The Documentary Roots of Survivor


The cast of Survivor, Season 25

by Daniel Roberts

The competition show Survivor just began its 25th season in the United States, and while any stigma associated with watching the show has almost completely faded, it nonetheless still gets grouped into the wide expanse of “reality television.” But that label, which tends to carry such negative associations, doesn’t actually fit Survivor.

For those lucky enough not to be hooked on CBS’s dump-‘em-in-the-jungle battle of brains and brawn, or for those in the U.K. that missed the program’s short run there, Survivor works like this: 18 people (originally it was 20) are brought to an island, where they will live together with no outside help for food and shelter, and they are all split into two tribes (this season there are three). The tribes compete against one other in daily physical challenges that come with rewards. At the end of each episode, the losing tribe heads to a council where the group votes out one of its own. That person leaves the island and is off the show (except for in seasons when they play with redemption). About halfway through, the tribes merge into one big group, and the challenges become an individual push, with only one person winning immunity from the council each episode, instead of a whole tribe.

From year to year that formula can change a bit, but only in the most superficial, gimmicky ways (this season there are two ‘celebrity’ contestants: a former child TV star from the sitcom Facts of Life and a recently-retired professional baseball player), but for the most part the show never alters much, and sticks with the same thing each time. After all, it works.

Survivor has distanced itself from other “reality” shows. Keeping up with the Kardashians. Flavor of Love. The Real Housewives of Bumblefuck. Bethenny Ever After. These are programs built around the appeal of voyeurism. Survivor, meanwhile, is more like a sports program. It depicts a supposed “reality,” yes, showing you the castaways in their island shelters, letting you watch as they head into the woods for private chats to scheme against each other, but the core of the game is physical.

In a warped sense, Survivor has its roots in the PBS documentary series An American Family, much forgotten today, itself a “reality” show, the first ever, that followed around one family (the Louds of California), and not at all a competition program. The show gained some brief prominence a year ago when HBO put out Cinema Verité, a drama film about the making of An American Family. The movie was very good—James Gandolfini played the show’s producer Craig Gilbert, and Diane Lane and Tim Robbins portrayed the miserable Mr. and Mrs. Loud—but it was more interested in the ethics of Gilbert’s decisions, as well as his rumored affair with Pat Loud, than it was in the cultural significance of the show. To truly appreciate HBO’s flick, you need to have seen An American Family. (But good luck with that: the show doesn’t exist on DVD, which is puzzling, and there is a scarcity of YouTube clips; the only way to see the show is on dusty videotapes in a library basement; while in grad school, I did just that, watching all 12 hour-long episodes for a History of Journalism assignment.)

By all accounts, when An American Family first premiered in 1973, audiences were floored. A documentary about life as an American family; it sounds mundane now, but no one had done it then. People felt uncertain and uncomfortable about what they were seeing. (It helped that one of the sons, Lance, was fabulously, flamingly gay and rebellious, which nicely shook up scores of bigoted middle-class homes.) The events were straightforward, easy to decode, but no less upsetting (the parents’ marriage eventually crumbles on-camera); seven members of a family went about their routine business. Jeffrey Ruoff wrote in An American Family: A Televised Life that the week-to-week size of the show’s viewership “astonished” its creators.

An American Family thrived due to the simplicity of its concept. The show’s fundamental ethos was to do very little: let the cameras roll, just record quotidian interactions. That simplicity was its most precious asset. Nothing was scripted, nothing planned out.

Now, you could certainly make the old argument that just by occurring in front of a camera, interactions cease to be natural. Maybe so. But unlike so many other reality shows that we have come to learn are at least lightly scripted, An American Family was not, and neither (previous contestants tell me) is Survivor. Shows like The Real World, in which horny people under 30 “stop being polite and start getting real,” are also inspired by An American Family but are completely unlike it. Gilbert’s documentary series has more in common with Survivor because the film crews do not give contestants any help finding food or making shelter. They’re left alone, as was the Loud family. They don’t stay in a fully furnished hotel suite or apartment with alcohol-stocked fridge, courtesy of MTV.

