Unless you’ve been stranded on a desert island for the last few weeks, you know that the lucky winner of the CBS series Survivor was revealed during its Aug. 23 episode. America’s newest millionaire is the now-famous Richard Hatch, a Machiavellian corporate trainer, of whom we will undoubtedly hear much in the coming weeks, months and, dare I say it, years. Before Mr. Hatch assumed the crown of Sole Survivor, viewers were treated to a variety of TV diversions, including the spectacle of four people covered with dried mud walking barefoot over hot coals in pursuit of one million dollars. (A truer depiction of avarice you will not find in any Hieronymus Bosch painting.)
For me, though, the pièce de résistance was an astonishing speech by one Susan, a Wisconsin-based truck driver, who felt that she had been unfairly duped by Kelly, the other remaining female contestant. When the time came for Susan to pose a question to Kelly, she instead took the opportunity to announce that if Kelly were dying of thirst, she would pass her by andin case any CBS viewers thought they were watching Touched by an Angelallow her to die. Her face a mask of rage, she spat out these words, which she understood would be televised for all to see. (One wonders: if this is what people say on national television, what are their private, unedited thoughts?)
What made Survivor a runaway summer ratings success was, of course, the combination of a clever premise, canny editing, slick marketing, memorable characters and, above all, the luck of being aired during a notoriously slow TV month.
But what made the series so disturbing? Was it the single-minded pursuit of money? No, that had been already covered in greater detail in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, in addition to countless other game shows. (See also USA’s Strip Poker, or rather, don’t see it.) Was it the much-touted cinéma-vérité aspect of the show? No, that’s been done for a number of years on MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules. Was it the ignoble actions of the participants? No, again see The Real World.
Perhaps what made Survivor so disturbing was the utter lack of self-consciousness or embarrassment that attended the contestants’ actions. Admittedly, both viewers and participants understood that Survivor was first and foremost a game, and in a gameas in, say, pokerbluffing and lying are acceptable behavior. But sleazy behavior is sleazy behavior, and Survivor featured words and deeds that went beyond anything that could be explained by mere gamesmanship. In short, there seemed to be a complete lack of shame in the men and women who spent 39 days on Pulau Tiga. Moreover, none of the final contestants made the slightest attempt to apologize for their actions. Instead, as is frequently the case on reality-based shows, participants simply explained away their behavior, vehemently drawing distinctions between themselves and their actions. (I’m not a selfish person, you’ll often hear on The Real World or Big Brother; I just act that way.) Catholics will recognize this as the opposite of what contemporary theologians call virtue ethics.
Even more disturbing was the trend that Survivor spotlighted. In other words, get ready for more reality TV. Nothing seems beyond the pale of producers interested in increasing ratings and marketing revenues. All the networks, facing fierce competition, grow ever more desperate to increase ratings. Word comes, for example, that Court TV is planning a show called Confessions that will consist of taped confessions by murderers and rapists. And since confessions on grainy film might prove too dull, Court TV is also planning to air, on a sort of split screen, a staged re-enactment of the crime. Entertainment for the whole family.
Indeed, Survivor was only the latest example of the gradual coarsening of television. In the most recent MTV Real World series, based in New Orleans, for example, we are presented with David, a callous and egotistic African-American singer. David regularly boasts about being a playa, that is, a person interested in sexual conquests. Again, what is new is not the mindless pursuit of sex, money and power, but the almost total lack of scruples about doing so. In the not-so-distant past, even in the moral wasteland that is The Real World, characters could be counted on, at some point, to express remorse. Now their behavior is not so much tolerated as celebrated. You go, David!
Railing against these trends can make one feel like (a) a prude, (b) a hypocriteif you enjoy, as I do, the occasional South Parkor, more likely (c) King Canute struggling comically to halt the tide. And, after all, it’s just TV. Still, it is difficult to watch these shows and not feel either revulsion or a sense of sadness that this is where our culture has arrived.
Where will this end? Probablywhere else?where it has been heading for years. More reality TV à la Survivor and more programs and commercials designed to shock an increasingly unshockable populace. It will no doubt get coarser before it gets better. So here’s my television teleology: we will see within a few years real-life televised sexual intercourse (does anyone doubt this?), real-life televised executions (just a matter of time) and real-life televised murders (we’ve already watched murders caught by security cameras and will come closer with Confessions). And all of this will be explained away by networks that tout the value of reality.
How sad. Because overall, we could probably survive with a little less reality and a little more morality.