Friday, August 25, 2006



Yesterday, CBS announced the big gimmick for this season's Survivor, which is the thirteenth edition of one of the longest running and most successful reality shows in television history. This season's hook is that tribes will be defined based on race and ethnicity. This has apparently caused quite an uproar and it's an uproar that to me at least seems overblown and short-sighted. But before I get to that, here's a little background:
I'm a big fan of Survivor. I've watched every single season since the beginning (except for the show's third season which was shot in Kenya. I'll get to why I didn't watch it in a moment). I enjoy the games/contests that the producers devise; I'm a competition junkie and this show is all about competition; I enjoy the group interactions and politicking that goes on; and I enjoy the locations and the scenery and beautiful waters. (The lack of scenery and water was what initially turned me off to Survivor:Africa/Kenya. It just looked hot and miserable and unpleasant. And given that the previous edition had just taken place in the Australian Outback, I really wasn't in the mood to stomach another season of watching people be miserable.) Suffice it to say, it's an enjoyable way for me and my wife to spend a Thursday evening as we have for the last five or so years.
So, why do I think all this ruckus about the racial/ethnical divisions of tribes is much ado about nothing? Here's my thoughts.
The main reason this thing is a big non-issue for me is that I actually think it's a good thing. Now, stay with me. Through the years, Survivor hasn't exactly been known for is diversity in racial and ethnic matters. For every black guy, there's three mostly attractive white girls. For every Latino woman, there's four bohunk stud guys. I cannot recall a season (though I am by no means a Survivor historian) where there have been more than three black contestants. I believe that you can count on one hand the number of Asian contestants that have appeared in the twelve previous installments.
So now we've got a situation where there are five Asians, five Latinos, five blacks and five whites. Could the show have eliminated the controversy by spreading the 20 contestants equally? Probably. But would the show be more interesting in that formulation? I think not.
By a show of hands, can someone name a sitcom centered around an Asian family? Anyone? [crickets chirping] How many English language dramas centered around the lives of Latino characters? How about a show featuring a predominantly black cast that is NOT part of UPN's primetime lineup? To me, this Survivor could be a real window into group dynamics that won't be dominated by "caucasian interactional norms," as every other Survivor edition has been dominated by. It has been my experience in watching the program that as there is usually only two "token" black characters, they more often than not tend to be background characters, for lack of a better term, as they rarely drive the narrative of a particular episode. Imagine a tribe where it is just blacks; where their life experiences will define their interactive parameters within the tribal unit. Since I personally have never seen Asians interacting within a closed group setting within the parameters of a reality television program, I'm anxious to observe their interactions. Ditto for the Latino group. Will people's interactions be different when they're communicating and socializing within their own ethic/racial group?
Usually over the course of an edition of Survivor, standard roles tend to emerge every time. Will those rolls emerge within different racial or ethnic groups? Usually, the (ultimately white) women tend to take a back seat to the more dominating (white) men. (Note that I said "usually" as there can occasionally be the exception of a woman who works just as hard as the men and is right there with them as they construct a shelter, though this usually fosters resentment with the other, more "wall-flowery" women and the assertive woman is more likely to be voted out [see: Tina Scheer from Survivor: Panama]) Is this the norm within a black-centered group? Do women take more charge within the Latino group? This sort of group dynamic has never been explored on the program and I believe that Survivor could really live up to its billing this season as a social experiment.
Now, you can probably take everything that I've just written and throw it in the trash within a month of the premiere. Why? Last season, Survivor's contestants were divided up into four groups, one group with young men, one group with old men, one group with young women and one group with old women. Yet, at no time after the announcement was made did I hear one peep about charges of sexism or ageism. And you know what the real kicker is? Within three episodes, the tribes had been reshuffled anyway so it was really no big deal. Basically, the mechanics of the game almost guarantee a reshuffling of the initial tribes at least once per season. The makeup of the groups for this current season will be mixed up within a month and none of this current hubbub will mean diddly. Except of course for the increased viewership since nothing breeds ratings like controversy. And this is the controversy du jour.

No comments: