February 23, 2003
Making 'Survivor' a Real Survival Test
By TOM FONTANA
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
â€” heathens that we are â€” 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
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
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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