Game Show Darwinism

Times change, and also undeniably, not always for the better, though often the shift in values and the collective psyche of the populace is almost imperceptible.  How else does one explain the phenomenon of a television show like Survivor, and its sequel in the Australian outback?

So, once again, off we go, four down, twelve to go, for those who care, to see who will be the winner that walks away with a prize of a million dollars.  A headline in the New York Post tellingly read, just before last season's final episode, "Survivor Mania Grips the Nation."  

Game show Darwinism has definitely hit the mainstream, as evidenced by NBC expanding its hit show Friends to 40 minutes, with a special segment of Saturday Night Live thrown in, to go head to head with Survivor II on CBS.  Yes, the preoccupation and obsession with winner takes all apparently has superseded everything else.  But on a deeper level, one can't help wondering if anyone is better off.  Is it fantasy, harmless entertainment, or reality, conveying a not too subtle message about what it takes to come out on top?

Just as the nature of Presidential conventions, not to mention campaigns, has changed over the past 30 years, with messages and images replacing substance and fact as the electronic age zips information willy-nilly from screen to screen, so, too, have the underlying values of network television shows.  Not that anyone should raise questions of censorship, but we may very well have met the enemy, and the enemy is indeed us.

Survivor has permeated pop culture, and whether it's transient, a blip signifying 15 minutes of fame for a chosen few, the message is still there: Greed pays. Money counts, individuals are secondary, if not superfluous, and one has to do whatever it takes to survive, which, ultimately, means winning.  It's simple, really, everyday life reduced to a zero sum game.

One can't help contrasting Survivor with another popular television show about an island of castaways, Gilligan's Island, which aired from 1964 to 1967. Although Gilligan's Island may not have been so popular when it first hit network television, over the years and decades, it has retained a loyal, devoted following.  It would seem that Gilligan, the Skipper, Ginger and Mr. Howell will be remembered long after the momentary pseudo celebrities on Survivor II, including the final winner, won't even qualify as answers to a question in the board game Trivial Pursuit.

But what would happen if Gilligan's Island had accepted the premise of Survivor?  It may not have depicted harsh reality but Gilligan's Island represented the nuclear family long before the term dysfunctional became popular.  Family members might fight and bicker, but it was still family, and in most cases there wasn't a weekly meeting around the dinner table to systematically vote a member out of the family.

The primary goal of Gilligan's Island, although unobtainable because the show would end, was for the castaways to be rescued, not to receive immunity from being voted off at the weekly tribal council or having a slice of pizza delivered by helicopter as a special treat.

Survivor, on the other hand, allows the viewing audience to vicariously cheer the subterfuge, manipulation, lying and betrayal that whittles the original contestants on the island down to one.  Which island, or world, would one really want to live in if there was a choice?  The answer should be Gilligan's Island, unless, of course, one thought there was a good chance of walking away with the one million dollar prize by competing on Survivor.

Gilligan's Island was played for laughs, maybe hokey, maybe with stereotypical characters representing segments of society, but in the end, petty jealousies and squabbles never gave way to ruthless attempts at elimination.  Gilligan's Island was a family in a sometimes hostile world.  Survivor is each of us in a hostile world surrounded by everyone as a potential enemy.

One picks up the newspaper these days and each previous Survivor episode is given weekly in-depth analysis as if one were following coverage of a NFL team during the regular season.  Who did what, who should have done what, was that a successful strategy, who's aligned with whom, and who will remained aligned with whom, and actually when you get down to it, who cares?

Survivor represents a return to the old pre-World War One balance of power system with all the treachery and secret deals beneath the surface leading to a cataclysmic explosion when truth is finally revealed and everyone is too hopelessly caught up within the complicated labyrinth that negates rational behavior.

The winner of Survivor II, just like Richard Hatch before, the winner of the first Survivor, will be praised for deviousness and the monomaniacal attributes that allow one to have a good chance of consolidating power in a totalitarian state.  The consummate power politician, the end justifies the means, at the expense of the individual, of those less fortunate.  If, for whatever reason, one can't pull his or her weight, oblivion is the inevitable answer.

And what would happen on Gilligan's Island if the show had ever adapted Survivor's format?  Contrary to possible viewer popularity, it seems likely that Gilligan would be the first to go.  Nothing personal, everyone liked him, it's just that he stood in the way of the prize, and who cares about expendable Gilligan when there might be a million dollar payoff.

So, while many tune into Survivor on Thursday evenings, those who don't, preferring Friends or the talking heads on cable news networks, or maybe even reading a book, won't miss a thing, the results will be spread out across papers in the land as if the outcome, which contestant was the latest voted out, was a major news event worthy of such extended coverage.

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