Survivor is a tough show to talk about honestly, because to do so, one has to admit that they enjoy watching, week after week, the very worst in people. Everybody involved with the show, from producer Mark Burnett, to host Jeff Probst, to the many contestants that have appeared on Survivor, say that ultimately, it's just a "game." I don't think so. Scrabble is just a game; Survivor is an opportunity for average people to indulge and let loose traits of their personality that in no way should be rewarded -- chief among these being avarice and duplicity. That's not to put the blame solely on the contestants; we the viewers are just as complicit in this behavior. After all, the networks make these shows just for us; we're the ones who watch them do it.
I was a fan of Survivor; however, Survivor Vanuatu was the last season I watched the show. I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, but somehow, after that season concluded, I had had enough of Survivor. I had my fill of watching people become consumed with suspicion, anger, and frustration, while they lied to and cheated each other in a cutthroat game of tribal elimination. All of the contestants said, at least while the cameras were rolling, that it was all in fun, that what they did to each other was worth it for the "experiences" they had. But there's nothing pretend about people stabbing each other in the back for the chance to win a million dollars; when every contestant has been pinned down about why they played, it always comes down ultimately to one reason: the money.
Survivor no longer wins its time slot on a regular basis; it's not the monster hit it once was. Each year, the ratings go down more and more. Is it because TV viewers have grown tired of the show, and have moved on to other ways to spend an hour? Maybe they're fed up with the inherent nastiness of the show (this year's much-touted "race-based" team selection was a big bust with viewers). The show that beats Survivor in its timeslot, week after week, is a little upbeat number called Ugly Betty, a show whose emphasis is 180 degrees in opposition to its competition: it's tentatively optimistic. One could say that the basis of all drama is conflict, but there's no art involved in Survivor, no artistic distance lent by theatricality, despite the creativity of the editing and the casting of the contestants. Ultimately, when all of the bull#$@* from the producers and the network about the honesty and validity of the show subsides, we are left with the depressing spectacle of real people emotionally and psychologically harming one another and themselves, while exposing their foibles for millions of eager TV fans -- all for the chance to win some money. Producer Mark Burnett summed up the contempt for humanity inherent in the show when, some years back, a contestant fell into a fire and was seriously burned. When asked about the fact that the cameraman, who was only two feet away from the victim, did nothing to help him, but merely kept shooting video, Burnett replied that he would have fired the guy had he stepped in. There's no doubt in my mind that in the future, should anyone ever get seriously hurt or killed on Survivor, there will be people involved with that show who will, deep down, consider it the greatest boon to the series that could possibly happen.
Survivor Vanuatu didn't shape up to be anything radically different than previous seasons; the contestants played the same petty mind games on each others' heads that they always play on Survivor. Alliances were largely formed along gender lines this time, with some decidedly nasty generalities said about each sex, from the opposing sex. Age, as always, played a factor, too, with the old generally suspicious and contemptuous of the young, and vice-versa. So-called friendships were made, but of course those friendships only went down to a certain point; when a chance to climb up over somebody's else's body became available, those friendships went right out the window. And at the end, the person who had lied the most, who had schemed the most, who had manipulated the most, who had backstabbed the most, was congratulated for "playing the game" better than anyone else, and he was rewarded - by the very people he hurt - with a million dollars. Something has drastically changed in this country when even just thirty years ago, such a mean-spirited show which would never even have been seriously considered for a network slot, and had it aired, would have been yanked immediately because of a shocked, offended audience, now is considered a "family show."
Of course, Burnett is cagey enough to know that such a naked display of heartlessness and greed would be hard to swallow, even in today's cynical times, so he brilliantly tweaked the show, first by setting the series within in the confines of radically different cultures than the contestants, thereby allowing "appreciation of diversity" to be his calling card to the naysayers. And second, by emphasizing the supposed "personal transformations" of the contestants after their encounters with the various cultures of the indigenous people, as well as with the different outlooks of their fellow tribesmen, Burnett could point to the show and say it's not really a game after all, but a social and psychological learning experience. If you believe the validity of the first argument, I suggest you ask a long-time Survivor watcher to name some of the tribes from previous seasons, and to describe those peoples' various beliefs and value systems. My guess is you'll get an answer that goes something like, "I don't remember, but Richard Hatch was naked a lot." As for actually, demonstrably changing contestants' outlook on life, I suppose a case could be made for that, but for the life of me, I don't see how it could be for the better, considering what these contestants are not only asked, but expected, to do to each other. The motto of the show is "Outwit. Outplay. Outlast." What's left off that slogan, but which every contestant who signs up knows is required, are the words, "...at any cost if you want the money badly enough."
If you feel I'm being too rigid in criticizing a show that is, after all, a "reality" series, remember Survivor is cast, just like any other TV show. Certain types are sought, and they're interviewed thoroughly to see if they fit the complex framework that the producers are looking for. While many believe that the contestants are chosen to fit certain demographic profiles that the producers feel are out in the audience, the contestants are also chosen for theatrical value, for curiosity appeal, and for the dynamics of confrontation and passivity. Psychological profiles are done on all contestants before a foot of film is shot; the producers say it's a safety precaution to keep any unstable people off the show, but my guess is that those profiles are compiled to see who's going to make nice on the island, and who's going to cause trouble. After all, an island full of Pollyanna's - to the network's mind - won't draw flies on the Nielsen's. Certainly, actions can't be predicted once the mix of people are put together on the island, nor can anyone predict who will withdraw into themselves once they're aware of the cameras, and who will suddenly blossom into a major TV star. And never fear; if a story line doesn't present itself in the actual filming, that can be created in the editing room. All it takes is a shot of somebody rolling their eyes, following a previous shot of another contestant speaking, to create in the mind of a viewer an instant personality conflict - never mind the fact that those two shots may have occurred on separate days entirely. It's important to remember that Survivor, in its own way, is just as scripted as E.R..
That's not to say that the emotions and actions of the contestants are scripted, although there could be arguments made about the artificial effects on their behavior due to the presence of cameras, as well as the deliberate breaking down of the contestants as far as their physical, and therefore emotional, health goes. No, their actions are all too real, and we can recognize all of them in ourselves. Burnett and supporters of the show are especially proud of that aspect of the show: audience identification. It gets them off the hook manufacturing this environment because, after all, we're all like this, right? We'd all act the same way, especially for a million dollars, right? Well, that's very probably true. We all have suspicious, greedy, hateful, prejudiced thoughts. That's honest, and so are the emotions on Survivor. However, we all also have kind thoughts, loving thoughts, sacrificial thoughts, and occasionally, those emotions show up on Survivor, too. The only problem is: you lose Survivor thinking that way. We hear it all the time from losing contestants: that guy or girl really played the game! And invariably what they mean is: that guy or girl lied and manipulated my emotions better than I was able to. Survivor not only celebrates, but rewards with cold, hard cash, the very worst in us all.
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: Chris wins this one. He can, as Jeff Probst admiringly comments on the finale (and to which the audience laughs and applauds), "lie to anyone." He made several friendships, and broke all the accepted rules that go with friendships, even managing to make several people cry when they realized the enormity of those betrayals. They still voted for him to get the money, though, because his behavior on the show embodied the very essence of the game: duplicity. He was the ultimate "survivor" in a game that somehow manages to create the false sense that people's very lives are at stake, when in reality, only their greed is on the line.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.