Why all the moralistic conniptions over "Survivor"? To be sure, I enjoy a moralistic conniption as much as anyone else, but the furrow-browed freak-out over the popular summer series is a tempest in a tiki bowl.

The basic complaint seems to be that the show encourages members of the two competing tribes to undermine each other in their cutthroat individual quests for the $1 million prize due to the lone survivor. With greed as the ultimate motivator (the critics say), the participants come to view each other with suspicion, while viewers are treated to the presumably cruel spectacle of one cast member being voted off the island at the end of each episode.

So far, they've "sacrificed" two elderly folks and two younger women. Oh, the humanity.

That each fresh exile is not tossed into a volcano, but is instead whisked away to a posh resort for a shower and a hot meal, makes all the ethical hand-wringing seem silly. This is a game, people, and the only things that get hurt are feelings.

And the deus ex machina artifice imposed upon the competitors--the losing team must boot one of its members--hardly reflects real-life moral decisions. True castaways would surely go to extraordinary lengths to save as many of their number as possible from death.

"Survivor" is really no more than a Sociology 101 experiment. It's fascinating for the reason all compelling drama is: because adversity brings out both the strengths and weaknesses of human character, and tells a story about who we are.

What does "Survivor," whose beaches are populated with people a lot like you and me, reveal about human nature?

1. Hierarchy is necessary for society to thrive.
Richard, a gay corporate trainer, attempted to organize the Tagi when they first hit the beach, telling them they would stand a better chance of winning if they worked under some sort of direction and order.

Everybody went his or her own merry way (contemporary Americans seem to have no idea how to relate to authority). By Episode 4, though, Richard emerged as a natural leader. He proved his worth to the tribe and gained the trust of others by catching fish and helping plan their winning strategies in competitions. The Pagong, by contrast, have no informal tribal chief, and their disarray keeps hurting them.

The Pagong are all a cute, happy-go-lucky bunch of best friends. Yet the increasingly demoralized Pagong can't get their act together, while the Tagi, for all the conflicts sparked by their strong personalities, are building a winning momentum -- probably because they're letting the most capable member run things without seeming to. Richard's a sneaky one, though. A budding conspiratorial gambit he's hatched to rid the tribe of its weaker members may backfire, and he may suffer for his hubris. But isn't life like that?

2. The rules of urban yuppie civilization don't apply everywhere.
Stacey, a Tagi tribeswoman and a San Francisco lawyer by profession, spent the first two episodes pouting over the macho gruffness of Rudy, a retired Navy SEAL. She plotted with other women to vote him off the island because he was "mean." Susan, a working-class Tagi tribeswoman from small-town Wisconsin, who no doubt has learned a few things about real life that have evaded an urban bourgeois like Stacey, knew that it would be foolish and unrealistic to dismiss a strong man so early in the game simply because he was difficult. The kvetchy Stacey, who had been mistakenly counting on Susan's secret vote to oust Rudy, got the ax instead.

3. Survival requires wit as well as competence.
In a survival situation, you would think the strong and the technically skilled would outlast the weak. Not always.

Barky B.B.'s construction smarts and work ethic were initially valued by the Pagong, but his lack of emotional intelligence got him voted off the second week. By contrast, Richard, whose initial uppitiness marked him as a prime candidate for exile, learned quickly to assert himself more gently, leading by example and persuasion.

4. If you don't chip in, you'll be booted out.
Ramona, a black female chemist, has been the chronic Pagong sourpuss. She wouldn't eat their food for the first week and laid about while everyone else worked. She felt alienated from the tribe and hinted that racism was present. She caught the spirit of things by Day 10, but it was too late. The Pagong removed her Wednesday night.

On future episodes, it seems likely that the next members to go will be the do-nothings who still choose to play games while others work. Most appalling is Sean, of the Tagi tribe. The doofus recently spent five hours making a bowling alley for himself while two of the women searched the forest for food. Don't think this went unnoticed.

Don't defer to natural authority, but to a leader that is wise and capable. Adapt to your environment. Use your head as much as your hands. Don't be a slacker or a shirker. Learn to play well with others.

All this and barbecued rat too. What's wrong with that?

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus