Step to My Mad (Survival) Skillz!

[Note: I’ll admit it. This is an older essay I wrote probably over five years ago. But hey, I still feel the same way, only I’ve seen WAY more of these shows than anyone should admit to. Perhaps I’ll do a Part Two someday.]

Remember when Survivor first hit the airwaves? It was as if every network executive suddenly was scrambling to hop on the reality TV train. Part of this may have something to do with the idea that they could get the network to pay for their vacations, but it wasn’t just Survivor-styled television that took off. Suddenly, reality TV became television. You couldn’t turn on the TV without ending up on Bad Girls ClubAmerican IdolRoad Rules or the unfortunate Rock of Love (Brett Michaels, have you no shame?). It was trash TV heaven.

Then, just when reality TV was about to die its just death in the court of public opinion, some douchebag at A&E dreamed up Intervention, suddenly lending a sleazy sort of class (like an heiress with a chancre sore) to the genre by creating a sub-genre. Yeah, that’s right — I call it the Somewhat Scripted Penny Dreadful. We, the viewers, get treated to a PAINFUL 60 minutes of someone who once had a mediocre existence and now clings tenuously to a totally miserable one. It could be anything from booze to meth to hoarding (which was so popular it got its own show, like Flo from Alice) to gambling to OCD that drags us down into the vicarious snake pit of their lives; it all ends in tears one way or another. Yet, somehow, these people have families and friends willing to humiliate themselves on national television, on the off chance that it might save their lives.

And that, my friends, is what I call true Television Genius. It’s the same sort of network brilliance that decided a WWII Nazi prison camp was a great idea for a sitcom, or that Americans would actually watch a show where amateur Christina Aguileras galore compete for a questionable prize. Shows like these should never have made it past the pitch…and yet they did. Not only that, but they each pulled in obscene amounts of viewers who actually went back week after week for more punishment.

Me? I prefer the old-school documentary true crime shows like Forensic FilesCold Case Files (featuring the dulcet narration of Bill Kurtis), and FBI Files. Why do I like these shows? Obviously, not for the high production value or excellent reenactments (in fact, the grainier and hammier the reenactment, the better). I like them mainly for two reasons: (1) to ponder what it is that makes people do bad/stupid/evil things, and (2) because the narrations cure my insomnia faster than warm milk. An extension of this is shows that simply rehash old news footage and add wacky noises, like World’s Wildest Police ChasesWorld’s Dumbest Criminals, Part 457 etc. This is just my version of crack. Don’t hate me, pity my ignorance.

Most recently, however, I’ve noticed a new trend in reality grit TV: I call it Survival TV. This trend hit it big with 2008’s newest entry from A&E (somebody gave that douchebag a promotion and a film school education) titled I Survived.

At last: a show that speaks to ME. I think it’s significant that just after Hurricane Katrina throws our post-9/11 psyche to the wolves, this show is pitched. Imagine the tough sell here: for the most part, this is just one person (okay, three people per episode) sitting against a black background, telling their true and gritty story. The only soundtrack is a very ominous, low tone (not tonestone). Sometimes, they’ll flash a picture of what we interpret to be the setting, artfully arranged and shot in an honestly creepy way. But it’s only creepy because we know that the story this woman is telling about that quaint-looking cottage is about her three days of terror with a lunatic. And I don’t need to tell you why that dusky shot of the woods is terrifying. Simple: it scares us because we supply the mental picture. Our storytellers are providing us with the story that comes alive with a disturbing clarity that a re-enactment could not possibly top. The stories for the most part are illustrations of how totally at the mercy of random moments and sheer luck we all are…and that the spoken word as story conveyor is not yet dead.

I meant to give a big critique of these shows when I started out, but I have to admit: this is the one survival show that takes us back to the days when we’d sit around the fire and trade ghost stories (yes, I mean summer camp, but also back before the days of the written word). Real, true storytelling can be very compelling, and congrats to the bold producers for sensing that we’re smart enough to paint our own pictures.

Is it also exploitative? Hell, yeah! But it’s as tasteful as exploitative gets. Apparently, many Americans enjoy a vicarious piercing of the veil that the tension in this show provides. But we know the hero survives because hello! It’s in the title.

Which brings us to Escaped, recently premiering on my new favorite channel, Investigation Discovery. I’m not going to say much, other than it’s like American Justice meets I Survived, only without the dramatic tension of I Survived. I guess you could say that it’s the poor man’s I Survived. I don’t mean to trash the show; they tell stories from the standpoint of survivors, but because of the nature of the title, it tends to mostly tell stories of women who escaped sex slavery. And while it’s made me much more disparaging of the porn business at its worst level, at no point am I on the edge of my chair wondering if the girls will get out of the basement in time. There’s a slightly lurid feel to watching this show; it’s something akin to how you feel watching a documentary on Jeffrey Dahmer. I mean, do we really need to hear this story again?

I think the biggest problem with Escaped (or Escaped!, as the network refers to it) is that for all its stories of human degradation and depravity, it lacks the heart that I Survived relies on for its backbone: the tale of the man who makes a wrong turn and ends up stuck in his car in a snowbank for a week, or the elderly couple attacked by a mountain lion. Man vs. Nature! And that’s where this show picks up:

I happened upon it while trying to lull myself to sleep one night, and ended up recording it to watch with my husband the next day. I Shouldn’t Be Alive is like I Survived with re-enactments; however, it focuses entirely on situations where man missteps in nature and realizes just how ill-prepared for a worst-case scenario he really is. It’s largely hit-or-miss; either you’re on the edge of your chair, or you hate the bickering jackasses who were stupid enough to try and sail across the Sea of Cortez on a freakin‘ catamaran… on a dare.

The episode that hooked me, though, was one where a father and son get stranded in the Alaskan wilderness when their raft flips into freezing cold water. They lose all their gear — food, camping equipment, and dry clothes — about 60 miles from the nearest town. BOOYEAH! With good actors for the re-enactment scenes, this one stands out in my mind as a Story With Heart *and* Tension.

But here’s the deal: you love them or you hate them. At least half the time, the surviving storytellers are testosterone-driven dicks who goad each other into ridiculous situations which they never would have ended up in had they paused to give it proper thought.

Then again, what on earth would we have to watch if they did?

Food for thought: Just how many categories and sub-categories of reality TV are there? Talk amongst yourselves, class — break into discussion groups and show me your comments.

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