The discovery was made when I went home to Lincoln, Nebraska, last week. When I declined a dinner invitation in order to watch the Survivor II extravaganza, I was given a look somewhere between shock and dismay. I had to remind my dear relatives that it's what I do for a living: watch television and write about it. Yup. Putting that MFA to work, that's me.
Lest you think Lincoln, Nebraska, is a mecca for intellectuals, this is a city that makes football in Texas look like a tea party in a nursing home. Don't think my hometown completely shuns popular culture. Among the Survivor viewing parties across the country was one in Lincoln, featuring a challenge in which players drank an entire pitcher of water whenever Outback wildlife or some such thing flashed on the screen. Whoever could hold their water the longest was deemed the survivor. Who says Nebraskans don't know how to have fun?
The only thing stranger than a TV watcher encountering non-TV watchers (relatives, no less) is trying to explain what Survivor is about. My stepmother patiently listened to my explanation, then commented that the game was nothing new to her. She saw that behavior every day at work. Oh yes, I quickly chimed in, of all the Survivor comparisons (i.e., as the ultimate Darwinian struggle or as a re-enactment of the high school social system), I said I thought Survivor-as-workplace worked best.
That's not what she meant, it turns out. She was talking about the clients she encounters as an ombudsman working with state penitentiary inmates. She was talking about the incarcerated and how they maneuver their way through the system in order to reach their goal -- which may be as simple as gaining a new cellmate or as vital as getting medical care. Trust is a luxury, meted out in small doses, when it's given at all. In other words, they must outwit, outplay, outlast their captors, their fellow inmates, their lawyers, and anything else that stands in their way.
Consider these parallels:
The incarcerated: Kept under controlled conditions for a set amount of time. Assigned fluorescent jumpers with their inmate number written on it.
The Survivors: Kept under controlled conditions for a set amount of time. Assigned fluorescent kerchiefs with their tribe name written on it.
In my stepmother's experience, many inmates demonstrated a knack for explaining away the behavior for which they were being punished. Their eye was not on the infraction but, instead, on the higher prize they felt they deserved. Their infraction was somehow less wrong than that of the inmate/jailer/legal system with which they are at odds.
Now let's turn to the Survivors: Think Jerri setting up Kel. Think Tina rifling through Kel's knapsack, and, most of all, think Colby saying, without missing a beat, "I lied, but I didn't feel bad, because I was lying to Jerri."
It was Elisabeth who summed it up best when she said during an interview prior to the final tribal council: "Will the best person win? That's in the hands of a bunch of people who think they are the best person."
Writings by the incarcerated has created a whole genre of prison literature, works fueled in part by introspection that only a lengthy incarceration can promote. So perhaps it's no surprise that a couple of the Survivors -- Mike, whose unfortunate nose-dive into the campfire took him out of the game, and even the socially inept Keith -- say they had a more profound experience than they expected in the Outback. To prove it, the show indulged in images of Keith staring pensively into the Outback while the camera captured his Walden thoughts and moments. Mike's brush with his higher consciousness came as a result of his accident, as he witnessed in a choked voice at the post-Survivor town meeting: "What I learned, a million dollars couldn't buy."
As an ombudsman, my stepmother hears stories from prisoners about the thrill of breaking the law. Yes, they know they're doing something wrong, but the thrill of it (breaking and entering, for example) -- getting away, being chased, and even being apprehended -- is a rush. There has to be more than just winning the million dollars to attract Survivor contestants. Granted, being on Survivor isn't a walk in the park, but the idea of enduring a little pain, telling a little white lie here and there in order to win the big purse and the promise of more visibility must be secondary to the rush of knowing you are at the top of your game as a mastermind. Money will be spent. Keeping a sharp mind to outwit, outplay, outlast -- those skills last a lifetime. Although luck plays a big part in the equation, that seems to be given little value when it's all said and done. Richard Hatch still contends he outwitted his teammates, completely diminishing the role luck played in his winning a crucial immunity challenge.
Like some of the prisoners my stepmother works with, the overall guiding force for the Survivor crew was ethics and strategy.
"I didn't do anything I consider unethical," Tina said. "It was all just strategy." Curiously, this comment sounds much like the prisoner who told my stepmother that he didn't mean to hurt the person he robbed, he just needed the money, and if his victim hadn't fought so much, he wouldn't have gotten hurt. Sure Survivor is just a game, but imagine the invasion Kel must have felt when he discovered his belongings had been torn through. Although Amber proved herself to be a cipher and Jerri an alligator lurking under the water, their indignity at being lied to was real. But it was also laughable, because given the same set of circumstances, they would have done the same thing their teammates did.
Perhaps what makes Survivor so compulsively watchable is that it gives "good citizens" the opportunity to imagine themselves as the victor instead of the victim. It allows "honest" people to live vicariously through the ruthlessness of others under the guise of being a nimble strategist, of seeing people we're aligned with get their rewards, and the others their just deserts. Or maybe it's just a silly trifle that we're all making way too much about. Maybe.
But it strikes me as curious that the difference between the Survivors and the prisoners my stepmother comes in contact with is so thin. When it comes to talking about morality, ethics, and even strategy, delving into the gray zone is a given. One can only hope that as we watch shows like Survivor we don't ignore the deeper messages the show is giving us: that cheating is okay, if it's for your own good. Lying is only bad if it's discovered, and trust is a precious commodity.
E-mail Belinda Acosta at email@example.com