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Friday, September 15, 2006
Survivor Thoughts
The first episode of Survivor: Cook Islands aired last night. Survivor has come under fire the past three weeks ever since CBS announced that for the first time, the teams would be divided along racial lines.

I tuned in becuase I wondered how the new cast would react to this news, but we didn't get to see it. The participants in the reality contest were told the night before the game began.

So, I tuned in and watched it. And my impression coming away--it was a first episode of Survivor. Nothing more, nothing less. I don't think it's going to be some grand social experiment as snarky host Jeff Probst said it was. I think it's a stunt to get some ratings for the show in what will prove to be a comptetive Thursday night time slot. The controversy isn't some grand social experiment designed to teach all of us some deep lessons about the racial divides in our nation and world, but is instead designed to get eyeballs on screen so we can charge advertisers more.

The thing with any first epiosde of Survivor is that you're presented with a large group of people and trying to figure out who is who can take a few minutes. Consider they they're editing down three days of round the clock footage on four groups of people and you've got a lot of stuff that is going to be on the editing room floor. Also, let's face it--this is TV and they want a storyline to it so anyone who steps out early as interesting or a "character" will get more screen time than others. Also, in typical Survivor tradition we spent the last fifteen or so minutes focused on the tribe that lost the immunity challenge as the strategies of the game play out on screen.

I did find Robert Bianco of USA Today's editorial on the episode interesting.
Perhaps we should be happy that CBS thinks segregation is such a long-gone relic, it can be harmlessly revived as a stunt for a fading game show.

And make no mistake: Introducing four ethnic-centered teams on Thursday's Survivor premiere was a publicity stunt of the rankest and most obvious kind. This divisive trick has nothing to do with Jeff Probst's opening promise of a "social experiment" and all to do with diminished ratings and buzz.

Exactly what kind of experiment could this be? The four groups — labeled by the show as African-American, Asian-American, Caucasian and Latino — weren't just sent to different teams, they were sent to different islands. Outside of the brief challenge (a race the Asian-Americans won and the African-Americans lost), the teams didn't even interact.

What are we supposed to learn from that: What life would be like if we returned to the days when CBS had a hit with Amos & Andy? No thanks.

Worse yet, the show actually invited us to judge these players on an ethnic basis. When Cecilia said she wants to prove that Latinos both "work hard" and "play hard," or Stephannie said the African-Americans "all feel the pressure to represent," they took on far too much pressure and gave themselves far too much importance. Heaven forbid we should look at the way a person behaves on a reality show and assume we're learning something about an entire race.

Yet the ridiculous and oddly comforting thing about the premiere is that for the most part, if you closed your eyes and ignored the random references to ethnicity, you would never have known there was anything special about this Survivor. There were the same instant friendships and enmities; the same complaints about players who are odd or lazy or overly familiar; the same tired discussions of strategy. And when it came to voting someone out, it once again boiled down to women vs. men.

Unfortunately, that can't salvage a trick that is offensive on its face. Survior has embraced the very essence of discrimination: treating people not as individuals but as members of a ethnically defined group. And the fact that Survivor finally, for the first time, has enough members of those groups to make discrimination viable is hardly a defense.

Of course, the twist won't be with us for long. Sooner rather than later, the tribes will merge and the ethnic opening will be forgotten. Which will allow many of us to forget about Survivor entirely.

And that will be a happy day.

Bianco has some interesting points, including the fact that this twist won't last long (I can only imagine having five camera crews out there must be exhausting--four for the teams, one for "Exile Island.") I would bet this twist won't make it beyond the fourth episode simply for the logistical issues of having to film five groups 24/7.

And Bianco also didn't acknowledge that one of the survivor pointed out that racial issues didn't matter that much because out in the wild trying to survive, everybody was a human being.

posted by Michael Hickerson at 9/15/2006 07:28:00 AM | |
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