Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Eye of the Tiger

By Belinda Acosta

JUNE 12, 2000:  Let me tell you why TV and summers don't mix for me. I'm a Midwesterner. Midwesterners are calibrated for seven (or more) months of cold weather, nose-to-the-grindstone, followed by that joyful return of three precious months of outdoor play. Of my happy childhood memories, my favorite is lying in a remote park in Lincoln, Nebraska, pillars of emerald cottonwood trees waving like sultry hula girls, while I lay on the grass watching them, my thoughts sailing by like those lustrous Nebraska clouds across a dazzling blue sky. There wasn't a TV in sight.

Back in the day, prime-time television was mostly reruns, and I simply had no interest in watching a heat-radiating box in an unairconditioned house when I could slurp popsicles on the stoop.

My problem is, I never outgrew summer vacation. I want my summer vacation!

Television isn't completely absent from my memories of youthful summers. Unfortunately, it's tied to memories of a difficult puberty. Menstruation arrived as a screaming wench throwing a tantrum between my pelvis, so I was sometimes house-bound in the summer, munching those useless Midols and weepily watching daytime TV in a daze. Pain was a hallucinogen, and what was on TV transformed into a miasmic funhouse I hovered in and out of. Big Bird was a showgirl. Phil Donahue was Yoda in a suit. Eileen Fulton (of As the World Turns) was the Queen of Hearts. The then-pudgy Oprah Winfrey was an ebullient Dolly Levi. Barnabus Collins was a vampire. Oh wait ... he was a vampire (in Dark Shadows).

Things have changed a bit since then. For one thing, an icy rum and Coke happily replaces those tongue-staining popsicles. On television, it's not all drab reruns, especially if you have cable television. But summer still brings me a sense of restlessness, a need to withdraw from the routinized world of work, work, work and ponder the direction of my life. Call it navel gazing, if you will. But with the season premiere of The Real World: New Orleans (6/13 on MTV) and the debut of the newest reality drama, Survivor on CBS, I've been thinking how navel gazing and voyeurism are linked. Do "reality" shows and confessional Web sites that make the personal public cater to a desire for introspection under the guise of voyeurism? Or is it the other way around?

If you haven't heard of Survivor by now, this is the premise: Sixteen contestants are stranded on a remote island in the middle of the South China Sea. They are divided into two "tribes" named for the beaches they inhabit, the Pagong Tribe and the Tagi Tribe. The teammates must learn to live on the island, get along with each other, and participate in challenges against the other team. Short-term prizes are waterproof matches, candy bars, and canned food. The long-term prize, depending on who can withstand island life without getting voted off by their teammates, is a million dollars.

Part game show, part reality show meets Gilligan's Island with a shot of Lord of the Flies, Survivor is a surprising addition to CBS's mostly stodgy programming. Unlike most reality shows, Survivor contestants include people from across generations, not just twentysomethings. There's an even break between men and women, and two African-Americans bring a sense of diversity -- unless they get voted off the island. According to the Survivor Web site, the two made a pact not to vote each other out.

On-camera host Jeff Probst introduces viewers to the episode and presides over the challenge matches and tribal council meetings (where a teammate gets axed). The highly contrived rituals of both the challenges and the council meetings are enough to keep any person studying popular culture yakking for weeks.

In spite of its contrivances, Survivor sucked me in, along with a large portion of the viewing audience. On its series premiere last Wednesday, Survivor pulled a large share of the coveted 18-49 demographic group away from ABC's Who Wants To Be a Millionaire during its first half-hour, according to Nielsen reports. It lost viewers in the second half-hour but still managed to hold its own in the ratings. Just what is the attraction of this and other reality shows?

First off, how real are these shows to begin with? Although they all provide on-camera moments for participants to say their piece to the camera, the fact remains that the camera (and all those faces behind the camera) determines what the viewer sees -- how events, comments, and relationships are defined, and how we as viewers feel about what we see and hear. It's not that I deny the manipulation of the camera in other forums. I don't like the fact that in the reality show, at a certain level, I'm not supposed to question the reality set before me. You either watch these reality shows as an alternate form of fiction, or you devour it wholesale. I prefer the former ... or the latter. You see, it's hard to say. If you insist on watching these shows with complete awareness, you ruin the fun.

On the other hand, the subjects are not hapless meat puppets either. Characters and participants can "play" to the camera in an effort to capture camera time (think of Amaya in RW: Hawaii or Irene in RW: Seattle). In other words, in this alternate form of fiction, the characters help build their storyline. In Survivor, playing to the camera is not as important as playing to each other, since it's the teammates, not the viewers (hey, that's a thought ...) who vote off their fellow castaways.

Still, I got sucked into Survivor. I was aghast when 62-year-old Sonja Christopher became the first person cast off the island. Sure, she struggled during the challenge match and probably cost her team the victory. But on those long nights fighting off rats, they're going to miss her and her ukulele. How do I know she wasn't a screaming harpy off-camera, that she wasn't rounding up rats Pied Piper-style with that uke and siccing them on her teammates? I don't. All I know is that she was presented to me as a charming older woman, in a way that made me care about her. Now that she's been kicked off that rat-infested island, I hope she's throwing back mimosas with her feet up, her brim low, and the sea breeze tickling her skin.

Perhaps reality shows suck viewers in because we don't have time to contemplate the details of our lives. Between work, and school, and kids, and multi-tasking, boorish bosses, tiresome co-workers, cell phone chats on the go, and bills, bills, bills, we -- it can't be just me -- have worked our way to Day-Timer hell. Getting involved in the "real" lives of someone else only takes 30 minutes. Contemplation lite.

Since part of my work world includes watching TV, I'll watch Survivor and the other reality shows, get sucked in, pull back, write about them, get sucked in again, and wonder if those cottonwoods in Nebraska are still standing. Oh well. Thank goodness for A/C and Crown Royal.

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