Life Can Be Uncomfortable, Reality (TV) Shouldn’t?

Brandon Hantz had a meltdown on the latest episode of Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites, “Persona Non Grata.” I don’t want to talk about the shameless actions of CBS’s casting department, which all but poked him with a sharp stick in his sleep to ensure that this would occur, nor do I want to discuss the gleeful, ratings-baiting promos for this episode, which reveled in self-immolation. I don’t even really want to get into Jeff Probst’s Hurt Locker-level defusing of Hantz (literally massaging the tension out of him), it’s hard to watch Probst being genuine on a personal level whilst also being unflappable and plastic on the audience’s global level. Instead, let’s talk about:

the fact that Brandon Hantz was right. The way he reacted was childish, dumping out his tribe’s food and sabotaging the camp, but the insults that he perceived were real ones; just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that everyone isn’t out to get you. It’s a shame that Brandon isn’t better able to express himself calmly, because Philip is a manipulative, egocentric, and eccentric “spy” (who has admitted to modeling his strategies after Boston Rob’s mafioso leadership). We’re shown an edit made out to show Brandon at his very worst and Philip still looks bad–mainly because he might not be as crazy as he sounds (with his Stealth R Us nicknames and special agent claims). We see Brandon doing a lot of grunt work around camp; we see Philip refusing to do so (“I’m saving my energy for the challenges”). We see Brandon struggling to fit in, and Philip pushing him around–verbally, but to a physical person like Brandon, these words might as well be sticks and stones. Most importantly, we see Philip nattering on and on, taking credit for the team’s success and blithely telling others their position in the pecking order . . . and when Brandon so much as calls him out on it, after a nightmarish stretch of nonstop rain, Philip schemes to force his alliance to throw an immunity challenge in order to vote Brandon out of the game (as was done to his uncle, Russell). Honestly, if I knew my tribe was that eager to get rid of me, I would probably sabotage them, too: don’t look at him like he’s crazy for snapping simply because you respect “rules” and “personal space” a whole lot more than he does. (You should always be respectful to those you are eliminating; your insistence that it’s just a game falls apart when you’re wantonly cruel.)

how it’s about time a reality competition got uncomfortable. Reality competitions aren’t scripted in a traditional sense, but there’s a reason casting departments look to fill stereotypical roles and why the producers manipulate and tweak daily life with “twists” and emotional stimuli, like letters from home. They want arguments to break out, they want DRAAAAAAMAAAAA, but they want it on their terms, within the context of the “reality” that they’ve created. Heightened stakes are a motif of the many Real Housewives and the confessionals are a brilliant convention that allow characters to express emotions in a seemingly direct fashion while simultaneously containing them within their own separate and safe space–distilling them, in all honesty, for the moment they actually come face-to-face with a rival. Perhaps, at some point, there were some uncomfortable moments on Jerry Springer, but who doesn’t know the drill by now? Everything’s rehearsed: the bouncers nail their marks, the “victims”/”contestants” wink at the camera while they scream, and nobody really gets hurt. I’m reminded of a great plotline from the little seen L.A. Complex in which, in a reality rehab center, one of the “celebrities” is driven to suicide from all the manipulation. Former guests of our real-world analog, Celebrity Rehab, only commit suicide once the cameras stop rolling, once their world is no longer as organized, as neat, as scripted. (I’m not sure how to express this less callously; sorry!)

You expect this from these other shows, so when it’s up close on Survivor, a show that is not naturally equipped for the threats of actual violence (clashes outside of the early, physical immunity challenges), it generates discomfort. And reality television–if it claims to be real–should occasionally, if not constantly, be uncomfortable. (Consider: there’s a million dollars at stake, these are not your friends. Why do people tend to get along so swimmingly, all things said and done?) You should be mitigating risk and lessening dangerous situations (Gary Busey as opposed to Patrick Bateman), not neutering it entirely. However it may have handled the results, I respect this season of Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites for at least trying to utilize two emotionally troubled individuals (each on a separate team), acknowledging that we don’t all think alike or share the same thresholds. I suspect people on reality shows push one another and talk such a big game is because they don’t have to worry about things getting physical, and that creates an illusion of toughness that is far from earned, especially on an island that’s supposed to be harsh and inhospitable. Sherlock Holmes would hate Survivor, because once you’ve eliminated so many possibilities from the show, it becomes frustratingly predictable to watch (the constant gimmicks–One World, Redemption, Hidden Immunity Idols, Three/Four Tribes, Constant Merges, No Merges–don’t erase twenty-plus seasons of history). In fact, the entire premise of this season (the second of its kind) revolve around super-fans who have studied the show for years and are now getting the chance to emulate/go toe-to-toe with the toughest players to ever lose the game. Life imitates art; neither is achieved.

