Survived

Producer Mark Burnett's inside analysis doesn't make the island "dramality" any more compelling than it was from the edge of the couch.



Jeff Stark
September 14, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

When the "Survivor" repeats rev up next week the glorified game show will run against the biggest sports event of the year. As you watch physical strength, endurance and the triumph of sportsmanship at the Olympics, you'll be able to flip back to "Survivor" to remind yourself that sometimes the out-of-shape duplicitous assholes win.

But why would you want to watch "Survivor" again? You already know who connived his way into $1 million: Richard Hatch -- the fat guy.

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No doubt, "Survivor" was great television. Once. Much of what made it so good was the suspense -- wondering who would get the ax each episode and who, ultimately, would win. But why watch it twice? Great books and great movies are worth reading again because it's not the ending that matters, but how the author got there. Great television competitions -- at least the kind "Survivor" offered -- are only as good as their final 10 minutes.

Yet obviously people who already know what's behind curtain No. 3 or who won Super Bowl V constitute a market -- in fact with Game Show and Classic Sports Networks there are entire cable channels made for them. And you could argue that something like Sports Illustrated works even though its readers know that the Mets beat the Yankees on Monday night. But "Survivor" the book, which bills itself as "the official companion book to the CBS television show," doesn't have the fine writing, flawless reporting and classic storytelling of S.I., which makes reading it about as much fun as watching old episodes of "The Newlywed Game."

Written by executive producer Mark Burnett and adventure scribe Martin Dugard, the book offers few surprises, and its details are less than shocking for anyone who paid attention to the show. The most helpful new information helps explain why trucker Sue was so angry with finalist Kelly and why Kelly had a hard time convincing the jury that she would be a more deserving winner than Rich. First, on an early show, both of them lied directly to single-mom Jenna about their votes for Gretchen, the schoolteacher and survivalist. Next, Kelly lied to college student Colleen and told her that she wasn't part of an alliance.

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Then, toward the end of the series, after Kelly grew a conscience and tried to split the Tagi alliance, she did actively betray Sue -- not passively as we'd thought. First, she attempted to convince Colleen and out-of-work basketball coach Gervase to join up against the older crowd, which didn't go anywhere. Then she went to evil Rich and suggested that they figure out a way to get the two of them into the final round. Rich, of course, ratted Kelly out to Sue and drove a wedge between them that helped him win the jury vote.

The other details are mostly amusing notes of whimsy and the grotesque that were left out of the show. Sue "borrowed" the razor Dr. Sean used to shave his chest hair to neaten her bikini lines. Rich dreamed about buggering away with Sean on the Sand Spit -- and told the good doctor about his gay fantasy. Sean did try to get Jenna into the sack after the two of them drained four bottles of wine at their tribal summit. Ivy League Greg stalked camera crews in the jungle and loved to jump out and scare them. Jeff Probst, the host, hated Greg because he mocked the corny proceedings at the Tribal Council. Gervase named the son who was born while he was away Gunnar Tiga Peterson, after the island. The production crew called the Pagong camp "Party of Five."

There are also some details about the production of the show that are probably a lot more interesting to Burnett than to a reader. The crews were heroic for taping in nasty storms. A boat affiliated with the show was almost lost at sea. His designers were talented for turning a building on the compound into a cantina that fooled Kelly into thinking she was in a real bar. The Green Berets were tough. Two fire-walking experts brought in from California coached the three finalists for a half hour before they sauntered through coals of imported cedar. Jeff Probst was a natural yet godly host, who actually did his homework and was able to hold his composure during torrential rain.

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And the authors don't really seem to get how cruel and ridiculous the show seemed to us at home. (That was part of the fun.) They recount Colleen's bug-bitten legs and nasty scars with passion, gleefully talk about Ramona's violent sickness and remind us that Burnett and his crew slept comfortably while the cast fitfully rested for less than an hour at a time with rats running up and down their bodies.

At times, the two are simply humorless. Without flinching, they call the program "a 'Truman Show'-type dramality." And there's no apology for hokey phrases like "The tribe has spoken." Of the absurd contests, they write, "The challenges never descended into parody." Maybe the "Blair Witch" spinoff or the breath-holding contest or looking for small objects in a shack seemed less ridiculous in person.

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The bulk of the book is mostly analysis, and that also takes a lot of the fun away from the show. As noted previously in Salon, one of the best things about "Survivor" was that it presented a tabula rasa: You could imagine it a martini-lunch-less parable of corporate life or a barbed popularity contest with monitor lizards, among other options. But the "Survivor" book takes that blank slate away. In its place is Burnett's version of what happened on Pulau Tiga, and that singular version is a lot less interesting than the multiple layers we got to sort through on the edge of the couch.

The producer, it seems, read the contest as a generational conflict, and, to hear him say it, the right generation won. Sure, he and his crew were rooting for Gretchen. "Whatever was good, whatever was honest, whatever was right about all the backbiting and duplicity and longing and fear and security and outright deception in the game was gone," write the authors after Gretchen is cut out by the Tagi alliance.

The soccer mom left Tribal Council that night and walked into the arms of the entire crew. "I'm wrecked," said a "beefy sound engineer" whom she'd never met.

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Gretchen aside, Burnett and Dugard slam the young 'uns. They're impressed that Tagi, the older tribe, ran a neat camp with swell conveniences like a latrine and a clothesline. The younger Pagong just wanted to lie around all day and give each other mud baths. The Tagi made an imposing effort in a challenge to get the attention of an airplane; the Pagong didn't because they were too childish. From there, every time the Pagong win a challenge it's because they are young and lithe. When the Tagi win, it's because of their maturity and teamwork.

Burnett and Dugard say that Greg mocked the show because he was insecure and full of "barely suppressed rage." He lost because he "was still a child" in a world of adults. Colleen couldn't win because she was too insecure, although the authors patronizingly point out that "Someday that insecurity would make her a wonderful grown-up." Gervase and Jenna are both suspect for leaving their children. The writers both fairly worship Navy SEAL Rudy for his service and his physical ability, ignoring his old-school homophobia, his crusty attitude and the way he rode with Rich and Sue instead of actually playing the game himself.

But Burnett and Dugard never really take their argument to its logical if disappointing conclusion, which would just seem too crass and wrong, not to mention untruthful: that people get venal and mean when they grow up. And that makes them winners.

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Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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