Why 'Survivor' Left Me Feeling Sad and Dirty

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I loved the cheesy paganism of "Survivor" — the torches, the "tribes," the Trader Vic decor. But the whole thing left you — didn't it? — with a slightly stupid, unclean feeling. The real winners were the people who thought the thing up in the first place and collected billions from advertisers. Otherwise, it seems to me, there clung to this 15-minute summer phenomenon an obscure sense of shame.

Maybe I am making too much of mere piffle. But there was something disturbing about it. The winner, Rich, was a creep with dead eyes. So was the runner-up, Kelly. They knew what the game was about; they knew they were being used and corrupted. Everyone on the island knew that. The contestants, all but naked, were diving for pennies thrown from a cruise ship by laughing idiots in plaid trousers.

The point of "Survivor" had nothing to do with anything as urgent or interesting as survival; the point of "Survivor" was a million bucks. It is human nature to do crappy things, if necessary, for a million dollars, and human nature to feel lousy about it when you have done them. Hence the dead eyes. I hope the audience also had the grace to feel guilty about watching what was essentially a display of humiliating avarice, tricked up with vulgar Joseph Campbell pseudo-ritual — "Typee" as a sitcom. Loathsome junk.

In the famous Milgrim experiments some years ago at Yale, subjects were directed to administer what they were told were painful jolts of electricity to other subjects arrayed behind a one-way mirror. No real electricity was used, of course; but the subjects of the study, holding the "power controls" in their hands, did not know that. The point of the experiment was to show how casually and amorally cruel ordinary people could be to others, for no more reason than the supposed instructions of test psychologists. Well, the people on the island had a better reason to behave badly. If they were cunning enough about screwing the others, they'd get the money.

Was this supposed to be a lesson in human behavior? "Survivor" was like another short-lived craze, "The Blair Witch Project," about several very stupid young people lost in the woods without a compass. No merit badges awarded in that troop. No merit badges, and no moral compass, on the island either.

In Vermont towns of two hundred years ago, the residents would sometimes issue what they called a "warning out." This was a formal notice that a person, or a family, was not wanted in the town and would have to leave, for whatever reason. Ostracism is an old, sometimes brutal instrument of tribal discipline. But I doubt the Vermonters were ever goaded into such cruelty by television producers dangling a million dollars.

The moral of "Survivor" is emphatically not that you have to cheat and deceive in order to win the game. The moral is that you have to be careful — you have to be wise — in choosing what game you are going to play. And why.