On August 23rd, CBS announced that on this 13th season of the reality institution, the teams of contestants would be divided by race, not, as was tradition, complementary personality dysfunction. Asian Americans, blacks, Hispanics and whites would all compete against “the other” for a shot at $1 million.
No one was surprised. Reality television is a relentlessly degenerate mistress. After pixellated nudity and bug eating, taboo racial combinations were one of very few shockers left that won’t incur an FCC fine. Donald Trump flirted with the same formula for last season’s Apprentice. The only really shocking thing is that he found it too tasteless to run with.
The outrage was right on cue: “[a] nightmarish vision,” “apartheid TV,” “it’s about reducing America to tribes once again,” bemoaned op-ed pages. New York Daily News columnist and critic Stanley Crouch hoped that CBS executives “might burn in hell for these efforts to impose ethnic division.” New York City Councilman John Liu, who led a protest outside CBS headquarters the day after the announcement, decries the show’s entire race-baiting premise. “The last thing we need is companies exploiting stereotypes to line their pockets,” he says.
GM, Coke, and Home Depot dropped their Survivor sponsorship deals, but the mission was already accomplished. Condemnation to eternal fire — there’s no better press than that.
The controversy and indignation are as fresh as a sitcom laugh track. Still, Survivor’s gambit doesn’t feel right. Partly it’s the predictable, commercial tawdriness of it all. Partly it’s a reflex: Just the word “segregation” lacerates most Americans’ sensibilities.
Beneath that, the most frequent objections to the show share a common assumption and a common fear. With racially divided teams, it’s assumed that viewers will identify with their race and “root for their team” throughout. After a few episodes full of the contestants race-baiting each other, it’s imagined that viewers, especially white ones, will get rabid. They’ll jump on their couches, rapt, yelling “Whites Rule!” They’ll start shouting it around the water cooler the next day and America will be one baby step closer to Bosnia. In short, Americans will tune in as relaxed, racially sensitive people and tune out as no-nonsense bigots.
If people tune in for more than the first episode, they may well start rooting for their teams, and it may not be an uplifting sight. Online betting portal WagerWeb.com anticipates much more betting on this season’s contest than last season’s. Their odds on who’ll emerge as the master race anticipate that bettors will be putting their money on a white man to win (7 to 1) and blacks to be the first group eliminated.
“That we can pretend this is important,” suggests John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute fellow and author of Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America, “shows that we may have reached the bottom of the barrel,” when it comes racial injustice. “We’ve come from the civil-rights movement to obsessing about teenagers on a reality show.”
And a reality show that can’t practically deliver on its tease of vitriolic competition. No one publicity-hungry enough to do reality TV would likely drop an N-bomb knowing their every word is being broadcast, and as per the show’s tried format, the race-based teams will dissolve into a big, histrionic melting pot after a few episodes.
This, and the fact that the social upheavals caused by the first 12 seasons of Survivor were pretty minor, makes it pretty clear that this season won’t do much of anything — to its viewers’ attitudes or America’s racial tensions. But the show does reflect something notable: Far from being just a tribal council away from taking race much more seriously, American viewers have been, and still are, hungry for TV that presents race much less seriously and self-consciously.
Look at the course of TV over the past two decades: It’s practically an evolutionary chart of shows that have become more and more popular by treating supposed racial sensitivities less and less reverently. In 1977 primetime society wasn’t ready to break the consensus about what was polite to say about race, so The Richard Pryor Show never took off. But a few years later In Living Color did, and then South Park, then Chappelle’s Show. All crass, yes, but all yanked race away from the seriousness with which it’s usually addressed and presented it in a fresh, unexpected way. Audiences responded. Survivor 13 isn’t a comedy, but the irreverence is the same.
It could be that audiences’ racially insouciant impulse is a bad thing: a lazy step back from the moral sobriety of the civil-rights era, inappropriate while America confronts racial divisions.
Or it could be not so bad. Even Survivor 13’s critics don’t object the concept per se. “I hope that one day we might be able to do this [sort of competition] with no issue,” adds New York Councilman Liu, after objecting to the series, “but [society’s] not there yet.”
Americans are inherently optimistic on race. We believe that at a distant, but specific, point in the future, we’ll have definitively “gotten over” it. And presumably, the day after that, we can be as provocative as we want — an ebony vs. ivory season of So You Think You Can Dance?, racially competitive Jeopardy tournaments — and it’ll all be in good fun. Maybe the future isn’t that linear. Maybe the nonchalance comes before we get fully over race.
Or maybe, like the cheapness of reality TV and the forgetableness of Survivor 13, it’s neither good nor bad, just inevitable.
– Louis Wittig is a writer in New York.