Every season of CBS's Survivor has to open with a barf shot, and this season was no exception. The spew-scene came before the first commercial break last Thursday night. On a turbulent three hour boat ride to the show's latest extreme landscape, a faceless female character propelled lots of white frothy stuff into a black bucket. Through her mouth, of course.
The barf serves as a reminder that Survivor is coming from the gut (that elemental place from which both power and primitive instincts spring). It typically makes its appearance on the contestants' rough journey to an obligatory exotic locale -- Pulau Tiga, the Australian Outback, Africa, and this season, Nuku Hiva, in the Marquesas Islands near Tahiti.
But in Survivor's particular brand of sadomasochistic TV (SMTV), it seems that vomiting -- visceral though it may be -- isn't enough. Perhaps it doesn't summon the primitive sufficiently for Survivor creator Mark Burnett. So he's also littered his show with stone idols and painted faces, named tribes with indigenous words for animals or elements, and cued in farty didgeridoo music at choice moments. Departing contestants are forced to hold a torch and listen to some hooey about "fire being life" before their flame is snuffed out to the words: "The tribe has spoken." After the contestants have performed their ritual sacrifice of dispatching one member off the show, Survivor host Jeff Probst tells them to "go back and build your world."
It's all very Heart of Darkness. Or Lord of the Flies. Or The Beach. Or any of those narratives where perfectly civilized (white) people get power-hungry and crazy in wild and remote areas. But what Survivor still hasn't figured out is that people don't need the trappings of foreign exoticism to reveal their nasty, "primitive" selves. More than tiki torches and other indigenous gimmickry, the forced hunger, the explosive indigestion, and the promise of money and fame bring out contestants' dark sides.
In the first episode of this latest season, we had all the usual battles. One man, the aptly named Hunter, seized control; the others got together and made fun of him. ("I'm an alpha male, too," said one contender defiantly.) Another tried to win testosterone points by chasing chickens. Sarah wore a tiny, straining bikini to curry favor with the chicken-chaser; the men and women alike made mean, but funny comments about how much money she paid for her "two flotation devices." A chubby older woman wondered if she would be voted off because of her gender, her weight, or her status as a "mama figure." Meanwhile Sean, a teacher from Harlem, New York made noises suggesting that the "more males...the better," for the team.
But this modern, American version of "primitivism" wasn't fully Darwinian: The old and the weak weren't the first to go. Instead it was Peter, with his talk of yoga and seeing truth in others' eyes, who showed that he wasn't going to survive the "new society" that Jeff exhorts the Survivors to build at the beginning of the show. And so he got to return home, while those left on the island will continue to strive -- lying, betraying, and grabbing all the way -- to that acme of achievement, $1 million and commercial endorsements.
The lesson from episode one, then, seems to be this: Maybe not everything that makes us barf has to be imbued with primitivism.
Boston Public, Not Niggardly with its Messages.
Some folks have decided to celebrate Black History Month this year by talking about the word "nigger," it seems.
TAP board member Randall Kennedy's recently released book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, has caught the attention of many, including TV producer David E. Kelley, who decided to dedicate an entire recent episode of Boston Public to exploring the complexity of the word.
Stretched too thin as the executive producer of BP, The Practice and Ally McBeal, Kelley has resorted to such tactics in order to attract attention to his rapidly deteriorating shows. The result was a ham-fisted treatment of an important and provocative topic. In the episode, two teens -- one white, one African American -- throw around the word "nigger" kiddingly, until Andre, another black student, overhears them, becomes angry, and starts a fight. Their white teacher (played by Michael Rappaport) then gets involved, leading to discussion of Kennedy's book, which he assigns in class.
Portions of the show seemed like regurgitated parts of Kennedy's book, which Kelley chose to flog at every possible moment. Each character was assigned a different, stock role: Marla, an African American teacher, declared "no teacher should use that word anywhere, anyplace, especially a white teacher." Andre rejoined: "This book put some things in place for me. This professor. . .he nails it. It's a white supremacist word. . .but by making it our word, [we are] taking the power back..." The white teacher is so blinded by his good intentions, and his "I can do no racial wrong because I'm a liberal white guy" attitude that he can't see why some may object to that word coming out of his mouth.
The episode ends in a fairly decent way -- the white teacher keeps his job, and the harried African American principal Steven Harper, who has struggled so much over the issue that his whole head looks furrowed, leads the class in a discussion of the word. But good TV it wasn't. It's amazing that an episode dedicated to the power of language should be so poorly written.