Judge Eric Profancik was almost voted off the bench due to his obsession with Colleen Haskell.
Our reviews of Survivor: The Australian Outback: The Complete Season (published May 2nd, 2005), Survivor: Pearl Islands: The Complete Season (published February 1st, 2006), Survivor: All-Stars: The Complete Season (published December 15th, 2004), Survivor Palau: The Complete Season (published September 20th, 2006), and Survivor Vanuatu: The Complete Season (published December 20th, 2006) are also available.
"I'm good to go survival-wise. People-wise, it'll be a little more challengin', but I've got the million-dollar check written already."—Richard Hatch in episode 1
As will become abundantly clear throughout this review, I love Survivor. Love it! For reality television, it's one of the best and most interesting things to watch. The complicated interaction of these strangers on an island just glues me to my television set. I'm always wondering what's next.
I watched every episode of this series during its first run, and in fact I even watched it again when the network repeated the first season, just to catch the little things I missed. And now I've watched the show for a third time, and I still find it absolutely gripping and a whole lot of fun.
I know that many of you despise the birth of reality TV. You believe it has dumbed down programming and that we're now being forced to watch nothing but inexpensive, mass-produced, inane reality concepts on every channel. And that's true! While Survivor's success led to this sad state of programming, we also need to ponder just how "smart" most of the other scripted shows are. For the most part, television is a wasteland of stupidity. But, regardless, if you stumble across something that fascinates and entertains you, who cares? Television is meant to entertain, and Survivor is very entertaining to me.
As we used to say around here, however, your mileage may vary. Besides, no one is forcing you to watch it.
Facts of the Case
Sixteen strangers, strategically preselected by the CBS screeners, are marooned on the island of Pulua Tiga in Borneo. These 16 individuals—Richard, Kelly, Rudy, Susan, Sean, Colleen, Gervase, Jenna, Greg, Gretchen, Joel, Kirk, Ramona, Stacy, BB, and Sonja—are split into two tribes—Tagi and Pagong—and given minimal rations. They have to survive for up to 39 days with no outside help. Every second day, there's a reward challenge, in which the teams compete against each other for a prize such as food, fire, or personal messages from home. More important, though, each third day the tribes compete for immunity. The losing team has to go to tribal council and vote one of their members off the island.
At the end of the 39 days, only one will remain, and that person will have outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted the competition. He or she will be the sole survivor, winner of one million dollars.
For me, Survivor is a fascinating character study. I love watching people interact in this environment, seeing what they'll end up doing to achieve the ultimate goal. How low will they fall? Will they maintain their integrity? How well will they manipulate? Something in this formula is absolutely compelling to me, and I refuse to miss a minute of this show. When friends and coworkers begin to slam this show for being reality fluff, I get a bit defensive. I guess I wouldn't mind if they had even watched one episode; before you jump on the anti-bandwagon, you should at least have sampled the wares so you can offer a slightly informed opinion instead of blindly following the pack and bashing reality television. There is some scientific fascination on my part to see what everyone is going to do. Will Richard's plan work out as well as he believes? Can his arrogance be kept in check for the duration? Will his alliance hold? Watching Richard spin his web and remove the unwitting competition one by one, seeing realization dawn on others just a few minutes too late…who wouldn't be fascinated by this "closed" study in Darwinism?
Even if you don't believe my story about social Darwinism for the masses—and sometimes I wonder if I believe it myself—the show is (or at least was) a breath of fresh air. In 2000, aside from MTV's The Real World, America hadn't experienced a show like this. (And, in all fairness, The Real World never had a big audience.) When Survivor came around, it was all brand new. An odd mix of cheese, sincerity, competition, and backstabbing, the show shocked the industry and turned it upside down. When we look back and see Jeff Probst's hammy speeches ("Fire is life!"), how seriously the producers made tribal council ("The tribe has spoken."), how cleverly the challenges were crafted, and how cunning some of the players were, we realize that before every Tom, Dick, and Harry made a reality show, Survivor was something new for the masses. In this first season, these 16 people laid down the groundwork for seasons to come…and shows to come. They didn't know how to play the game, they didn't know what to expect, and they had no idea what the show would become. They were tossed off a boat and had to plot everything out, from forming alliances to rationing food. Later seasons and later shows had the luxury of learning from the expert ways of Richard, but the people in this first season showed us that it could be interesting to watch people stumble around a jungle looking for tapioca.
And it really is the 16 castaways who deserve the credit for the success of the show. It's not Probst, it's not the challenges, and it's not location. It's Richard's arrogance, Sue's backwater ways, Rudy's loyalty, Gervase's laziness, Colleen's cuteness, Greg's quirkiness, and so forth. Watching these 16 different people come together to play this game is what makes it all so enjoyable. If the CBS screeners hadn't done such an exemplary job and chosen these particular people, who knows if Survivor would have blossomed into the successful show that it is. (As an aside, some later seasons of Survivor have less intriguing casts of characters, making the show feel a bit stale. But when the "All-Stars" came back, then the show perked up. Coincidence? I think not.)
I'm certain that I've failed to sway any of you out there. Survivor is one of those polarizing shows, and my speech hasn't had the bite needed to pull you over to my side. Many still believe that Survivor has led to the downfall of scripted television, bringing upon us a wave of disposable "stars" from Evan Marriott to Paris Hilton. There's definitely no denying that it has opened the floodgates of reality television, for better and for worse. For every great show like Survivor there's insipid trash like Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? Still, every revolutionary television show—and, yes, I am saying that with a straight face—has its flaws, and Survivor's legacy is perhaps the most brilliant. While we certainly don't need the 12 million variations on a theme, I'm happy that the original made its way to television screens.
