Well, you knew it was coming. Not merely that “Survivor: The Australian Outback” is leading the pack as the world’s most watched television show, but that it’s a strange new kind of morality play. The competitors — all mostly young, impressionable men and women — are engaged in games of lying, cheating, and deception. And who ever wins, wins.
There doesn’t seem to be any honor or moral compunction among about a dozen participants in this gang of attractive young people marooned somewhere in the Australian Outback. There are no real friendships — the competitors lie and cheat each other to take the lead in this amoral tug of war. Each player systematically engages in knowing deceit to defeat his competitors. This is the way the game is played, for the inspection of some 29 million television viewers.
There is no running water in that part of the Outback. No electricity. No sewage lines. But was it all great fun?
The Outback uniform is bathing suits of one sort or another, giving the place the rough appearance of a vacation spot. Except that everything is lacking: food, water, shelter. The rough living is taken differently by the various participants, some accommodating themselves more easily than others. One says he’d rather be shot dead than set foot in the place again.
In all, 49,000 people enlist for either phase one or phase two of this great adventure. The selection team picks some two weeks worth of competitors. At the end of each week, one of the participants is voted out of the game, a ritual that is repeated each week. “Survivor II” started after “Super Bowl XXXV,” and CBS sold a one-day record of $200 million in ads.
The professions of the contestants are systematically variegated: army officer, corrections officer, footwear designer, TV production director and bartender, married with one daughter, web-page designer, fitness trainer, would-be actress, body-building champion, chef. The winner takes home $1 million ($530,000 after taxes)
In Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” which is the archetype for “Survivor,” (and also of course for Tom Hanks’ hugely successful film “Cast Away”) the hero has an incomparably rougher time than the participants in the new television version. In the new version (and here what one sees today is a far cry from the original), the game players are surrounded by an extensive television crew, usually discreetly invisible. The game players — a fine looking bunch of Americans — for not one moment seem engaged in a life-or-death struggle which is the center of Defoe’s drama.
Another part of the Defoe story that is absent from its new version is morality. Our shipwrecked Englishman from another age organizes life on his island according to the moral principles he has brought from home–including a strong belief in a divine being. In “Survivor II,” there are no references to a divine being. The ruling belief seems to be an ardent desire to win that million dollars. And to win the million dollars, the participants in this great contest are willing to lie, cheat, and betray even those teammates in the cutback to whom they have sworn undying friendship.
So as a morality tale, “Survivor II” leaves a good bit to be desired. The consistent principle of the great survival adventures — whether in the Arctic or the tropics (such as the original “Robinson Crusoe”) — has always been courage and honor. But this, after all, is television.