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Jewish World Review June 13, 2000 /10 Sivan, 5760

John Leo

John Leo
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Consumer Reports

Fools paradise

On Survivor, eating bugs and sniping are prime-time fare -- IF YOU ARE NOT FOLLOWING the new CBS program Survivor, you should know that the first two people booted off the tropical island were the oldest woman on one team, Sonja, a frail but game 63-year-old cancer survivor, and the oldest man on the other team, the annoying B. B., 64, a retired contractor. In effect, Sonja was punished for stumbling during a torch race, causing her team to lose control of the all-important "immunity idol." B. B. displayed impressive leadership but was kicked out for revealing a broad authoritarian streak, which does not play well at CBS–at least not below the executive level.

Both contestants had their torch flames extinguished by the show's irritating host, Jeff Probst. Since Probst explained several times that each contestant's torch represents life, the quenching of the flames amounted to a ritual game-show death. This was ferocious punishment for one little stumble and a penchant for bossiness, but Sonja and B. B. knew they had to pay the price. Both headed forlornly for the CBS boat or helicopter, where a trained psychologist was ready to help them cope with their rejection on the trip home. Cameras followed them as they trudged away, ready to catch any sign of breakdown. Or maybe CBS thought one of them might return with a grenade. After the first episode, TV critic Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times said he thought more could have been done to humiliate Sonja. He's probably right. They could have made her wade through a nest of snakes while smacking her in the face with a papaya pie. Somehow she has to be taught not to stumble during a beach-side race at age 63.

"Sacred" ground. Survivor, the first of a new wave of "reality" programs, shows edited film of eight men and eight women "marooned" on the Malaysian island of Pulau Tiga, struggling to find food and shelter and voting every three days in a "tribal council" to expel one of their members. The last one left on the island wins a million dollars. To win the prize, contestants have to eat bugs, watch out for monkeys, and put up with Jeff Probst, who is taking this show very seriously. "The tribe has spoken," he says gravely after each banishment. "This place is sacred," he says of the midjungle council site, though how it got to be sacred is not explained. With all the idols, excommunications, and sacramental flame-outs, it could be that CBS is establishing a new South Sea religion for game-show fans.

The idea behind the show is to create an unscripted tropical soap opera by turning ordinary Americans into beleaguered Robinson Crusoes. The only important difference is that the original Crusoe didn't have to step around a hundred people from CBS, 10 camera crews, a TV Guide reporter, and tons of equipment–including computers, generators, a small medical clinic, an air-conditioned film-editing lab, and some styrofoam and wood ruins used as a set for the tribal councils. (Indiana Jones action figures sold separately.) In this case, reality consists of people working very hard to imagine themselves marooned, just like the cast of Gilligan's Island.

Some managed the role rather well. "Corporate ain't gonna work out here," said one tough female contestant, overlooking all the trappings of corporate America laid out around her. Richard, a dead ringer for Homer Simpson, said the group must start to "talk about the process" and the procedures for deciding which decisions to make. This is exactly what Homer would do after a shipwreck–position himself as a castaway consultant and speechify about process. B. B. dramatically announced that he could not submit to democratic vote when his survival was at stake, though his survival wasn't in much doubt with all the technicians, doctors, and security personnel hovering nearby. Civilization of sorts was always a step or two away. One contestant complained that when he awoke in the middle of the night to relieve himself, a camera man and a lighting man followed, eager to record the action.

Part of the appeal is voyeurism. Which young couple, overcome by the spirit of tropical romance, will head off into the jungle alone, accompanied only by their camera crew? Which midlevel members of the chattering classes, now preening themselves over their ability to bond with strangers, will soon be at each other's throats? Apart from the ever present hope of seeing a woman undress, dissension and squabbling are the main attractions of reality shows. CBS is upping the ante on voyeurism with another reality show, Big Brother, starting July 6. Contestants will be on camera 24 hours a day, in all rooms of a sealed house, with one member banished each week by vote of the TV audience. All we need is a national thumbs-up or thumbs-down sign, just like in Gladiator.

Survivor isn't about roughing it in the wild. It's about avoiding expulsion and staying in the money chase by not irritating your fellow voters. The one left standing at the end will be the person who annoys the fewest people and is voted most popular. "It's high school all over again," says David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily News. A high school popularity contest, lots of backbiting, a new religion, and a chance to get rid of one annoying person a week. Who can resist a forward-looking show like this?

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police. Send your comments by clicking here.


06/06/00: Accidental conspirator
05/30/00: Faking the hate
05/23/00: Was it law or poetry?
05/16/00: Here, there and everywhere, people have gone bonkers
05/09/00: Tufts evangelicals are punished for acting on their beliefs
05/02/00: Elian's opera isn't over until nearly everyone sings
04/25/00: All the news that fits: The media serve up many stories from a standard script
04/19/00: Those darned readers: The gap between reporters and the general public is huge
04/05/00: Census sense and nonsense
03/29/00: Hollywood message films leave no room for other views
03/22/00: The Vatican confesses, but is it enough?
03/14/00: Watch what you say: The left can no longer be counted on to defend free speech
03/07/00: McCain's malleable messages
03/01/00: Bush's appearance at Bob Jones U. will dog him all the way
02/23/00: 'Multi-millionaire' show is new evidence we're insane

© 2000, John Leo