For an "unscripted" reality series, Survivor has about the most predictable dialogue (or monologue, as the case may be) ever. My wife, who is probably a bigger fan of the show than I am, regularly "previews" what host Jeff Probst is about to say in any given episode, just a moment before he actually says it. You know, things like "Worth playing for?" or "This is what you covet" or my personal favorite (especially when there's only one person submitting a ballot), "I'll go tally the votes." I've wondered if this is one of the reasons Probst famously threatened to leave the show a couple of seasons ago--I mean, there are only so many ways you can say, "Survivors--ready. Go!" (Though did anyone else notice Probst's bizarrely inflected intro's to last season's episodes, intro's that seemed to be playing that old game of accenting a different word in the same sentence each week--"Who will be voted out tonight?," "Who will be voted out tonight?," "Who will be voted out tonight?", and so forth). If, like I have, you've grown pretty tired of the well worn Survivor tropes, you may get more than a passing kick out of the clever Cartoon Network series Total Drama Island, a show that pillories not only Survivor but its many reality show kin that have populated various networks like, well, incestuous reality show "stars."
This Canadian production, now airing on Cartoon Network, offers a Survivor cum Endurance (the kid show version of Survivor, for those of you without kids) set up, with 22 animated contestants vying for the title of "sole survivor" (to use yet another of Survivor's oft-quoted clichés) on an island that houses Camp Wawanakwa. Host Chris (obviously modeled on Probst himself, down to Probst's nasal idiolect) introduces each episode, insisting in Probst-like hyperbole, that it will be the most dramatic episode of Total Drama Island ever. The 22 contestants, each a little mini stereotype in and of themselves, are split into two teams, The Screaming Gophers and The Killer Bass, and are put through their competitive paces, tasks which often, in cooking show reality show parodies, often involve some sort of food preparation, frequently in conjunction with the show's manic chef, Hatchet.
Anyone who has followed the exploits of ostensibly "real" Survivor loons like Richard Hatch, the first season winner who has stayed in the news for such fun sidebars as tax evasion, child abuse and, most recently, being hauled back to Federal prison for breaking his parole by calling into radio interview shows to insist his being gay is the source of all his problems, will know that a lot of these reality show contestants are kind of living cartoons themselves. Total Drama Island does a frequently very funny job of lampooning these fame whores (in fact the theme song is about getting famous), while also gently satirizing various "types" of young people, from surfer guys and gals to geeks and nerds.
Total Drama Island is also interesting in that it follows the Survivor tradition of voting one character off each episode. As the various teams maneuver for dominance and one character after another meets their fate (revealed by not receiving a toasted marshmallow at the end of the episode), the reasons for any character's eviction can boil down to something as silly as a misplaced MP3 player, which, for anyone who has ever watched Survivor, sounds just about right. Interspersed with each episode's overall storyline are often hilarious confessionals, all delivered from a little fly infested space where the contestants need to dodge getting buzz bombed while trying to deliver their heartfelt commentary. There's also some interesting character development as the series moves through its season, with various characters' interactions leading to something akin to arcs, some of them feeling at least as real, if as equally manufactured, as anything you're likely to see on Big Brother.
Some would argue that "reality" television is a parody in and of itself, but Total Drama Island manages to take something patently unreal to begin with and then poke merciless fun at it. Kids, such as my two sons, obviously the perfect target demographic for it (13 and 10 years old), enjoy it on one level, but adults can pick up a whole, more sophisticated level of satire running through the series, one that says as much about contemporary viewing (and voyeuristic) habits as it does about the "real" people, animated or otherwise, who inhabit these shows. This is fun and engaging television that will bring a smile to anyone who has rolled their eyes at any reality television show. Viewers--ready? Watch!