I Like to Watch

Resilient reality ancestors "Survivor" and "Big Brother" adapt to new survival strategies, while a tragedy kills "Paradise Hotel 2."

Published February 17, 2008 1:00PM (EST)

Survival depends on the ability to adapt to sudden changes in your environment. For example, if that vending machine in the hall outside your office suddenly disappeared one day, you and other human beings in the area would be alarmed to find yourselves without your usual supply of cheesy peanut butter crackers and oatmeal creme pies. While some of the less adaptive among you might be spotted whimpering and scratching yourselves nervously in the hall where the vending machine once stood, more fit creatures in your group might undertake courageous missions to the corner store in pursuit of new sources of sodium and high fructose corn syrup.

These brave pioneers would forge a new path, and soon others would follow. But even the most intrepid and hardy specimens might wind up pacing the aisles of the corner store, braying and pawing at the ground over the fact that Corn Nuts aren't an adequate substitute for Double Stuff Oreos and Sour Cream & Onion Bugles.

Survival depends not just on adaptability in the face of dramatic change, but also on the flexibility of your tastes. Just as shifts in the economy might dictate that yesterday's CD-ROM producer become today's Web producer, and that today's Web producer become tomorrow's janitorial assistant, so might shifts in your personal life dictate that yesterday's smug, married stay-at-home mom become today's humble but overworked divorcée, or that yesterday's swinging bachelor become today's beleaguered husband.

As the subprime mortgage crisis and the specter of a looming recession team up on our once-great nation, shoving its face in the mud until it admits that it's a greedy, soulless, socially inept, good-for-nothing bastard once and for all, how might each of us Americans be asked to reinvent ourselves? How might we be called upon to re-imagineer ourselves from lazy, self-obsessed, pampered creeps who question authority at every turn into solid, hardworking, responsible citizens who believe in teamwork and the satisfaction that comes from toiling away all day for less than a living wage?

Will we rise to the occasion, or weep inconsolably into our hands, longing for the cushy jobs and whimsical indulgences of our glory days?

Micro-managing in Micronesia
The same brutal forces are at play in the realm of televised entertainments. Just as an unpredictable global economy renders most of us broke and unemployable, so, too, do the fickle winds of televisual frivolities blow fast and fierce, knocking the feeble and the timid to their hands and knees. As the Internets encroach on the networks and the networks desperately seek out new distribution platforms and diversified revenue streams and more eyeballs, the landscape is altered irretrievably and long-embraced programming that lolled in the primordial ooze of prime time for years is suddenly asked to stand upright, walk on two feet and whip up a green-chili-chicken casserole to feed a family of five.

Just look at "Survivor" -- no, wait. I mean "Survivor: Micronesia -- Fans vs. Favorites" (8 p.m. Thursdays on CBS). While viewers have been perfectly content for years now to watch the same 12 overachievers crouch on the same white beaches, bickering over the proper way to cook a dead rat, suddenly show creator Mark Burnett and host Jeff Probst and the executive swamis at CBS have been forced to adapt to a more competitive and hostile TV environment. Pooling the forces of their enormous brains, they came up with a brand-new "Survivor" that pits longtime fans of the show against a team of some of the best and most entertaining contestants from the show's recent seasons.

Now, let's be honest for a second. Most of the contestants on "Survivor" have been ardent fans of the show, from Rob Cesternino (of "Survivor: The Amazon") who demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of every season of the show, to the other contestants who knew just as much as Cesternino but were wise enough not to advertise said knowledge, lest they take a hard fall like Cesternino eventually did. Even so, the "Survivor" producers recognized that by denigrating these regulars as "Fans" and making them compete against "Survivor" celebrities (in the fans' minds, anyway), they'd cater to the significant slice of the population that has watched "Survivor" before and might be tempted to do so again, given the right extra-long, extra-descriptive title.

So, on the "Favorites" side, we welcome the return of James the Gravedigger, that hulking mountain of man-muscle, and Ass-Out Amanda, who appears to have secured a pair of shorts that don't require the show's editors to blur out her butt in every single scene. Some of the most memorable characters from seasons past are also here: Yau Man (little, geeky, older man), Ozzy (best swimmer ever), Parvati (flirtatious harlot whose name Probst can finally pronounce), Jonathan (easily threatened blabbermouth) and Ami (smart, straight-talking intimidator). Jonny Fairplay, aka Hippie Wrongstockings, also came back, but then he decided that he missed his unborn child far too dearly to be sitting on a beach far away from her (or the uterus she calls home), even though he might earn a huge sum of money so that his girl could go to a good college and forget the fact that her father is a notorious reality TV wanker.

