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Surviving Survivor

After 12 weeks of episodes, it's down to the final four.  Who will walk off the beach with the million?  
And why on earth do we care?

Survivor: the art of betrayal

What will tomorrow night's climax reveal
about the cannibal in all of us?

Tuesday, August 22, 2000

When I was in college, some friends of mine and I sat down one vacation day to play a board game of global strategy called, I think, Summit. We were members -- leaders, actually -- of a peace group and thought it would be fun to see how the other half played, making military alliances, building bases, declaring war, that sort of fun. After a while, one of our number discovered that the way to score serious points in this game was to betray his ally. He won big. One of us laughed so hard he broke the antique chair in which he was sitting. Laughed to keep from screaming, that is.

My friend got the point: The game was rigged in favour of tricksters. If you had the scruples not to betray your ally, you lost. It was a rancid feeling. Sadder and wiser, upset by what we discovered about ourselves, we never played that wretched game again.

I do not think we were especially vicious fellows. What we learned about ourselves was less dire, though sad enough -- that we were not strong enough to withstand the temptations of sin; that when the game is rigged, players bend. We learned the power of social rules, of artificially cultivated ruthlessness over sweetness and light. We learned not to test ourselves again if we didn't have to.

This chastening moment of youthful education comes to mind as I think of CBS's Survivor, which, as the known world must know, comes to a crescendo tomorrow night. At that time presumably more than its typical weekly 30 million viewers will tune in to find out which one of these curious tourists -- out of the original 16 presumably ordinary folks -- will be left standing. Much ink is being spilled on the question of the show's appeal -- though, surely, to be the most-watched show, especially during a summer of reruns, is not as hard as it used to be.

It seems pretty clear that one of the appeals of Survivor is the nastiness of its cast, one of whose members, Sean Kenniff (the naive neurologist), called the group "the most conniving bunch of people I've ever met," shortly before being voted off last week. Survivor features above all (or is that below all?) the scheming Richard Hatch, the corporate trainer who recruited other islanders into a voting bloc and then bragged about it, proving just how far creative entrepreneurship can take you in what we are pleased to call a "new economy." At times strutting around naked (though digitized), he is that villainous man of the hour, the narcissistic manipulator too smug for his own good.

But the producers have not proved that we're all greedy bastards -- monstrous slashers and burners in the interest of Victory By Any Means Necessary. Instead, they have merely confirmed what William Shakespeare understood 500 years ago: that Lady Macbeth is more interesting than Lady Macduff, Macbeth more compelling than his good victim Duncan. Our own times have recapitulated this truth: Dallas needed J. R. Ewing, the man you loved to hate, and basketball needed Dennis Rodman. The Survivor cast is as bad as they want to be -- the back-biting and bickering between Kelly and Sue has rivalled that of John McCain and George W. Bush during the primaries. Which means it is just bad enough to enable viewers to feel better.

But I note that on last week's episode, Kelly Wiglesworth, the river guide who survived to the last round, remarked to Jeff Probst, the smiley, smarmy program host: "We're not evil, we just play evil people on TV." She well understood the part she was recruited to perform. Like her fellow islanders, she had to show, in the program's pre-filming recruitment phase, that she believed in betrayal.

In the end, Survivor turns out to be Betrayal Lite. The show is Lord of the Guise, more Dessert than Desert Island. The music is often, as if to register that this simulated war-of-all-against-all is, in the end, a goof. Remember: Really, really fake wrestling is America's kitsch pastime. With Jesse Ventura's election as Governor of Minnesota, after all, we began to understand how the drama of simulated aggression and recovery stands as a model of competition where nobody dies.

Last week in The Globe and Mail, John Allemang made the point that Survivor viewership peaks during the last five minutes of the show, when the surviving survivors gather, anxiety peaking, to expel one of their number. The chance to watch the mob turn on a victim -- this moment of truth -- is what, in pornography, is called "the money shot." It's where we see whether our pet peeves are shared, test our compassion for losers, find out whether our opinion of human nature is low enough. It's far more interesting to witness the moment of truth when the cast gangs up on one of their own than to vote him or her out ourselves, which is one reason why Survivor is so much more popular than CBS's admittedly tamer Big Brother.

I suspect the show has proved to be good nasty fun partly because we are besotted gilded-age social Darwinists all, cannibals in waiting. But I also propose the opposite reason: By watching other people simulate harshness, we get to test our own moral character harmlessly. We get to see what other people will do in order to discover, as the title of a 1950s movie puts it, How to be Very Very Popular.

Nothing in current American life is more popular than popularity, and this causes both excitement and dismay. (What is George W. Bush's qualification for president, after all, if not the belief by wealthy Republicans that he looks like a winner?)

We have a chance to feel superior, to have our aggression and eat it, too -- to identify with the aggressors (a little bit) and at the same time feel improved (a little bit). We are reminded we have some of the cutthroat in ourselves but we're good guys nevertheless. We haven't stabbed our playmates in the back. We are the survivors, virtue intact. Watching this show, we watch ourselves, surviving.
Todd Gitlin's most recent books are The Twilight of Common Dreams and the novel Sacrifice. He teaches at New York University.
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