Survivor: Desert Island Politics

December 24, 2010
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Survivor survives as the progenitor of the reality TV boom, chugging along into its second decade without the attention that ratings blockbusters like American Idol and controversial train-wreck upstarts like Jersey Shore and Real Housewives attract, or even the Emmys that its sibling The Amazing Race collects. The producers continue its formulaic rituals of the tribal council and comely young women walking on the beach in bikinis, and ninety per cent of host Jeff Probst’s chatter remains the same from season to season.  The producers have sought variety by introducing a few design innovations (three finalists instead of two, redivision of the tribes) that have often worked, and by painfully obvious nods to identity politics (tribal configurations based on age, gender, and race) that have not.

The season that concluded this past Sunday had a rogues’ gallery of the stupid and the obnoxious. Rampant and egregious lying was the predominant tactic; those who tended to be straightforward and loyal were either incredibly passive or prone to insulting other players. Two different contestants committed acts of thievery, of property both personal (a $1600 pair of alligator shoes brought on an outdoor adventure show) and communal (a significant amount of the tribal food cache). Several players commented that they had to improve their behavior, primarily by shutting up so as to stop annoying everyone around them, and then proved completely incapable of doing so, sealing their doom. One young man was openly homophobic; a young woman crowed about administering a physical smackdown to a player with one leg. Even the less obnoxious players seemed incapable of sticking together when faced with being marginalized by a well-organized bloc, continually voting against each other in futile attempts to curry favor with those in control.

In previous seasons, players who exhibited physical strength and charisma sometimes found themselves targeted for removal by other players who feared their popularity and ability to win contests that provided protection from being thrown out of the game. The recent season was the first that I watched in which the elimination of successful players became the driving engine of the show. It was the Triumph of the Stupid, Nasty, and Mediocre, whose pronounced insecurity led them to purge the most visibly intelligent and accomplished players as dire threats. A doctor and a medical student, both amiable and mature, were purged quickly, as were the player with the sunniest attitude and the most inspirational leader, to be followed by the more visibly astute strategists. The physically strong stayed in the game longer, through lucky breaks or because they hid their potential for athletic dominance in early challenges.

Survivor has sometimes lost contestants to serious physical maladies, with the producers forcing players to quit based on medical advice. The 2010 series was the first in which two players just upped and quit, defeated by the elements and their own whims. One, Naonka, had quickly established herself as the clearest villain in the narrative, stealing food and bullying other players. In soliloquies, she had played up her toughness, no-nonsense attitude, and ambition to do whatever it would take to win, but then cried every time it rained. She announced her voluntary departure from the competition in the same breath that she claimed a birthright of a “family of strong black women” who never quit.

I am no fan of train-wreck TV, and this season would have certainly qualified for being dropped from my viewing schedule, yet I found the contest compelling. I fear that Survivor is becoming infected with the ethos of the shows of dysfunctional characters and condescending viewers; Survivor always has had opportunities for both, but also has supplied positive points of identification and interesting strategic plotting. More worryingly, perhaps the problems of this season reflected not its intra-generic drift but a bigger model upon which the contestants could base their actions. I had stopped watching news channels recently, and perhaps I kept watching Survivor because it became a metaphor for the political situation I was trying to avoid. It was all there: the defining of others primarily as threats; the rampant mendacity; the distrust of the educated. Two contestants were already millionaires, but wanted still more; the character with the loudest braggadocio got away with incredible obnoxiousness, only to suddenly bail on her teammates, leaving them in a strategic lurch. Those proclaiming traditional small-town values bonded in opposing high-tech snobs, then destroyed each other.

Yet the finale of Survivor justified the pained viewing of several months; in the end, a cheery young man who talked like a surfer and had been written off by the majority alliance as a moronic goofball managed to sneak into the final rounds, display hidden physical and mental gifts, and be rewarded in the final vote for his relative honesty, winning the grand prize against two huge liars. He thereby proclaimed that he would use the prize money to help his family and study ethnomusicology. Dude! In this dark hour, Survivor supplied a happy ending. The tribe has spoken. If THAT group could finally get it right, can we?


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3 Responses to “ Survivor: Desert Island Politics ”

  1. Jon Kraszewski on December 24, 2010 at 7:55 AM


    I really enjoyed this post. These long-running reality series evolve, and it’s important to understand the changes in their textual features and social resonance. I haven’t watched Survivor in years, but your post has me wanting to return to the series. I like the way you connect the changes within the program to the current political climate.


  2. Jonathan Gray on December 28, 2010 at 9:34 AM

    If only American politics instituted CBS’s new rule: (gubernatorial) quitters can’t serve on the tribal council

  3. Myles McNutt on January 2, 2011 at 1:20 PM

    Not even a potential political allegory could make me sit through this absolutely dreadful season, but I think you’re right to point out that even the worst Survivor seasons eventually take on a sort of narrative which gives them value (whether political or non-political). Heck, even when a season becomes the worst season, it remains memorable for its establishment of that low point against which subsequent weak seasons will be measured. Even if Survivor no longer has the cultural cache it once had, it had accrued so much meta-cache that its storylines and narratives have history and meaning which can help take seasons like this one and find meaning within the mundane and moronic.