TV Article

Stayin' Alive

Reality TV Shows -- We review the reality show hits ''Survivor'' and ''The Real World''

Reality TV Shows

Me, I would have voted Richard, the smug, fake-sincere corporate trainer, off the island first. All that blather about wanting to ''talk about the process'' — hey, can it, buster; we want to see some rat eatin' around here! The casting directors of Survivor picked a fine specimen of humorless condescension when they chose Richard to spend 39 days hectoring his fellow castaways on the Borneo island of Pulau Tiga.

But the first to get the boot was that nice, older, out-of-shape musician, Sonja, who sang a depressing composition about the joys of Prozac. What started as 16 Americans divided into two ''tribes'' — the Tagi and the Pagong — are steadily being narrowed down to one winner, who, after the poor devil is done digging latrines, building shelters, flicking rats off various extremities, and tripping over the Survivor crew, may not even have sufficient muscle tone left to drag home the $1 million prize.

Host Jeff Probst, who probably found this assignment a lark after his previous gig on Rock 'n' Roll Jeopardy, said Survivor is foremost a ''test of social skills,'' because every few days each team forms a ''tribal council'' to vote one member off the island. So if you cheese people off — like, say, the resourceful but officious 72-year-old retired Navy SEAL, Rudy, who if you squint at the screen looks like Harrison Ford in Six Days, Seven Nights — you're in trouble no matter how useful you are. Anyone who has worked in an office can identify with the tribalists' permanent state of exhaustion and paranoid mistrust, so Survivor's chief goal in the upcoming weeks is to make distinctive some of the initially rather bland-seeming participants (I'm not sure if I know the difference between preschool teacher Gretchen and college-student/mother Jenna yet). ABC has tried counterprogramming with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but I'd rather see a crossover show: Throw all of Regis' millionaire winners on that island; how long do you think it would take for those nerds to start bashing rats and each other's skulls with their Palm VIIs?

So far, I'm rooting for Susan, a 38-year-old Wisconsin truck driver, to win the million. Susan isn't afraid of rats and already said that Stacey, a prissy lawyer, ''doesn't move her ass'' enough during group jobs. Go, Susan! Hope you're still in the show by the time this sees print!

Moving to the opposite end of the reality-television scale: The New Orleans mansion that serves as home base for the ninth season of The Real World, premiering this week, is too modern to be something out of Gone With the Wind, but that doesn't stop one Real Worlder from saying admiringly, ''That's Tara!'' prompting another roommate to respond, ''Who's Tara?'' The grand house has a riotous, Pee-wee's Playhouse gaudiness — purple walls and a red pool table; metal insects, skeletons, and electric guitars as wall hangings; a computerized robot dog as house mascot. It may look like a paradise compared with Survivor, but as always with this seven-high-strung-strangers-thrown-together-to-sob-and-snarl series, there's as much angst as at any tribal council Survivor is likely to muster.

You can already tell that moon-faced, blond Julie, a practicing Mormon, is refreshingly naive in a reality-TV context that is going to make her very high-maintenance. By the end of the first episode, she has already burst into tears after serenading David (a pectoral-popping body-builder with a voice as soft as Marilyn Monroe's) with one of her own compositions (think Jewel without the ego).

Julie's innocence must inevitably, in the Real World yin-yang, find its opposite — in this case, Melissa, who gives an important clue to her character the moment she first sees Jamie, a gaw-jus Cornell grad. Melissa registers her appreciation of Jamie's hunkiness by fanning a hand between her legs. Why does it not surprise me that the coming-attractions montage shows Melissa with her top off at a strip club, using dollar bills as pasties?

Over the years, The Real World has narrowed its focus to one subject: sex. Gone are the days when the Worlders' biggest problem was keeping Puck from running over their toes with his bike. Now bulgy David picks up a local girl and crows, ''That's how a playa operates!'' Baby-faced Danny is barely in the door before he blurts, ''I've got a secret!'' and, unsurprisingly, it's about his sexuality.

''I think I'm going to do a lot of growing here,'' says Julie, her eyes brimming with tears. Is it too late to ship this poor kid off to Borneo? Survivor: B+ The Real World: B

Originally posted Jun 16, 2000 Published in issue #545 Jun 16, 2000 Order article reprints
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