February 23, 2003

Making 'Survivor' a Real Survival Test


ANY of us who write and produce television's comedies and dramas deal with "reality" shows in the same way that ninth-century Romans dealt with the advancing Saracens: we stand frozen in abject terror, helpless and hopeless, praying — heathens that we are — for divine intervention.

Some of my more rational colleagues counsel patience. They believe that network executives, desperate for the quick fix, will program so many of these shows that viewers will grow bored and long for the comfort of "Friends" and the pathos of "The West Wing."

As for me, I don't think the death of shows like "Survivor," "The Bachelor" and "Fear Factor" will come anytime soon. And in the meantime, their producers will be forced to continually reinvent these shows, to up the stakes. The best way to do that: play on our fears and prejudices.

We're already seeing the first examples. "Survivor: The Amazon" is currently pitting "the men" against "the women," a highly promotable concept that dates back at least to the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King tennis match in 1973.

On the one hand, this war between the sexes allows us to take pride in our own gender. On the other, it exploits one of the many fault lines along which our country divides. Yes, "Survivor" is only an entertainment, but the show's thrust this season stimulates a kind of primal, potentially angry, dialogue.

As the "reality" producers are discovering, the appetite for such stimuli is never sated. The public demands a bigger rush, a wilder ride. Say . . .

SURVIVOR: PROVINCETOWN Gays versus straights in a summer version of the show. Extra points for best costume. Hosts: the cast of "Queer as Folk" and Clint Eastwood.

SURVIVOR: SELMA Blacks versus whites, competing for cash and positions of importance; tactics include affirmative action and voter fraud. Hosts: Oprah Winfrey and Strom Thurmond (Trent Lott will be standing by).

SURVIVOR: GETTYSBURG The North versus the South, in a long-awaited rematch. Challenges include a Stephen Foster song duel, a Rhett Butler look-alike contest and the occasional draft riot. Hosts: Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

SURVIVOR: THE VATICAN Wayward priests versus pubescent boys. A tribal council of church officials hands out quiet transfers or cash settlements. Hosts to be named, pending litigation.

SURVIVOR: DEATH ROW The Department of Justice versus A.C.L.U. lawyers Contestants who are voted off the island do not appear the next day on "The Early Show." Hosts: John Ashcroft and Barry Scheck.

SURVIVOR: THE HUMAN GENOME Genetic scientists versus the religious right. Prize: control of the future of the species. Hosts: Stephen Hawking and Ralph Reed.

SURVIVOR: BAGHDAD George W. Bush versus Saddam Hussein. This sequel to the popular "Survivor: Kabul" is already in production. Hosts: Bill O'Reilly and Susan Sontag.

But I digress.

I've never met any of the people who make "reality" shows. I'm sure they're perfectly decent, with high mortgages, active libidos and play dates. And I'm equally sure that they think of us creative types as whiners, geeks and drama queens.

After much brain-racking, I have come to realize that the only way to solve this problem is to do a show called "Survivor: Hollywood." The reality guys would pick six of their brightest and best and we'd send in Dick Wolf, Alan Ball, David Chase, Diane English and the Charles brothers. We could set the whole thing on Dead Man's Curve.

And I'll bet my next residual check that when the smog cleared, not one of those "reality" producers would be left standing. You see, like the citizens of Rome, television's dramas and comedies have survived more than 50 years of assault, from variety shows and bowling for dollars, from the W.W.F. and the XFL, from four nights of "Dateline" and that scary English woman on "The Weakest Link." We are nothing if not resilient.

"Fiction," after all, can do something that "reality" can't: no one ever cried watching the end of an episode of "The Mole."

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