Reality Bites (The “Survivor” Paradox)

It’s funny how Survivor, one of the smartest programs in television history, has paradoxically contributed to cultural and intellectual regression in America. After concluding its twentieth season several weeks ago (that’s right…there have been twenty “sole” survivors), the groundbreaking show that ushered in the reality TV era is still going strong.

While ratings aren’t quite what they used to be, reality mogul Mark Burnett’s series will be back for another season with no end date in sight. Survivor was once my favorite TV show (I religiously followed seasons 1-5), and its “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast” concept was revolutionary. In addition to being a unique game show, Survivor pioneered showcasing unscripted human drama in the form of a contained social experiment on TV.

The show has been a unique examination of human physicality, philosophy, and morality. Intense “immunity challenges,” revealing side interviews and “Tribal Council” voting patterns reflect the measures individuals will take in order to carry on. Survivor has also shown how self-preservation can often be achieved through maintaining strong relationships with others. Past winners, such as the premiere season’s Richard Hatch, proved that forming and manipulating voting alliances with rival castaways can help one contend for the $1 million prize. Other successful contestants, such as Survivor: Africa winner Ethan Zohn, contrarily thrived by being more well-liked, despite being a physical threat (he was a former professional soccer player).

Long before LOST, we had had this "Hatch."

What makes Survivor most interesting, however, is that it is often anti-Darwinistic. Being the strongest, smartest, and most-well adapted candidate DOES NOT ensure winning the game  (blending in and getting lucky can help more), and this counters most competitions’ established conventions. Survivor: Marquesas winner Vecepia Towery demonstrated this by simply flying under the radar to take home the title.

Survivor still has a large fan base because it manages to stay fresh. Because there is no right way to play the game, each season unfolds differently. The introduction of new, exotic locales also keeps viewers intrigued. Still, with the show still airing, it’s easy to overlook its historical legacy.

No television show shaped the medium and society more in my lifetime than Survivor. After becoming a national phenomenon in 2000, the program spawned the creation of other quality reality shows like The Amazing Race (2001-present), Big Brother (2000-present), and other Burnett works like The Apprentice (2004-present) and the underrated Contender (2005-present). While these have succeeded in following Survivor’s lead, they’ve also contributed to programming changes that have made America dumber.

The emergence of intelligent, thought-provoking reality television inevitably led to an abundance of mindless, thought-inhibiting shows in the years that followed. For every show like Survivor today, there are 4 or 5 Real Housewives or Jersey Shores (although I did favorably write about the MTV hit here, “The Situation” certainly hasn’t symbolized progression in American television).

Without Survivor, John & Kate would probably still be married and more importantly, anonymous. Kim Kardashian’s on screen performances would’ve ended with Ray-J in 2007,  and Clay Aiken’s singing career would have been dead long before it was well, dead. Brett Michaels would just be a washed-up Bon Jovi, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck (a Survivor: Australia contestant) would still be leaning on the right…just not of Joy Behar on The View.

Television's biggest Bum.

While Survivor has always maintained high production value, most of its reality followers are cheap imitations. The genre has become characterized by fast and easy development, making scripted shows seem more complex and less desirable to cost-conscious networks. Although there are many brilliant dramas and comedies on air today, more could succeed with fewer reality programs hogging scarce time slots.

Reality TV is here to stay. The masses love observing everyday people (and B-list celebs) in the limelight. While I’m not sure why, I can only hope the genre improves by paying homage to its early influences and the show that has quite literally Outwitted, Outplayed, and Outlasted all others of its kind.

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