It’s true that real life can be tedious, but then again, this isn’t real life: it’s reality television, which has to be both instructive and entertaining. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be predictable: you shouldn’t have to conform to narrowly sketched stereotypes in order to make it, playing nice or, worse, playing bad, a state which only hints at the things a person would do if they weren’t collared by a camera crew following them around, keeping them in check. So, as horrible as the results may be, it’s instructive to see people breaking the extremely safe rules of the game, ducking out of “reality television” and back into the “real world,” as in The Truman Show.

how you, as an audience member but more importantly as a human, have an obligation to be empathetic when things go wrong and get “real.” It’s called Survivor, not Schadenfreude, and if you’re tuning in to validate yourself by watching someone else lose it, you’ve lost yourself. If you need to watch horrible things to feel better, check out Monday Night RAW, where the bad guys are subhuman gladiators, meant to be hated. Feel free to laugh at the suckers on Wipeout who know what they’re getting into. But don’t look at this most recent episode of Survivor and simply write off Brandon as a crazy person: if you do, you’re as guilty of exploiting–no, milking–someone else’s unfortunate circumstances as CBS is. Instead, take something humanizing out of the episode: what’s the point of reality television if none of it applies to the real world?

Try this: In a recent WIRED (“Dr. Feelgood,” February 2013), Nathanael Johnson writes that the “care effect” may be the most important part of the “placebo effect.” It is not so much the fact that you think you are being treated so much as the fact that you believe yourself to be cared for, to have been placed into good hands. Likewise, “many patients who really need empathy and advice are instead given drugs and surgery,” and Brandon, first dismissed by his tribe and then dismissed by us does not receive the care he needs. For those of us who do not care, then, there is only the numbness of another episode.

4 thoughts on “Life Can Be Uncomfortable, Reality (TV) Shouldn’t?

  1. I haven’t watched Survivor since the first season but I was considering watching just this episode. I find producer manipulation very interesting and think that the “contestants” need to have psychologists debriefing them after the “show” ends like they do with psych experiments. I remember an interview I saw with an ANTM contestant about confessionals, she said that they literally could not talk to the producers about anything other than the show. If they tried they were redirected with questions which they had to rephrase as statements so if wouldn’t look prompted. IE: “What do you think of Jade being crazy?” to hear “I think Jade’s craziness is bad for the whole house,” then they edit out the producer.

    By the way, I subscribed after Freshly Pressed so I’ll be keeping up with you! Looking forward to reading more.

    • Thanks for joining in! I actually have no problem with producer manipulation, so long as we the audience understand the terms to which contestants are held. For instance, the Joe Schmo Show, in which there’s only one *actual* contestant, or the excellent/sadistic Solitary (I’d love to see a Kickstarer for a Season 5 of this!), in which the contestants never actually saw one another . . . or anybody . . . and were sleep-deprived, mentally challenged by repetitive tasks, and made paranoid by a robotic voice. (You could quit at any time; you won the “game” by being the last person to do so.)

      Stunts like this, however manipulated by producers or by design, can end up showing us truths about how the human body stands up to stress, isolation, or mass deceit. But if we’re not in on it, then we’re the ones who are used — which is, I guess, why some people got so angry over the spat of faux memoirs (like “A Million Easy Pieces”). The reason why I found this episode of “Survivor” so engaging/horrifying was that it had clearly been designed to set Brandon up to reach that tipping point, and the producers/Probst were ready to contain him when he did, and yet I still don’t think anybody was *quite* ready for the places he went, and so despite best (or perhaps worst) intentions, we ended up seeing something real on a reality show, and that’s worth talking about!

  2. I think if the contestants know how things work, that’s fine, but deliberately casting mentally unstable (or borderline unstable) people without any psychological help afterwards is absolute exploitation. I agree with your point in the second-to-last paragraph, when reality shows get real, too real, people should feel bad/awkward/etc. I’m just more concerned with what happens to the quasi-unwitting participants after the camera turn off and they’re plopped back at home.

    • Well, it’s a difficult line to walk: if the contestants know exactly how things work, then *they* can absolutely exploit the show. Which is fine (although perhaps less interesting) if you want to call it a reality game show or a reality competition. But if you’re shooting reality television, you want it to be closer to life itself: full of unexpected twists that force players to respond naturally to what occurs, not filled with predictable players that allow players to remain closed off.

      Producers should do their best to protect players from harm, and they certainly shouldn’t deliberately inflict it upon them (and should respond immediately to any actual threats), but they shouldn’t guarantee that their reality bubble will be any safer than what you might encounter in the real world itself.

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