Dec 042014

I love Survivor and have been watching (without logging) past seasons that I haven’t seen before. At this point, I’ve seen all but a few of the early ones.

Most have been been pretty good, and as a rule, the show keeps getting better. Last year’s first “Blood v. Water” offered some of the most interesting television I’ve seen in years. The only season I’ve started but not watched through to the end was the abysmally bad “Guatemala.” An earlier favourite was “Gabon.”

Jeff Probts likes to call Survivor a “social experiment,” and he’s right, but what I’m most interested in is that it’s also a narrative experiment. How do you cull a story from a mass of footage shot in loosely structured but unscripted moments. This is not documentary. It can’t wander, can’t discover some quirky way to present its materials. Its end point is fixed. Together, the episodes must tell an evolving story that creates tension and misdirection and that establishes meaningful relationships which should not be simply hostile. These must lead to a satisfying conclusion that endorses the “winner” of the show as legitimate in some fashion.

Yet this clarity and focus has to be achieved using footage of participants who necessarily behave self-consiously within (and speak metacritically about) the narrative they expect they must be acting out. [note]I think it’s the strain of this reflexivity that creates the show’s sense of authenticity: most people can’t seem to maintain the mental and emotional effort this self-consciousness requires and wind up thrown back upon their fundamental resources of character. (Or perhaps, it’s the conflict between this reflexivity and the immediacy of the personal power struggles created by the voting structure that creates the unsustainable strain….) Whatever the case, the strain reads as authenticity.[/note] This situation is complicated by the phenomenon of “favourites”: players who return for multiple seasons, carrying a distinct persona with them that must be showcased and must evolve in an arc across seasons.

In a sense these are all simply variations on the question, how do you make sense of life using narrative. But that’s I guess my fascination: that question is fundamental, and this game-based show tackles it in an interesting, compelling way.

I hope they are archiving the unused footage because someday, someone is going to want to look at what the editors and producers were doing.


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