesting people on "Big Brother"! (David Letterman had it right when he wondered what kind of country would bounce a stripper from prime-time TV.) If it were up to these airhead viewers, Dennis Franz would have been kicked off "NYPD Blue" years ago, and as for Heather Locklear on "Melrose Place," she wouldn't have had a prayer.

"Survivor" was the perfect show for our robust economic times. "Survivor" was all about workaholism. The castaways' 24/7 island ordeal was a neat metaphor for high-tech corporate culture, where work is supposed to be an extension of play and nobody needs vacations, weekends off or personal lives because, hey, this "group" creative effort is so much fun! Give us your complete devotion and maybe you'll make an easy million on your stock options! Or, maybe not!

But just as in real life, the law of the workplace -- which is really just the law of the jungle, with air conditioning -- prevailed. The castaways were bound together into "teams," but only the most naive of the survivors (Jenna, Sean) believed that this was a collective effort. Richard, who is a corporate motivational trainer in the real world, quickly moved to ensure that everyone on the island, whether he or she realized it or not, was working toward the common goal of winning him a million dollars. And, in keeping with the pecking order of power in the American workplace (and society in general), the first castaway to be kicked off was Sonja -- the elderly woman.

"Survivor" didn't pretend to not be about the money or about winning at all costs (unlike the hapless "Big Brother," whose cast members seem under the delusion that they've been sent away to a three-month encounter group). So the show took a lot of heat from moralizing pundits over its display of human behavior at its most duplicitous, selfish and greedy. Jeez, you'd think those moralizing pundits had never seen a Lakers game or a presidential campaign; you'd think they'd never heard of Bill Gates. Here's a news flash, folks: Nice guys still finish last. Or, on "Survivor," fifth -- which was where Dr. Sean, the last person with a heart left on the island, ended up.

The "Greatest Generation" had World War II. We have "Survivor." With the exception of Rudy (the ex-Navy Seal), B.B. and Sonja, none of the castaways was old enough to remember World War II or economic depression. For those castaways (and viewers of baby boomer age and younger), "Survivor" might have reflected the desire to test one's mettle, to face some kind of defining crucible, as "Greatest Generation" booster Tom Brokaw would say. Actually, he'd say "crucibew," but I digress. Have endurance, guts and all the right stuff been bred out of us by the culture of plenty? Are we just a bunch of latte-sipping sissies?

Well, did you watch the deceptively waifish Colleen balancing on a thin beam of wood over the ocean for three hours on legs and feet that were covered with painful, itchy, festering sores? There's your answer.

"Survivor" was Karl Marx's worst nightmare. Not to mention Dan Rather's. CBS squeezed every drop of ratings juice out of "Survivor," saturating every possible day part, from "The Early Show" to "Letterman," with tie-ins and hype. This was not necessarily a good thing, news purists have noted, pointing to Bryant Gumbel interviewing exiled castaways on CBS's alleged morning news program. (Gumbel will perform this duty again, hosting a live reunion of the "Survivor" cast immediately following the final episode at 10 p.m.) But then, news, advertising and entertainment have been hopelessly blurred together for a long time now. "Survivor" didn't create this monster. But it made some viewers aware, for the first time, that there was one.

As an advertising vehicle, "Survivor" took product placement and intrusive corporate sponsorship to heights not seen on an entertainment program since, um, the "Friends" Pottery Barn episode? The hourlong Coca-Cola ad that is WB's "Young Americans"? The moment in every episode of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" when Regis bids "our friends at AT&T" to get somebody's phone-a-friend on the line?

On "Survivor," we had the Target care package (towels, pillows, well-stocked spice rack) dropped via a parachute festooned with the chain store's big red bull's-eye logo. We had host Jeff Probst giving a reward challenge winner the chance to call home on "the Ericsson World Phone"; another reward challenge winner got an ice-cold Bud Light and an off-island trip to a bar with Probst to sip still more Bud Light. "Survivor" cleverly took these items, which are mere wallpaper in our overstuffed lives, out of context and recast them as glittering prizes that could transform the castaways' deprived existence. The entire show was, in fact, an ad for the triumph of capitalism. Sure, the castaways were having their mettle tested and "getting away from civilization," but they didn't seem too happy about it as they glumly spooned up their portions of plain white rice, dreaming aloud of pizza and burritos and chocolate. And shampoo and conditioner. And featherbeds and masseuses. And on and on. "Survivor" was all about the pervasiveness of stuff even in the absence of it.

To the next review in the DVD Room

Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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