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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?


Kick off Gervase -- let's keep Titus

Monday, July 24, 2000
The Globe and Mail

You can't swing a cat these days, it seems, without hitting some breathless reference to Survivor. To observe that it's not just a TV show, but a cultural phenomenon, seems almost trite. Like it or not, phrases such as, "that's so off the island" have entered the pop-culture lexicon.

Let me confess at the outset that when I originally wrote this, late in June, I'd never seen the show. I'd like to say that it was out of conviction, that I was refusing as a matter of principle to watch such dreck, but the simple truth is that I didn't have either the time or the curiosity to make the time. I just didn't care. (Besides, I watch my fair share of other dreck. After wrestling my 3-year-old daughter into bed in the evenings, it's often the only thing I have the energy for.)

However, on reading the first draft, my editor politely suggested that I watch the show, reasoning that I couldn't very well slag it without having seen it. So I did. It was even more appalling than I had expected.

The slo-mo overhead tracking shots, the ominous music, the multiple camera angles -- all for people who find the World Wrestling Federation, COPS or America's Most Wanted too high-brow or sedate, I suppose. And, of course, the slightly out-of-focus shots of people looking "thoughtful," the ritual dousing of the torch and, ooooh! fierce beasts (recently, a monitor lizard)! Presumably the event in which contestants have to capture and kill a shark with their bare hands is still to come.

After the first viewing, though, I was wondering why Survivor's creators don't go all the way. Why not deprive the contestants of food completely and film them as they're forced to resort to cannibalism? Or introduce human sacrifice, or make the losers commit ritual suicide? If you're going to go for sleazy pseudo-drama, I say, either go big or go home.

There's no point in trying to analyze or explain Survivor's appeal here. We already know that in its contrived and artificial way, it fetishizes the worst aspects of human nature. It makes a spectator sport out of shifting alliances, survival of the fittest, jockeying for advantage, abandoning friends when they're no longer useful, vicious intratribal and intertribal politics, dirty tricks, hoarding of resources -- in short, nothing you don't see every day at the office, the Toronto Stock Exchange, or Canadian Alliance leadership races. It's just that it raises the voyeurism quotient by featuring babes in bikinis.

But its popularity raises another question: If we're going to make entertainment out of the worst aspects of human nature, why do we need zillion-dollar network productions to do it?

The Stratford Festival is mounting a production of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus this year. It's also being staged outdoors at Toronto's Withrow Park by the local troupe Shakespeare in the Rough. And I've been driving the staff at my local video stores to distraction asking if they have the Julie Taymor film with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. You want the worst of human nature? Shakespeare has it all: war, racism, murder, dismemberment, human sacrifice, rape, mutilation, revenge, madness and cannibalism. Even in the early 17th century, young Shakespeare knew that a good gorefest would put bums in seats. Who needs loincloth-clad losers getting kicked out of the club for not being good spearfishers?

You want backstabbing? You want scheming? You want betrayal? You want ambition? You want murder? Read Othello. Read Richard III. Read Henry VI. Read Macbeth. Read Hamlet. Read Julius Caesar. There's nothing in Survivor that wasn't done first, and better, by the Bard. Maybe I'm just a cranky old white guy, but for me, Will's the original and still the champion.

He was writing compelling drama, crafting intriguing characters and offering worthwhile insights more than 400 years ago. He was tapping into universal truths about human nature a long time before a bunch of TV executives decided that letting a handful of Robinson Crusoe wannabes act out a pale version of social Darwinism would be a good way to sell antiperspirant, watery American beer or pickup trucks. They'll have their 15 minutes. Somehow, I don't think they'll last four centuries.

Admittedly, Shakespeare isn't always an easy read. It doesn't lend itself readily to packaging in neat little one-hour episodes. And sometimes you have to struggle for the insights. I don't know why Iago manoeuvres Othello into smothering Desdemona, but we've all been tormented by jealousy at one time or another. I don't know that I'd go as far as Macbeth or Richard of Gloucester in pursuit of career advancement, but we've all struggled with the tug of war between ambition and scruple. And I'm not sure that I'd condone stabbings on the floor of the Ontario Legislature, but haven't we all fantasized about bringing down hubris-afflicted, power-infatuated rulers who Just Don't Listen?

Shakespeare makes us uncomfortable sometimes because we see ourselves in his characters, even the less-than-noble ones. It's easy to think ourselves above the scheming faux primitives on the Survivors' island. Maybe some of us even want to be them. It's not always easy to reconcile ourselves to the possibility that we may have a little bit of Iago, or Macbeth, or Richard, or Cassius or even Titus inside us. It takes effort. And it takes thought. But the best lessons aren't always the easiest.

Performances of Titus Andronicus continue at the Stratford Festival until Sept. 30.

Shakespeare in the Rough presents Titus Andronicus in Withrow Park, starting July 23 and running until Sept. 4.
Sol Chrom is a copy editor at The Globe and Mail. He is trying not to be a cranky old white guy.

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