The Loud Family

When Pat Loud visits her son Lance in New York (he stays at the Chelsea Hotel, which would soon become an unmistakable symbol of the counter-culture), Lance and his roommate (and lover?) Soren drag her along with them to go see a transvestite play. The cameras roll, and we see footage of Pat squirming in her seat. Though she is fully supportive of Lance’s lifestyle, that doesn’t mean she was quite ready, perhaps, for a tranny show, and her discomfort is clear. After the show, over dinner, Pat is quite happy to admit she didn’t enjoy the performance. “Well,” she asks the boys, “was there a message that I didn’t get?”

Today, the more educated and accepting among us might find even her light discomfort to be distasteful. But when the show aired, in the 1970s, Pat represented the national mass audience, and in fact there were many viewers in that audience who were not accepting of Lance at all. We know this from newspaper articles of the time. Regardless, the moment of Pat’s discomfort—not revulsion, by the way, not at all, but more like an uncertainty, a cautious willingness to watch and learn—is, like all moments in the show, completely natural, not manufactured by the cameras. No one tells Pat what to say, just as no one instructed or expected her own son to respond to her question, in perfectly flamboyant fashion, “Oh, no, honey,” as though she’s a young child, not an adult who raised him and has more life experience.

Survivor makes similar choices, sometimes controversially, and often, surely, to the inevitable complaints that they choose inflammatory characters to amp up the drama. (They certainly do, but that’s different from scripting it.) In the most recent season, Survivor: One World, a loudly gay young Southerner named Colton quickly became one of the rudest, most offensive people to ever appear on the show. He quickly developed, for no apparent reason (well, maybe one reason), a hatred for a fellow cast member, a black comedian named Bill. Colton called Bill “ghetto trash,” told him to “get a real job,” and repeatedly announced to Bill and others that he did not like Bill. At a tribal council, Colton defends himself: “Yes, I did go to a private, like, all-white school, but I do have, like, African-American people in my life… my housekeeper.” Yes, it was pretty bad. It didn’t get much better when an old white man who went by the name Tarzan (and was one of the crazier contestants in the show’s history) jumped in, afraid to badmouth Colton, who was running his alliance, and raged: “The whole thing about race irks me. I think it’s time to quit talking about goddamn race… And I think this country is moving in that direction. We have a Black president!” Yikes.

In allowing these characters to reveal their true colors, appalling though those colors can be, the show hearkens back to the Craig Gilbert approach. Why feed people lines when the things they’ll say spontaneously are fascinating enough? The “stranger than fiction” idiom comes to mind.
Survivor has competition and suspense; its players are rewarded based on actual merit, and often, they deserve to be sent home when they are, either because someone has outfoxed them socially or overcome them in athletic and mental races. Though An American Family had no game element, it required devotion, as does Survivor. It rewarded viewers who watched each episode, since they begin to feel emotionally attached to one character. Certainly one could argue that any reality show builds on an intimate connection with its characters, but shows like The Real World seem easier to “pick up and go” with; viewers often tune in having seen none of the current season’s episodes and find themselves entertained nonetheless.

James Gandolfini, Diane Lane and Tim Robbins in Cinema Verité, HBO Films, 2011

Of course, An American Family was more than just a predecessor of reality television. Lance Loud became a gay rights icon, and Cinema Verité, however briefly, reminded people of the show that rocked the nation in the late 70s. What remains of the show’s legacy is the simplicity it lent to later shows, a heart that ticks purely from character appeal and a hands-off approach—the same mechanics that so many people, forty years later, identify in Survivor, whether they realize it or not.

Survivor is also reminiscent, just a bit, of the famous Richard Connell short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” about a man who hunts people for sport. Connell’s very wonderful story has influenced scores of TV and movies (you can skip The Pest, with John Leguizamo, even though I inexplicably found it hilarious in middle school and rented it again and again), and perhaps Survivor is one of its most successful influences. The contestants on the show are “surviving” not just the physical challenges but also the psychological and the catty elements of the island. They must weather the storms of petty, green-eyed pairings eager to lie and deceive. But they are also, in a sense, hunting each other, even as they must rely on their tribe (at least for the first half of the season, before the groups merge) to win challenges and thus rewards that can often sustain and reenergize people. Survivor may be the closest real-life approximation of the Connell story’s plot.

Having had an impact on so much of today’s television landscape, it’s a travesty that An American Family isn’t available on DVD. Get with the program, PBS.

About the Author:

Daniel Roberts is a magazine reporter and book critic in New York, originally from Massachusetts. He tweets @readDanwrite and blogs here.