`Survivor' goes too far with brutal beginning

TVPreview

September 16, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The following preview of Survivor: Vanuatu - Islands of Fire, which premieres tonight on CBS, contains information about the intentional killing of an animal. If such matters disturb you as much as they bother me, stop reading now.

Sorry.

This is what the crazed competitiveness of reality television has engendered: The ritualistic killing of an animal shown on TV simply for its shock value.

Network and advertising executives recently have used the phrase "blood in the water" to describe the ferocity of the battle between the networks for young viewers on Thursday nights. That phrase now seems horribly apt.

As tonight's episode begins, 18 new Survivor contestants arrive by canoe on the volcanic South Pacific island of Vanuatu. They're greeted by spear-carrying inhabitants who "initiate" them by ritually slaughtering a pig and smearing its blood on the foreheads of the male contestants.

As Jeff Probst, the host of Survivor, described the scene in a telephone news conference this week: "There's a pig killing. I don't know how much they are allowed to show. But it was brutal. That pig was alive. They took a club and beat it to death."

They show enough - particularly the frightened eye and then the squirming of the trussed animal before the blows - to make me wish that I had a way to make a living that did not include previewing such programs.

To be sure, over the past four years, Probst and executive producer Mark Burnett have established a context for the ceremony. The genius - and I do mean that - of this series is that it taps into myths and rituals instantly recognized by millions of viewers.

Probst uses the terms "rite of passage" and "ritual of initiation," borrowed from the lexicon of mythologist Joseph Campbell, to describe the events on the beach at Vanuatu. But in this episode, they push the idea too far - well beyond the point of exploitation. (For one thing, the show airs at 8 p.m. when children are most likely to be watching TV. The pig killing is the stuff of which kids' nightmares are made. )

He excuses the pig's killing by saying: "To them [the islanders], killing the pig is as common as us going through the drive-through and getting a cheeseburger. It's part of their culture, and we are just showing it."

For Probst to suggest that Survivor - with its stereotypic portrayal of Vanuatu's residents in war paint, carrying spears and ritualistically slaughtering animals - provides a realistic glimpse of island culture is ludicrous. If he and Burnett want to really show us the islanders' culture, let them use some of the millions of dollars Survivor has earned to produce a documentary for public television. In tonight's episode, at least, the people of Vanuatu are only props, used to heighten the drama. Among other things, viewers have no idea if they greet everyone this way - or are only doing it by pre-arrangement for the cameras.

As for the contest, all the usual Survivor hooks are set by the end of tonight's episode. The two tribes are determined by gender this time, and the internal scheming and feuding begin almost as soon as the contestants hit the beach.

Among the men, the first targets include an African-American, an overweight guy who can't walk a balance beam, and a man with an artificial leg.

"Nice, the guy with the artificial leg is going to win," gripes Brady, an FBI agent. "He's got the underdog thing going."

On the women's side, Scout (a rancher from Oklahoma), begins complaining about the "sorority girls," or "bow-heads," as she also calls them, using a derogatory Texas-Oklahoma term for female college students who wear ribbons in their hair. One of them, Eliza, a pre-law student, drives Scout nuts with her nonstop talking and reluctance to do physical labor.

Survivor: Vanuatu is the big competition for Joey, the new NBC spin-off of Friends starring Matt LeBlanc. I'm not wild about Joey; watching it, I greatly missed Mr. Tribbiani's five old friends from New York. But, whatever their comedic failings, at least Joey and his new pals aren't killing pigs.

Survivor: Vanuatu

When: Tonight at 8

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: The show opens on a brutal note in the South Pacific.

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