In early 2001, the "Greatest and Most Outrageous Moments" of the first season of Survivor were gathered onto a DVD release. Although a fan of the first season, I didn't buy that disc because I hoped the full season would soon be released. It only took another three years, but we're finally here—and it's a great thing I never bought that disc, because it's part of the package of the first season release. I'm considering it to be part of the special features of this release, but I understand if some of you who already own the disc want to call it a rip-off. The studios once again hit the fans with a double-dip, of sorts. Let's take a quick review of this disc and see what is has to offer those of us who escaped unscathed.
• "The Greatest and Most Outrageous Moments" (135 minutes): This is the meat of the disc, featuring a fairly thorough overview of the entire season in one ultra-condensed package. As a stand-alone disc, this is a great feature. It shows you how the game progressed, the quirkiness and manipulations of our characters, and how it all turned out. But now that it's included as an extra disc to the first season, it's highly repetitive. You really don't need this disc because you can watch the entire series. At the end of two hours, I was getting fidgety…and, remember, I love this series! Although it claims to feature "never-before-seen footage," there isn't all that much that's new. Aside from some additional footage of the survivors on the boat to Pulua Tiga (which is pretty interesting, actually), there isn't much else…except for a non-blocked view of Richard's bottom. It's now available for your viewing "pleasure." For those of you who really dig the theme music, this feature is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1.
• "Survivor—Inside the Phenomenon" (21 minutes): Though interspersed with an occasional interesting morsel, this featurette is mostly self-congratulatory PR fluff.
• Rounding out the disc is a bunch of text-based information related to the show: episode summaries, survivor profiles, and information about Pulua Tiga. On these pages you'll find a nice assortment of trivial information on the show.
Now let's move on to the other four discs included in this set, the complete series itself. Presented in its original full-frame format, the first season of Survivor looks rough. It lacks the polish of later seasons both technically and visually. And that's a great thing. Before it became the grand production, this first season felt intimate and real. The footage is grainy, dark, and fuzzy, and it bounces around a lot. It has a documentary feel to it: real, unrehearsed, alive. (All of this would immediately disappear when Survivor: Australia hit the airwaves.) Since the source material isn't pristine, these discs aren't either, but they're not bad. The major problem, in addition to the crude stock, is some artifacting. Again, though, I like the feel it gives the series. The audio is a simple Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that lets you clearly hear all of the dialogue. There's no need for much else. Sadly and shamefully, CBS failed to include any subtitles on this disc, although they found the time to include them on the "Outrageous" disc.
There is a smattering of bonus materials here as well. The best of the lot are two commentary tracks recorded by Jeff Probst, Richard Hatch, Rudy Boesch, and Gervase Peterson. These appear on the first and last episodes, and they are very good. While Rudy doesn't say much, the other three are very animated and funny. They provide a good deal of information about the show, and it made me wish for more. In fact, I would have savored a commentary track on each episode. I enjoyed their stories, their antics, and all the little tidbits they shared. Make sure you give these a listen.
The remaining items are not that spectacular:
• Survivors Leave Los Angeles and Arrive in Borneo (6 minutes): The title says it all. While it's cool to see the extra footage, it gets boring watching everyone being forced to mug for the camera as soon as they get off the plane.
• Late Show with David Letterman Top Ten List (3 minutes): Again, the title says it all.
• "A Look Back with Richard, Rudy, and Gervase" (11 minutes): Wow, truth in advertising, this featurette also has a title that adequately describes what it is. Unfortunately, it's not very good.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I think I've pretty well covered the argument that, basically, this show is crap and has caused an explosion of craptastic reality television. Reality TV isn't for everyone, and there's nothing wrong with that. There are hundreds of channels and thousands of shows for you, so you don't have to watch reality TV. You don't have to like reality TV. You can find something else to watch, and there's plenty else to choose from. Survivor, in its inexorable popularity, has most definitely led to a noxious amount of lookalikes, but there are still plenty of channels that offer scripted television. And, as we all know, if we all liked the same things, the world sure would be a boring place…
Survivor has provided me with hours of television enjoyment. In fact, Thursdays are clearly blocked out, and "must-see TV" in my home is CBS. At 8:00 pm, I'm relaxing on my couch watching Survivor and then enjoying CSI at 9:00 pm. Those other shows don't interest me. I like to see this Thursday combination as a perfect balance of mindless, unscripted TV and witty, intelligent, scripted TV.
Of all the seasons, Survivor: Borneo is the best. It came out of the box fresh, bold, and new. The survivors chosen have been the best mix of personalities, and no season since has had such a cast. In this first year, you met an eclectic group of people eager to play a game with a payout of one million dollars. They fought boldly and cautiously, and they won over millions of fans. They are forever emblazoned in television history for their 39 days on the island of Pulua Tiga. This set lets you relive those moments, revisit some odd acquaintances, and sit back and see how it all started.
Still, this is a very tough one to judge. I obviously love the show and enjoyed watching it again. But will I watch the show in its entirety again? Will I have the urge to watch the episode where Gervase freaks out over eating bugs? I don't know. I'm happy it's in my collection, and I know I would have eagerly bought it myself. The "Outrageous" disc is a nice touch for me, but it's a waste for those of you who already plunked down your dollars for it. So, in the end, I give a guarded recommendation. The set in and of itself is worth owning, with no significant transfer problems and a nice assortment of bonus items. Just think about it before you go through the checkout.
Survivor: Borneo is hereby found guilty of starting the reality television craze. All parties are sentenced to time served for providing hours of enjoyment to millions.
Case adjourned. The Judge has spoken.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary on the First and Last Episodes by Actors Jeff Probst, Richard Hatch, Rudy Boesch, and Gervase Peterson
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