When two tribes go to war on TV -- with a lesbian twist
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
There's an interesting bit of TV typecasting going on this season with "Survivor." It's a producer's dream. And you can't help but wonder if that producer, Mark Burnett, is not sitting back and loving the manipulation.
If you haven't been paying attention to television's powerhouse reality series, this latest version was set up as two tribes of men versus women (second time around for "Survivor," which hints that this time Burnett wanted to see the experiment work as he'd imagined it), and though the teams were reshuffled, mixing genders, there was always a hint that no matter how well they worked together, given the opportunity one side would play the gender card.
Last Thursday, the women did just that. The men had taken to hardworking Twila, who previously admitted she had a hard time tapping into her feminine side and liked the company of men better. They also liked Julie, who has no trouble using her wily feminine ways -- butt tanning, anyone? -- to keep the gullible guys interested. Once the group of 10 merged -- six women, four men -- the guys thought they had Twila and Julie on their side.
They did not. The women banded together and bounced one of the men out, setting up a 6-to-3 advantage and a chance to run the men off the island one by one for the first time in "Survivor" history. Which is all just game theory by itself, until you understand that the woman essentially in charge of this marshalling of estrogen is Ami, a 31-year-old barista/model from Colorado who just happens to be a lesbian.
The glorious thing about Ami is that she takes grief from no one and does not suffer fools -- particularly male fools -- gladly. This is a woman who does not rattle. You do not want her against you. She's got ice in her veins. And episode by episode you begin to sense (gee, maybe through editing?) that she's cunning and ruthless. She is also hot. And she also fills out a bathing suit like nobody's business. This undoubtedly makes CBS happy and is, no question, going according to Burnett's plan.
In one episode, Ami let it out that she knew no women's alliance had ever held together on "Survivor." She dismissed a male loudmouth, Rory, by telling him to sit his butt down and wait for his fate. In another episode, as the women discussed who to target, Ami blithely said it didn't matter as long as it was one of the men.
Now, we know from history that "Survivor" participants often talk about being edited in certain ways so the viewing audiences only see a certain side. They become the characters that Burnett wants them to be. And in Ami's taped interview before the series she said, sweet as can be, that she gets along with everyone.
A uniter, not a divider.
Ah, but now she is seemingly the lesbian temptress and man-hater. It's fascinating to watch. The camera pans into her ample -- and natural -- heaving breasts and every straight male perks up. Then she emotionlessly says, in effect, let's kill these men one at a time.
Of course, Thursday's episode could disprove the theory that the women will stick together until the end. But in the previews, there is this beautiful moment when Sarge, the Army drill sergeant and leader of the men, agitatedly says that Ami has all the women "in her aura."
Ooooh. Lesbian voodoo.
As a recent Chronicle feature story illustrated, there haven't been many out lesbians on reality shows. Tons of out gay men, few acknowledged lesbians.
So far, "Survivor" hasn't really played this angle too strongly. The oldest survivor on this edition is Scout, also a lesbian. She's considered the soulful elder, earthy crunchy and as much a matriarch as she can be. Translation: Safe, a nonthreat to straight male America. Ami on the other hand -- oh, Ami -- is undoubtedly confusing the tiny minds of men everywhere. "I'm attracted to her, and yet she loathes me."
If Ami's grip on the women holds -- you know, if they can't break out of her "aura" -- "Survivor" may end up a disposable yet entertaining gender experiment.
Previews for Thursday's episode have the men outraged that they'll be booted off, and they are pressuring non-girly Twila to switch back. There's also a hint that profoundly annoying and self-centered Eliza could switch, too, if someone tells her she's pretty.
Here's hoping this plays out as planned, though if it does, the rest of the country -- so afraid of gay marriage -- may find some sad validation of their fears through the domination of lesbian-temptress, man-hating Ami (LTMHA). Either way it goes, "Survivor" has proven that it is one of the few long-term franchise reality hits that remains worth the time invested.
Compare it to "The Apprentice," a series that was gloriously competitive and ridiculous last season and now, with diminished ratings, seems less the water-cooler "it" show.
Perhaps that has something to do with the randomness of the outcome. If Donald Trump (or Burnett, again) doesn't want you around, you're gone. It's losing the compelling must-have trait of any reality series but, in comparison with most of the other junk, still stands out.
Though it's a dangerous thing to do (history proving all cynics and critics wrong), this might be a ripe time to suggest that reality series are finally in decline.
Make no mistake, they are not going away. They will always be part of the TV programmers' arsenal.
But this fall's reliance on reality has hurt the networks. Fox's "The Next Great Champ," which beat NBC's similar boxing reality series, "The Contender" to the proverbial punch, was a dismal failure that was pulled and relegated to cable.
NBC gave up on "Last Comic Standing." It also postponed "The Contender."
ABC's "The Bachelor" has seen steep ratings declines -- as predicted, the bloom is off the rose. ABC's other offering, "The Benefactor," was a dismal bust. Apparently billionaire Mark Cuban isn't the TV draw that billionaire Donald Trump is (or was, we shall see).
The third billionaire to get his own realty series, Richard Branson, debuted with his series Tuesday night, so we'll see how that goes, but if Fox's much-hyped "My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss" is any indication -- it tanked -- Branson should catch the next hot air balloon out of television entirely.
Other reality series, particularly home/life makeover series, are still doing well enough to keep programmers acutely addicted to the genre. But there is a waning to this trend, which should give beleaguered TV viewers some hope.
In fact, one of the bright spots of the fall is the huge success of scripted series.
ABC's "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" have revived that network, and almost every network has fielded a credible scripted hit (though NBC in particular is lacking anything new that's worth watching). That's one way to kill reality: making hit scripted series.
Viewers seem to be tiring of cheap gimmicks and short-term tricks on reality shows. It's the franchises that raise the value of the genre. And so it is that "Survivor," despite showing some gray hairs, continues to be interesting.
Never mind that by editing LTMHA into our living rooms, the series has had to manufacture a gender war to stay that way.
E-mail Tim Goodman at firstname.lastname@example.org.