‘Survivor’ lays human flaws bare
December 22, 2003
Lil, facing her jury of peers in the Pearl Islands of the Caribbean, swore she never should have worn her Boy Scout leader’s shirt for the ordeal.
This was just a game, after all, and she explained that her Boy Scout values were meaningless here. Still, not only did she abuse Scouting’s tenets but she used them as a prop, to her advantage.
I’m no more than the most casual observer of the reality show “Survivor,” which just ended it’s seventh season. But I have to admit I found this scene fascinating. And, finally, I could understand something of what the show’s most avid fans see in it.
If Lil could shed her core values like a heavy backpack for a mere game, how swiftly would she shed them in real life? The game laid her human weaknesses bare.
But just when I comprehended that self interest drives all, in our lives as well as our TV shows, she surprised me. Having a choice between a thoroughly rotten guy who was roundly despised and a married mother with children like herself for the final two and only “survivors” who would win money, Lil followed her heart and chose the mother.
I don’t know whether she so hated the villain that she couldn’t stand the idea of him winning even $100,000 or she simply identified more with the young mother who she had to know would crush her in the “jury” vote for who would win the $1 million.
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Lil passed up her best chance at the jackpot. If she’d chosen the guy to join her in the final two, she would be $1 million richer, no question. She redeemed herself in the end.
Well sure, it was all contrived. But I think I can see why my wife and millions of others are big fans. I can only take the soap opera nature of the show in snippets, but I make no claims to holding higher ground in TV viewing. Life for me still stops when a Lakers game is on the tube, as it has ever since Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain were playing together over three decades ago.
This season I caught a little more “Survivor” than usual. I saw one tribe trounce the other over and over again, then begin to fall apart internally.
Some of the characters began to stand out. There was gig-hearted Rupert catching fish to feed his tribe and anchoring them in the early competitions with the other tribe. The completely rotten Johnny Fairplay, so villainous he had a buddy tell him his grandmother had died to get an overnight break and to use for the rest of the 40-day game.
And there was the muscleman who wimped out in the little competitions and became the first in the history of the show to quit the game because of the physical demands. Talk about ironies. All the physical strength in the world doesn’t matter if you lack will.
The others pretty much blended together: schemers, workers, shirkers, warriors, dodgers, manipulators, leaders – liars all. That $1 million is powerful incentive indeed.
Make no mistake: Less than enlightened self-interest is the core philosophy tacitly guiding modern American culture. That’s the overriding message of the show. It’s a revelation for our times, though not such a profound one. Maybe confirmation is the better word.
I saw these components in playing the game: community, competition, social standing. Too weak or too overtly strong in any of these and you can count on being voted out. The meek, though not to be confused with the timid, do inherit the booty.
By community, I mean pulling your weight in daily life, the physical “surviving” stuff: finding food and water, collecting firewood, building shelter, providing what comfort is possible for the group. This seems to get the least of the spotlight, but characters often refer to other players’ value in camp while making decisions about whom to vote out.
Slack and you become vulnerable. Do too much, particularly in taking on leadership, and you are on your way to becoming a threat.
Competition is big in the game. Winners in all manner of contests win immunity from those elections for who leaves next. Early, it’s by the tribe and later it becomes individual. The best warriors will last a long time, but sooner or later, they lose and the group pounces.
Social standing is where the head games get played, and where the game is won or lost. This game has little place for lone wolves. They go first. It’s almost as dangerous to become an acknowledged leader. The leaders grow into threats, and the threats eventually must go.
As the group winnows toward the winners, the pressure builds on personal ethics. Hold them dear and you are gone. Bend, then break your values and you have a chance. I think everyone in this season’s show found themselves falling short. Except for Johnny Fairplay, the sociopath.
There was something else underneath all this. Several contestants referred to their time on the island as life-changing.
The show for us viewers was the show, of course. The game for the contestants also taught them things about themselves that they might be unlikely to learn otherwise. The lessons might have been tough, even soul searing for some. But they might well be even more valuable in the long run than that million dollar payout for the last survivor.
I’ll wager even Lil learned a thing or two about wearing her Boy Scout leader shirt – that symbol for honor held dear – as a facade for the sake of a game watched by 20 million viewers.
Would I do better? I like to think so. But I haven’t had a million dollars dangled in front me, and all I have to do is lie and cheat a little in a mere game. It’s pretty easy to be an armchair moralist.
Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or firstname.lastname@example.org