Apparently intoxicated by their own mutual pseudo-celebrity, there are already two budding show-mances developing among the "Favorites": While Parvati immediately charmed and batted her eyes into James' good graces and his massive, muscular arms (So much for the appeal of a good, old-fashioned hardworking woman like the Lunch Lady Denise, eh, James?), Ozzy and Ass-In Amanda fell to making mutual googly eyes within seconds of spotting each other. By last week's episode, Amanda and Ozzy were making out at night while they thought everyone else was sleeping, and Jonathan and Cirie agreed that the two couples could be dangerous and might need to be split up.

And so, for all their efforts to pave new ground, producers find themselves faced with a repeat of the "Survivor: All-Stars" in which Boston Rob and Amber met, fell in love, somehow eluded immediate ejection from the island, and took home the million-dollar prize. Then they got married and appeared on "The Amazing Race" not once, but twice, proving that, far from being a dangerous move strategically, falling in love while the reality TV cameras roll might just be a sound long-term marketing plan for budding reality TV stars.

On the "Fan" tribe, of course, we find exactly the sorts of faceless nobodies who become tomorrow's "Favorites." Well, OK, they're maybe a little dorkier and more outspoken and enthusiastic than usual, but also slightly bigger and stronger than usual, so that they might bring shame and humiliation to the "Favorites" camp.

But the real draw among the Fans is "Kathleen," a strange alien life form that appears to be visiting us from a star system far, far away. "Kathleen" began her data-gathering mission immediately upon hitting the beach, approaching the Earthling Chet to inquire about his lifestyle choices.

Kathleen: OK, you're a homosexual?

Chet: OK...

Kathleen: Or gay. I don't even know the right word to use!

Chet: You're cool so far. I don't get offended, so don't worry.

Kathleen: Is gay OK?

Chet: Sure.

Kathleen: It doesn't mean, like, you wanna be a girl, right?

Chet: Oh, no! Heavens, no!

Kathleen: (voice-over) Well, I knew that Chet was a homosexual right away. You know, you could just tell he is. But I've never been friends with a homosexual. I think I worked with somebody in the 1980s bartending that was gay, but that's been about it.

Kathleen: You know, you can be my first gay man friend!

Chet: I absolutely will.

Kathleen: Because I never had a gay man friend!

Chet: I bet you have, you just don't know.

Chet chuckled and hugged "Kathleen," and then we cut to him appearing to cringe as the strange biped relocated to gather more intergalactic data on Tracy, a busty blonde who works in commercial real estate.

Kathleen: I've never seen implants, ever! I've never seen 'em up close!

Instead of answering "I bet you have, you just don't know" as Chet did, Tracy mumbled something about the possibility that her breasts weren't fake, to which Kathleen smirked and rolled her eyes, a gesture that her Earth Guidebook assures her is an expression of disbelief, hopefully one that might elicit a more truthful self-description from the Earthling in question.

But "Kathleen" must be a more intelligent life form than she appears, because by the end of last week's episode, not only were Chet and Tracy her two closest allies, but she also managed to befriend Cirie while the two spent time hunting down the immunity idol on Exile Island.

Of course, "Kathleen" didn't really need another immunity idol, since she found one on the first episode and used it to keep herself safe from her non-allies, the younger segment of the tribe who'd taken to calling her "the crazy lady." All of which really goes to show that survival isn't just a matter of adaptability, flexibility and tact, but also one of good luck.

Terrible twos
Good luck certainly shines on the "Big Brother" franchise, which, thanks to the very long writers strike that finally ended last week, has been plucked from the ghetto of the summer schedule. In a testament to just how desperate CBS is to fill its prime-time slots, "Big Brother" will air a whopping three times a week, just as it usually does during the summer.

Now for the big twist and the even bigger title. This season of "Big Brother" will feature eight teams of two singles who were paired up based on extensive personality profiles. The teams will sleep in the same bed, vote together, and get kicked out of the house together, hence the unnecessarily long title "Big Brother: 'Til Death Do You Part" (9 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays on CBS).

Yes, I was scoffing, too, and pointing and jeering at host-robot Julie Chen, and I snorted and chuckled as it was revealed that exes Sharon and Jacob would not only be sharing the same "Big Brother" house, but they'd also be sharing the same bed and sharing the prize money if they won. I guffawed loudly as I learned that current couple Jen and Ryan would compete against each other on separate teams, with separate love matches, and they hoped to keep their status as a couple secret from the other housemates. As Chen announced these twists, meant to stir things up straight out of the starting gate, I smirked and rolled my eyes at Chen, a gesture that my Robotic Reality Show Host Guidebook assures me is an expression of disbelief, hopefully one that might elicit a downward glance of shame from the robot in question.

