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Empty, dull, phony and popular


When CBS’s sensational series “Survivor” -- about 16 volunteers isolated for 39 days on an off-Borneo island, allegedly living off the land and eliminating their weaker members until only one is left -- is studied in graduate school English courses and deconstructed at the annual meetings of the Modern Language Association, the scholars will focus on its literary antecedents.

Like Mark Twain’s story “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” a satire of the Gilded Age, wherein a stranger promises a sack of gold to the unknown townsperson who aided him some years before, if the benefactor can identify himself. The competition for the gold reveals a town full of liars.

Or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where the prospectors fight among themselves until the wind blows their gold dust away. Or The Lord of the Flies, where the island isolation reduces innocent children to barbarians. Or Death of A Salesman, where Willie Loman hectors his sons to “be well liked,” as if this were the greatest of American commandments.

Or my favorite, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, “The Five Orange Pips” -- on film, “The House of Fear” -- where members of a club who meet in a Scottish mansion on a cliff are horribly murdered one after the other until only one is left.

Around 18 million people, mostly in the desired under-50 age group, watch “Survivor” every Wednesday night. What it has going for it is not quality but the archetypes it evokes. Especially if we are 16 years old.

A generation ago, CBS was the proudly adult network. Its news and documentaries presumed adult intelligence in its audience. Now it lusts for young viewers. It has aimed “Survivor” at the values and questions that most involve the 16-year-old mind: What if nobody likes me? How do I look in a bathing suit? When do we eat? Do I have to eat that? Why do we have to put up with those old people? And what if nobody likes me?

If the reader has been in a coma for a month and missed the deluge of hype surrounding the show, this cross section of Americans must live in this tropical wilderness, divided into two “tribes” that compete in CBS-contrived games that, in the competitive spirit of ABC’s “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire,” win points for their teams. But every few days the CBS facilitator calls the tribe together for the solemn ritual of expelling the weakest member of the group. At the end, the one man or woman left -- the survivor -- gets 1 million dollars.

If “Millionaire” is the pop culture epitome of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era’s odd “prosperity,” which has multiplied millionaires and left the poor behind, “Survivor” speaks for the only political and moral values that seem to count. Although the tabloid articles give us their full names, hometowns, occupations and ages, we know virtually nothing about the participants. We do know that each wants that sack of gold and must spend every minute manipulating the others, forming alliances, zeroing in on the perceived weaknesses of others, betraying alliances at the strategic moment, perhaps offering bribes -- whatever it takes, just so No. 1 is left standing alone on the beach with the gold.

If it is immoral to put persons in a situation where they will inevitably sacrifice whatever integrity they have, CBS has given prime time a show more immoral than the sex-and-violence junk on the other networks. Perhaps deliberately, it is also a parody of the presidential campaign, where the two “tribes” go through the motions of some meaningful activity, bumping one another off through the summer, with the most “Clintonesque” survivor standing alone in his shorts.

Based on the two episodes I’ve seen, “Survivor” is also one of the emptiest, dullest, phoniest pieces of popular entertainment I’ve ever beheld. Allegedly the cast members live in crude shelters they have built themselves and eat nothing but what they harvest or catch, while a few yards away, the ever-present TV crews, producers and publicists enjoy their high-tech compound. Two episodes have centered on eating -- chowing down ugly maggot-like worms and cooking the local rats. Yet the young men and women have retained their healthy, muscular -- one portly -- physiques.

The film editing, done long after the events depicted, gives us no idea how the members actually spend their empty days, other than gossiping about one another. Since each episode is constructed to build suspense for the “tribal council” meeting where someone gets axed, we’re treated to shots of likely candidates to set us up for the climax.

Others take on a few distinguishing characteristics. Dirk, 24, who reads the Bible, tells us he is sexually inexperienced. Tension. Susan says she’s sick of him preaching Jesus. Furthermore, CBS has provided the participants with condoms; whether and how they are used will be the subject of future episodes or the “inside story” books and articles. Will homophobia destroy the gay character, Rich, or will he demonstrate gay assimilation into the larger society?

Meanwhile, these fit young men and women tell the cameras that they will vote to expel purely on the basis of each person’s contribution to the welfare of the group. So they dumped two of the oldest first and almost eliminated the third.

As things are going, it is hard to imagine anything other than an ugly end. When two are left standing, the eliminated will be brought back to cast the final vote. Even then, how can there be anything but bitterness when one walks off with a million and the others with snake bites and skin cancer and shattered hopes of TV and Hollywood contracts?

There is an answer. I hesitate to reveal it here because some people don’t want to know story endings before they happen.

I’m told that the last survivor with a conscience on the CBS board of directors had a visitation from the ghost of Edward R. Murrow, granted leave from Great Correspondents Heaven to stop this show before it got worse.

As a result, the editors and producers have re-scrambled the footage for the final episode, based on “The House of Fear.” In that film, Sherlock Holmes deduces that the murdered club members faked their deaths in an ingenious insurance fraud. They’re all alive in a cave under the cliff.

Remember how each Wednesday night a humiliated castaway was forced to snuff out his/her candle -- “The tribe has spoken!” -- and shuffle off into the darkness? Well, they never left. They were moved secretly to a CBS-Marriott resort on the far side of the island where they lived high, ate well and prepared their retribution. Those earlier post-exile TV appearances on CBS News and “Larry King Live”? Faked. In the last minute, when the super-political, smooth talking, back-stabbing last survivor thinks he/she has triumphed, the full tribe will emerge from the jungle, condemn the “winner” for his/her deceptions, divide half the prize money equally among them all and give the other half to poor people.

Now, don’t tell anyone who wants to be surprised. But remember, you read it here first.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is schroth@murray.fordham.edu

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000