On Wednesday, CBS's new game show "Survivor" demolished "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" by a staggering 16%, claiming 18.1 million viewers. In only its second episode, "Survivor" will likely be the most watched show in the country this week, and by the end of the month it will be a national obsession. All of which makes the series worth examining.
The set-up for "Survivor" is simplicity itself. Sixteen people, eight men and eight women, are marooned on an island in the South China Sea. They represent every conceivable cohort, from a college student in her 20s to a grandparent in his 70s; there is a female trucker from Wisconsin, an evangelical Christian teacher, and a gay corporate trainer. They exist in a Rousseauian state of nature, foraging for food and shelter, always under the watchful eye of the TV camera. Every three days, the group votes to banish one of its members from the island. When only two remain, the 14 who have been kicked out will vote to give one of the two survivors a million dollars.
"Survivor" borrows liberally from all manner of pop culture. The show itself is derived from a Swedish program that debuted last year (one of the Swedish survivors committed suicide after being voted off the island). But even this foreign version owes its roots to American television. From MTV's "The Real World" comes the construct of filming real people living together. From "Gilligan's Island" comes the idea of using a group with diverse ages, occupations, and socioeconomic standing. From Japanese game shows comes the sadistic pleasure derived from watching contestants go through exceptional hardships. And from Regis comes not only life-altering stakes in the form of a million-dollar cash prize but also a ready-built catchphrase--after the vote each week, "Survivor"'s host, Jeff Probst (formerly of VH1's "Rock & Roll Jeopardy!"), looks solemnly at the camera and says softly, "The tribe has spoken."
The surface appeal of "Survivor" lies in watching the group dynamics unfold. And in truth, the conflicts are fascinating. This week featured a near-donnybrook when B.B., a 64-year-old retired contractor, used communal canteen water to wash his clothes. The next episode promises to highlight a showdown between Dirk, the 23-year-old Christian, and the less ecumenical members of the tribe.
But these clashes are just wind-up. What separates "Survivor" from everything else on television is its payoff: the vote. The problem with "The Real World" is that at the end of the day, when David squares off against Tammy or Stephen slaps Irene or Puck goes to war with the entire house, it's just talk. No one ever has to make do-or-die choices.
Through their votes, we see that the older people place priority on survival skills, while the younger ones value Milquetoasty communal harmony. We see that the women are infinitely more politically adroit than the men. We see from the expulsion of Sonja, a 62-year-old cancer survivor who was the nicest person on the island, that the group is happy to prey on the weak.
And above all, we see avarice in the pursuit of popularity and cash. Much has been made of the similarity between "Survivor" and "Lord of the Flies," but the comparison isn't quite apt. Imagine if the children in "Lord of the Flies" hadn't been tragically stranded on the island but had chosen to be stranded in order to use their removal from society to advance their social standings. Imagine if instead of being shamed by their behavior, they had wanted the rest of the world to see them devolving into savages. On "Survivor," this level of self-selection is no small thing. The producers have put the greedy and dim up on display, and it virtually ensures that all the moral choices made will be wrong. You get the sense that if Probst announced that the survivors had to vote to throw one of their members into a pit of poisonous asps, they wouldn't so much as blink.
"Survivor" suggests that we aren't at the beginning of the decline of Western civilization but rather smack dab in the middle of it. And it is precisely this train-wreck-in-progress appeal that makes it so irresistible to watch. In July, CBS will debut another reality-based game show called "Big Brother." "Big Brother" locks 10 people in a house and films their daily conflicts, only at the end of the week it is we, the audience, who will vote someone out via the internet. The flawed morality of "Survivor"'s castaways will become our own.
The tribe has spoken.