When it was Worth Playing For: My Experiences Writing About the TV Show, ‘Survivor’
© 2015 Mario Lanza
Once upon a time, there was a show called Survivor, which promised to chuck sixteen Americans on an island and give $1,000,000 to the last man or woman standing. Or so Mario Lanza thought. Turns out the show was more like high school meets the World’s Worst Camping Trip (with narration!), but it still fascinated people from a psychological point of view. After all, CBS was going to be encouraging sociopathy on live television. Who wouldn’t want to watch it? (They tune into elections every four years, don’t they?) Sure enough, its finale would be one of the most-watched shows in television history, rivaling those of sitcoms which had cultivated audiences over a span of decades. Mario Lanza was watching Survivor from the beginning, and found it so interesting he had to write about it, eventually being partner in a site that featured a Survivor contestant as a writer. In When the Game Was Worth Playing, Lanza reviews the first three series — the ‘pure’ ones — highlighting the most extraordinary moments as the game evolved. Those ‘moments’ aren’t just ones witnessed onscreen, as central to Lanza’s writing is the fan experience, the gossiping and spoilers — and he also includes a few tales from the production side, having interviewed several contestants.
What Lanza quickly realized about Survivor, especially during season two, was that it wasn’t so much a story as a confluence of them — at least seventeen, those of the contestants and those of the producers. Survivor is not reality television, Lanza says by way of the producers, but ‘unscripted drama’: the show’s producers create storylines out of the contestants’ camera footage. More than one villain has been created solely through judicious editing. This is always done in the name of better television, of course, creating drama to stave off boredom. (Or creating the pretense of drama, as with the constant previews that the dominating Tagi alliance was fracturing, or that Kucha in Australia were on the verge of an epic comeback.) Lanza comments at length on moments when the game changed — the ambush of Gretchen demonstrating that this was a game of ruthless politics, where those outside the power alliance were doomed regardless of their survival skills or personableness. But Lanza’s theme is the fan experience, and he contends that the second season can’t be appreciated without the first — for there the players were attempting to differentiate themselves from the original contestants. Derided as merely the “new” incarnations of favorite characters — Mad Dog as the new Rudy, Elisabeth as the new Colleen — and unhappy with the Machiavellian triumph of the Tagi alliance — Colby, Tina, and others tried to make it to the end with their honor intact. I didn’t begin watching Survivor until Thailand, and so especially enjoyed this glimpse into the speculative life of the fans in the first few seasons of the game, constantly teased as they were by the producers’ tricks. (A graphic of the ‘final four’ was released that proved to have nothing to do with the actual final four) Also of interest is Lanzo’s speculation as to how the third season altered every Survivor which followed. It introduced twists, which the producers use to squelch power-alliances from running amok, and led to a return to more predictable island settings that didn’t actually jeopardize contestants’ lives. According to Lanza, one Australia player — not just Mike Fall in a Fire Skupin — was airlifted out for malnutrition.
While I haven’t watched Survivor since the days of Guatemela and Fiji, I knew from the moment I saw this book that I’d enjoy it. I discovered Lanza’s writing years ago, via his Survivor Funny 115, and have revisited that list of Survivor’s 115 funniest moments several times since. Not only that, but I have DVD copies of Borneo and Australia and have watched them both….several times. I know who wins each and every challenge, but I still like to watch them for the sheer goofiness. How can you beat Greg Buis bursting into “Who Knows?” from West Side Story, or running around the beach after discovering a bloody chicken corpse, demanding to know who counted the chicken before it hatched? I’m therefore an utterly biased audience, one who stayed up until 2 am to finish the book and didn’t even care so much about the time. Definitely a fun one for Survivor fans.
Psst, in joke: the first sentence of my review for Lord of the Flies was taken straight from Jeff Probst’s intro Survivor Borneo, with a little adaption.