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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 television cargo cult

By Joyce Smith
Globe and Mail Update

A lot has been written about the runaway popularity of the CBS summer hit Survivor. What is the secret of its success? An otherwise slow schedule? The gorgeous scenery, or the scantily-clad youngsters, or the nasty tribal council vote at the end of each episode?

Last week, the producers finally tipped their hand in the most blatant of ways: Survivor is religious television, and its audience followers with varying degrees of devotion.

The show isn't religious television like the 700 Club show, which has interviewed non-survivor Dirk. Dirk clearly feels that he was selected by God to be on the island in order to introduce his colleagues and the audience the Christian message. For Dirk, there's no question that Survivor can be religious television. But the producers of the island show have succeeded in blurring the lines between religion and television, in a much more powerful way than the literal Dirk could ever hope.

Building each week, Survivor has succeeded in creating its own cult following. First off, there is the satisfying order of the show, from the opening credits, the theme hymn - er, song - the day count in the lower left-hand corner, the contests, the immunity challenge, and the tribal council, somewhere between an all-American town hall meeting and the night of the long knives.

The constant pictures of paradise, the snakes in the garden, and the use of pseudo-indigenous masks, carvings and totems all suggest religious themes and epic narratives, before subverting them with the 'real' religion of Survivor. The exoticization of a foreign belief system to prove superiority isn't a new trick: religion scholar David Chidester has asserted the concept of religion didn't even have exist until Western powers moved into frontier places like sub-Saharan Africa, where it was easier to colonize people first by suggesting they had no religion, and then control them by categorizing and defining their beliefs. In its own way, the Survivor producers do this every episode when they remake the island of Pulau Tiga in their own image.

Television has been introduced into the Survivor ritual and reward system throughout the show, with contestants earning the right to see videotape of their families, and even of themselves in the Survivor show. (We the audience, watching the whole thing, are the most favoured in this religion.) There are boxes within boxes here, with some containing religion and others pop culture. But the crucial development is that unlike traditional religious television, the boxes aren't hermetically sealed, and ideas and images leak and flow between them.

Finally, in episode 12, shown last Wednesday, the mix spilled over. In a less that subtle move, a communal roll in one of the island's mud baths was used as a purification ritual, after which the contestants admitted they felt better and happier with each other. The immunity challenge was even more blatant. It was up as a parody of yet another pop culture hit, The Blair Witch Project, the film which took its own liberties with wicca and the occult, mixed with cinema verité.

Once assembled, the omniscient and annoying host, Jeff Probst, told the contestants about the island's "superstitions" and "folklore." (To come right out and call any native teachings "spirituality" or "religion" would elevate them to a level too risky to play with.) So Sue, Rudy, Richard, Kelly and Sean learned about sacrificing of goats, and the significance of conch shell trumpeting, and rain showers.

Briefing in the spiritual traditions of the island over, the camera itself became part of the ritual, as the survivors raced from tree to tree, reading the questions about 'folklore' off the back of masks, turning handheld cameras on themselves to answer the question, before ripping the mask from the tree. Hit the pause button long enough here and consider what's going on with questions of self-identity, mixed in with masks and videotape. The traditional teachings and symbols are replaced with videotape in the most straightforward of ways.

Finally, at the tribal council that night, all the tales came true. It rained, just as Probst had foretold. The 'jury' of former island-dwellers marched in and sat silently near their own dead torches, a sort of ancestor clan who will determine the final survivor.

Sean, when voted off, was told his torch had been blown by the wind. Not having shown himself to be the sharpest of the bunch, Sean is the doubting Thomas, murmuring something about someone blowing it out behind his back. But the meshing of the island people's 'folklore' with the television ritual was played out with the host's revised mantra: "Sean, the island and the tribe have spoken" said Probst as he placed the coconut snuffer over poor Sean's already extinguished torch.

But religious television is more than just TV shows with religious content. Survivor works because of the feeling of community it's generated, whether as the subject of water cooler talk or Web site reverence. To belong, you at least need to know that the show is on, with extra brownie points for knowing what the 'alliance' is and top membership for those who can successfully expound on the probable winner and why.

Keeping to one special night a week together with the ritual and exotic surroundings easily explain Survivor's ratings win over Big Brother. But David Letterman and other Survivor 'scholars' give exegetical information for those who can't make it from Wednesday to Wednesday without a fix.

There are even the heretics in the crowd, including Greg, the former survivor who refuses to do the media interviews and play along, choosing instead to use the camera to make up his own, bizarre stories. The authors of the Web site, by parodying the show, are of course acknowledging its power and popularity.

As with the so-called cargo cults that proliferated in the Pacific after indigenous contact with traders, Survivor is just sailing through our television universe. Like the cults, preoccupied with material wealth and things, be it the $1-million, or the nights aboard luxury yachts, or even a Bud light, the series has pushed the worship of materialism further, but won't do much more, unlike, perhaps, the British version, Castaway 2000, with its lofty goals of trying sustainable power sources.

Like some summer blip in the attendance of the church near the cottage, we'll soon all be settling back into the more traditional, mainline religious services of E.R., Friends and X-Files before long. At least until Survivor in the Australian outback starts.

E-mail Joyce Smith

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