I'm a bit skeptical when a TV show begins a new season, because most don't have anywhere to go after the first one: those O.C. kids can't stay in high school forever, 24's Jack Bauer will eventually take a sick day and surely someone will find those Lost people on Google maps. So how do you treat the twelfth season of a show that pits hungry players against each other in fierce competition for a million bucks? Well, you could try to make them hungrier and fiercer.
With two new twists to the show's format, this version of Survivor (Panama) which premieres tomorrow night, is more mind game than game show. And for out of closet mind game fans like me, the show's new features like "Exile Island," take it back to what made it so appealing in the first place.
If you're like me, watching Survivor has never seemed like a guilty pleasure. In fact, I'll happily argue the opposite to anyone who'll listen: that the show is a brilliantly realized sociological experiment. What is Survivor if not the TV version of the William Golding Lord of the Flies novel you had to read in grade 10, hating your teacher for going over every single darned symbol until the juice was sucked out of it?
'Kill the pig'
But c'mon, it's not just me seeing this stuff. When Survivor: Palau winner Tom Westman killed a shark and impaled its head on a stick for all to see, he was making an all-out, hats off tribute to the book. Sure, Tom could have slaughtered a boar to make the connection even more direct, but you can't really fault a guy for killing a shark with his bare hands.
Granted, the show makes minor alterations from the book: it switches feral choirboys for female twenty-somethings and ditches the conch for an ice-cold glass of Mountain Dew. But above all, Survivor understands the primal dilemma that comes with its premise: will human beings, marooned on a deserted island, be base or civilized? What political system will naturally emerge as the most efficient? Is deserted island sex really as hot as it sounds?
If the latter two items aren't as thoroughly explored as you might hope, blame broadcasters' aversion to televised sex and common sense's aversion to televised politics.
But the first question about the struggle between civility and savagery is constantly at play on the new show, one that Golding himself would be proud of (not to say he wouldn't have an intellectual fascination with Skating with Celebrities)
Old men and Playboy models
Of Survivor's two new changes, I'm less excited about the first. Instead of being separated into two tribes, contestants will be separated into four - old men, old women, young men and future Playboy models. While it sounds like this would increase competitive behaviour, it's really just a calculated way to make sure the old-timers don't get the boot right off the bat. Survivor history has offered few examples of older contestants who display the requisite charming crustiness (Rudy) and gosh-darn huggability (also Rudy) to stay on the show.
Of course, no one's pretending that the new tribal divisions offer any more security. As Golding knew, no matter how you slice it -- men versus women, young versus old -- it always comes down to the Jacks versus the Ralphs (Jacks naturally argue that it does matter how you slice the Piggies). Contestants can either surrender to their instinctual savagery or fight to protect what innocence they have left. That is, before dispelling any such notion with a revealing magazine spread.
No, I prefer the second twist, decidedly more conniving in its intricacies: contestants can now banish their peers to "Exile Island." It's that idea of taking justice into your own hands (but not too much) that moves Survivor firmly into Flies territory. Typically, at tribal council you're voting out an obstacle to a chance at a million bucks. Now, you're just being plain nasty. What reasons will players now use to give each other the boot: bad performance at a challenge, or bad breath in the morning?
And that fascination, after all, was the original promise of reality programming: a glimpse at human motivation and desire. In its own way, Survivor says more about humanity than all three versions of Law & Order combined. (Of course, now that Dick Wolf's got a fourth legal drama on the way with Conviction, I may have to take that back).
Ryan Austin is a law student who watches too much TV and maintains the Lawyerlike blog.