But then Jen and her love-match Parker won the first "Power Couple" competition, which meant they had the power to kick out one couple. One of the exes, Jacob, immediately started spreading stupid lies about Parker for no reason whatsoever, other than to "stir shit up," so Parker and Jen kicked out Jacob and Sharon. Next, Jen was feeling uncomfortable and jealous of her boyfriend Ryan's partner, Allison, so she let Parker know that she and Ryan were actually a couple. Then Ryan told his partner Allison, who looked genuinely hurt and disappointed. Instead of being excited about the obvious advantage they had, thanks to the fact that their partners were romantically involved, Parker and Allison were suspicious and envious. Allison told the cameras that Ryan deserved someone more like her and less like Jen, his actual girlfriend, and she said that she was tempted to tell everyone their secret.

In short, the two major twists that "Big Brother" producers set up for the season have already been ruined just two episodes into the show: The exes who were supposed to fall back in love have already been booted out of the house, and the secret couple is about to be exposed to the entire house, despite the fact that it ensures that they and their partners will be booted within a few weeks if not days, because no one wants two players around with such a strong natural alliance.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for those who haven't seen Sunday night's episode. The sad thing is, any viewers who switched over to Showtime's "Big Brother After Dark" after the show's premiere could see that Jen and Ryan's secret was already out, that everyone in the house knew about it, and that both Jen and Ryan and their teammates were on the chopping block. Keep in mind, these are things that viewers watching the regular broadcast won't even find out until Sunday night. (Yes, it goes without saying that this is the behavior of a washed-up reality TV addict, and I really don't recommend it.)

Anyway, after the fireworks of last season's daddy-daughter reunion, and the fact that Eric kept his "America's Player" status secret for the entire season and found love with housemate Jessica in the process, the producers have to be more than a little disappointed that they recruited the World's Worst Secret-Keeper Ever to keep one of their biggest twists a secret for all of three seconds.

Reality bites

But these are the unpredictable twists and turns that producers are forced to contend with when they're dealing with real human beings instead of scripted actors. It's a testament to the spinmasters at Fox Reality that I hadn't even heard about the death of one of the residents of "Paradise Hotel 2" (9 p.m. Mondays on Fox Reality) until a reader wrote to tell me about it last week. Nathan Clutter committed suicide last October just four weeks after the show wrapped. Apparently depressed and possibly suffering from bipolar disorder, he jumped off a radio tower in Texas, leaving no note, but this possessions and his dog were left in his car with some food and water for the dog.

Fox referred to his death as a "climbing accident," but the local authorities recently ruled it a suicide. His uncle told reporters that his nephew was dealing with "bouts of depression" and was planning to come home to seek treatment. There's a short note on his bio on the Fox Reality Web site; otherwise, though, "Paradise Hotel 2" is airing as scheduled.

Now, of course his death may have had nothing to do with the show. But this definitely forces us to ask ourselves, as viewers at the very least (since clearly we can't expect anyone at Fox to ponder even the most pressing ethical questions), are we comfortable watching a show that, even if it didn't make the kid's life much worse, apparently didn't make it any better? And for all the talk of how they screen for mental health issues, isn't it pretty obvious after watching about three seconds of most reality shows that they basically go out looking for people with mental health issues? And isn't it clear that, when you take unstable young people with fragile egos who hope that being on TV might make them rich and famous and loved by all, and then you place them in an unsettling environment with lots of alcohol and social pressure, and you film the whole thing and broadcast every dumb thing they do and say for weeks on end -- isn't it pretty clear that there will be serious emotional repercussions for those involved?

Yes, I can see how millions of dollars have been invested, and any reality show is likely to air regardless of what happens to any of the contestants during taping or after the show has wrapped. This is a little different, though -- this is one of the sleaziest shows on the air, and the kid committed suicide four weeks after filming ended. Yes, some reality show contestants (like those on "Big Brother") receive on-site psychological treatment and they're sometimes offered treatment in the wake of filming, when many experience depression. But think about it: Producers put people through hell, shame them, and then let them talk to a counselor to make up for it (and to guard their own asses legally)?

In the age of "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew" and a million other outrageous shows, maybe this is an absurdly outdated consideration, one that signals my status as a curmudgeonly old dodo bird, fast approaching extinction. The truth is, though, it takes a lot for reality TV to creep me out, and for me, "Paradise Hotel 2" just went from delightfully creepy to deeply, disturbingly, soul-crushingly creepy.

But in today's depraved TV freak-show world, "soul-crushingly creepy" may be the most adaptive trait of them all.

Next week: FX's soapy freak show "Dirt" returns for a second season.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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