Sunday, May 17, 2009

Survivor: Undisputed King of "Reality"

I love Survivor. Love it! Never thought, years ago, that I'd hear myself say that, but it is some of the best television available today. And I was one of those people that poo pooed "reality" TV pretty heavily during its genesis. "Real World", "Big Brother", and "Survivor" were all part of the same "watering down" of American culture. None of it was "real" anyway. As an editor I know that a skilled one of my kind, given enough raw footage can tell any story they like, irrespective of "reality." And if you're creating fiction, why not have it be scripted.

I was so wrong. About Survivor at least. Years ago friends talked me into watching it. Begrudgingly I agreed, and I've been hooked ever since. On its surface the show is simple. Strand 18 or so people in some far-off, forbidding landscape without stable food or water supplies and have them battle each other for a million dollars. But that so belies the complexity of the game.

You have competing individual personalities, alliances that shift constantly, back-stabbing and blindsides, deep personal connections between players, as well as colossal disagreements. And what these people are enduring is no boyscout camping trip. I've seen tribes go a week or more with little food and only rainwater to drink. I've seen injuries bad enough that people have had to be removed from the game. And I've routinely seen players come back from facing elimination to winning or nearly winning the game. It's all about strategy and cunning, playing to your strengths, whatever they may be. And knowing yourself. Knowing what you are and aren't capable of. Knowing when to extend yourself, and when to ride the flow. Knowing the sort of player you are, and being able to successfully read the sorts of people you're up against. It is the sort of game that would be extremely fun (and difficult) to play, and is equally as entertaining to watch.

And yes, it is superbly edited. Doing the job, I can imagine what the editors are up against. It would be a blast (and hell) working on that show. They manage to ween 39 days worth of footage into roughly fourteen or fifteen 46 minute long shows. That is a colossal cutting ratio! Quite an endeavor, and one that's brilliantly carried off.

I'm still not a fan of all reality TV. I don't like the shows that play to the worst elements of human nature. Shows that are all spectacle with little or no redeeming qualities. That's the stuff that's watering down American culture. The shows that glorify stupidity, recklessness and callous greed. Survivor is not a member of that cabal.

Survivor is great entertainment, pulling in action, intrigue, sport and physical competition, strategy and mental discipline, wrapping it all up in a very difficult fight for survival. If someone says they dislike the show they've either never watched it, watched only a very small portion with strong preconceptions, or they're communists.

Survivor was one of the first, and it remains a benchmark of what reality television should strive for.

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