The Little Picture: `Real World’ shadow darkens `Survivor II’

Apr 23, 2001  •  Post A Comment

You’re somewhere in America and you pick up the local phone book. You call a number of people at random-let’s say 16-and ask them to come downtown and bring their resumes. When they arrive, you see that 12 of them are obviously young and good-looking, with great teeth and lots of personality. Looking over their resumes, you see that two of the 16 currently work in television, another works in radio, one is pursuing an acting career, one used to be a model and another is trying to get famous any way he can.
Where do you think you might be? Studio City? Westwood? The East Village?
Try Survivorville.
Even most studio lots would seem positively bohemian compared with the eugenically correct group of castaways on the current version of “Survivor.” At least during the original “Survivor” last summer, most of the contestants were folks you could imagine bumping into in your neighborhood.
Like B.B. Andersen, the guy who didn’t get along with anyone and was quickly tossed off Pulau Tiga. He lives about 3 miles down State Line Road from me. A rugged-looking fellow of 63, B.B. ran a construction firm. Sure, he had a lot of money and lived on a gorgeous estate. And granted, not everyone can call on the head of one of the city’s top advertising firms, as B.B. did, for help with his “Survivor” application. (The slick-looking package they created, I’m told, would put many a professional media kit to shame.)
Still, you don’t see people like B.B. Andersen on TV, at least not outside of “Diagnosis Murder.” That was true of most of the original “Survivor” group. So isn’t it interesting that the show’s producers got 40,000 more applications for “Survivor II” than they did for the original “Survivor” and couldn’t find a crew nearly as ordinary, either in looks or in deeds?
What happened to “Survivor” between its first and second versions is that it matured into a purer form of the so-called “reality” show that is modeled on MTV’s “The Real World,” a post-teen angstfest that to this day shapes every reality program on television.
From “Temptation Island” to “The Mole” to “Chains of Love” (which, by the way, is no better or worse than the rest of them), they all lean heavily on the “Real World” formula: glamorous people talking to the camera in between contrived clashes with other glamorous people. That so many shows have sprung from this one archetype,
I think, does not bode well for a quick resolution of the imminent writers and actors strikes. We hear a lot about the virtues of fine writing and acting on television these days. Can’t deny that. But a lot of scripted TV is terribly formulaic. So is “Survivor.”
Because “Survivor” and all the other reality shows are formulaic, they are predictable. Like scripted TV shows, they are heavily edited and carefully choreographed so that they build to a climax just in time for the next commercial break.
The beautiful people you see on those commercials are nearly indistinguishable from the beautiful people on the shows that bracket them. That goes for “Survivor,” “Popstars” and especially “Temptation Island,” which is already slated to return to the Fox lineup this fall.
The networks know all this. They also know that more of us have cable TV, and are watching it, than ever before. The day is fast approaching when more than half the viewing public at any hour is tuned to cable. The strike will probably hasten that day. Many of the scripted shows on cable will go on because they’re nonunion. But what should really be worrying the writers and actors is how much reality programming is now on cable, which also is gaining ground, in particular, with the genres that scripted TV used to own: doctor shows, cop shows and lawyer shows.
I’m not saying the public and the networks won’t miss scripted shows when they go away. I’m just not sure how much they’ll miss them, especially if the networks can churn out a steady supply of facsimiles using reality templates and a seemingly endless supply of ordinary folks.
“Ordinary.” Ha! Did you notice that the two million-dollar winners on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” the other week were both former “Jeopardy!” champions? How many former “Jeopardy!” champions live in your neighborhood?
To paraphrase the old joke, it’s very hard to be real, but once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.