The creepy Fantasyland of Survivor,
Temptation Island and The Mole
by Robert Lloyd / L.A. Weekly, February 9, 2001

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality
--T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

The bird was wrong: Human kind can‘t get enough reality, at least as currently defined: that is, an edited version of an artificial situation in which people who have no reason to be together come together in a strange, possibly isolated place to abide by certain rules and perform certain tasks that will by design bring them into conflict with other people who have agreed to abide by the same rules and perform the same tasks and whom they otherwise would never have met or perhaps even wanted to. There will more than likely be money involved, and celebrity, though of a fragile sort. Reality, which for these purposes may also be defined as any TV program for which the principal players do not have to be paid AFTRA scale, is everywhere these days -- a worldwide phenomenon in which this country is not even the leader. And you can be sure the suits are hanging loose now in the knowledge that, should the bruited summer strikes shut down the sitcom and drama mills, they can throw a few strangers in their underwear into a cardboard box, turn a camera on them and still get an 11 share.

Survivor was not the first such show -- The Real World created the criteria long ago -- but it is the one that made it all too real. Perhaps the most brilliant thing about that series was the way CBS contrived to make it into news, a current event, even though everything that happened on the show had happened (in the world I like to think of as real) before the first episode aired, and even though none of it was the least bit important. Now comes its sequel, Survivor: The Australian Outback, which is also actually over; it opened big on Super Bowl Sunday (43.6 million viewers), after which it was moved into position on Thursday, like a howitzer, to break the back of the NBC must-see hegemony. (NBC responded, bizarrely, with a 40-minute Friends.) Except for the change of scenery, the new cultural misappropriations (they’re ripping off the Aborigines this time) and the younger and, on average, better-looking players -- sifted from more than 49,000 applicants -- who have the advantage of having seen how the first series played out, the present Survivor is pretty much the same as the last: same host, same million-dollar jackpot, same land-water obstacle-course races, same bug-eating contests, same silly lexicon (“tribal council,” “immunity idol,” “voting confessional”), same idiot face-painting, same displays of flesh, same Adventureland props, same ponderous use of slo-mo, same pretense that something deep and quasireligious is going on though the show is assembled and edited to make hay of even the most petty discord and spite, and, naturally, the same morning-after clockwork rotation of losers onto the CBS Early Show. It is just about as watchable as the original, more scenic, and just as annoying.

I feel a little P.C. in pointing out that there are people who actually live in the sort of “hostile” environments Survivor invades, and who aren‘t afraid of the snakes or spiders, and do not gag when eating grubs or grasshoppers, because that’s just lunch. But there is a bad smell of cultural superiority about these shows, or anyway a perverse sort of tourism. And now Britain‘s Channel 4 has just sent an English family to live in a mud hut in rural Swaziland for African Village, where they will live like Africans -- and learn, what? That they’re happier at home in a house than in a mud hut in Africa? That it‘s good to be British? Where next, one wonders -- I can see Survivor moving around the globe like a Real World from Hell -- the North Pole? The Gobi Desert? Bosnia? Fifth and Main?

Peter Chernin, president and CEO of News Corp., which owns the Fox Network, home of attacking animals and wild police chases and the new reality game Temptation Island, would doubtless say I protest too much. “There’s been a lot of talk lately about reality programming and a lot of hand-wringing in the press over the so-called sensationalism at the heart of this new genre,” he told a meeting of network affiliates recently. “I just want to say, ‘Get over it. It’s entertainment.‘’‘

Thanks, Pete, whatever: I remember a girl in biology class who really liked pulling the wings off flies. Fox’s Temptation Island is, to Chernin‘s delight I am sure, ”controversial“ -- which is to say, newspapers are writing about it, a few companies have pulled their ads, an FCC commissioner expressed concern that the show not be promoted when children might be watching, and the ever-alarmed Parents Television Council is . . . alarmed. In this cruel and unusual six-episode series, a kind of cross between Survivor and MTV’s Singled Out, four astonishingly imprudent ”committed“ couples journey to a Belize resort where they are separated from their significant others and thrown into figurative tiger pits, one for the boys and one for the girls, each furnished with hot tubs and tropical drinks and a dozen or so barely clad hunks and hotties of the opposite sex. Like old pornography that had to mask its prurience in clinical terms, the show disingenuously comes on as a kind of pre-marital aid, featuring ”people interested in exploring the strengths of their relationships,‘’ in the words of Fox Entertainment Television Group chairman Sandy Grushow -- as if the whole point wasn‘t to get them to cheat, or at least come close. Its basic premise, which on the show’s own evidence may not be far wrong, is that people in their 20s can‘t last two weeks without sex and will therefore transfer affections where convenient. (What’s really crazy is that there‘s no prize money involved, just the opportunity to fuck up one’s life on national TV.) The participants are shown (on videotape, at Survivor-style bonfires) just enough of what their partners are getting up to down the beach to make them angry and nervous.

I‘m not sure the show is immoral -- these are grown-ups, however feckless, and we are grown-ups, too -- but it is nevertheless a wings-off-flies brand of fun: The Cops-like pursuit-by-camera of a crying girl strikes me as tasteless emotional porn. It all seems to be headed where the producers would want it to (although they had to boot one couple for concealing the fact that they had a child), with vows of taking it to the next level and no regrets and such. “Nobody owns anybody. There’s not really such a thing as a boyfriend or girlfriend in a perfect place,” says one young man to one young woman not his girlfriend. Spoken like a dude, dude! Still, I don‘t know how it turns out -- maybe in the good old-fashioned Hollywood way. Or maybe they establish the new Utopia of free love our young man imagines. Or maybe it all goes to shit. In any case, I wish them all luck.

A more innocent reality constitutes The Mole, ABC’s top-rated “entertainment series” this season among the prized 18--34 demographic. In this series, based on a Belgian model that has already been franchised to Holland, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Poland, the U.K. and New Zealand, a team of five men and five women from the usual Variety of Backgrounds play spy, as they are whisked around France and Spain and I-don‘t-know-where-next, from location to scenic James Bond location, on the worst vacation in the world: Everywhere they go, they are made to take tests and solve puzzles and run through mazes and fight bulls and jump from airplanes and play laser tag, earning money for each puzzle they solve or “mission” they complete, while, in Survivor--Big Brother mode, they are whittled away, or “executed,” one by one, week after week. The tricky part is that one of them is a saboteur, out to foil their attempts while keeping hisher cover. Whoever finally unmasks “The Mole” -- and situations are arranged to create red herrings and destroy trust -- gets to keep whatever money the group has earned. The study here is how deeply everyone gets into the game; it’s kind of cute, really, all these grown-ups involved in a kiddie fantasy. They bicker and moan, certainly, but the show is at least not evil -- no more evil than, say, Clue is -- and in the real world according to television, that‘s something to be thankful for.

© Robert Lloyd 2001 and 2011