Survivor Is The Most Morally Contemptible Show On TV
David Harsanyi
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There are, it turns out, fates far worse than watching depraved fictional characters murder and rape on your television. And that’s watching real people play Survivor.

Though still a big fan of cultural debauchery, I decided to allow my kids, 12 and 10, watch something a bit less corrupting than Game of Thrones. So we spent a season following Survivor — “Cagayan: Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty.” This week’s finale pulled in 9.5 million viewers (only slightly less than American Idol) so we weren’t alone. If you’re unfamiliar with the premise, Survivor is a sort of social experiment/competition, in which contestants are dropped off in some exotic wilderness and left to use their abilities — strength, judgment, competitiveness, shrewdness –  while fellow contestants form alliances and tribes and keep voting each other off until we’re left with one. Outwit, outplay, outlast they say.

As the title suggests, this season pitted participants with brawn, brains and beauty against each other. Really, though, the show’s winner, more often than not, is the person best equipped to connive, manipulate and lie under duress. It’s compelling television, for sure. This might have been the best season so far.  It featured one of the most gifted Survivor contestants I’ve ever seen play; New Jersey cop Tony Vlachos.  Tony was a virtuoso of treachery. He expertly read people’s weaknesses, (unconsciously) deployed game theory and was unafraid to dive into the dirt, both literally and morally.  He snooped, threatened, cajoled, browbeat, backstabbed, but his real gift was an ability to convincingly and shamelessly lie.

A few examples:

  • Tony swore on his badge, and lied.
  • Tony swore on his wife and newborn baby, and lied.
  • Tony swore on his dad’s grave, and lied.

And Tony wasn’t the worst part.

In the end, Tony was pitted against the amiable airhead Yung “Woo” Hwang, who chose to face Tony in the finals rather than the less capable Kass. He landed on this choice despite the fact that Tony was unquestionably place as the best “player” in the game. Woo claims that honor and honesty dictated his choice –a choice that probably cost him a million dollars. More likely, though, Woo—who regarded Tony as a friend—shied away from conflict and could not get himself to betray his ally. (Tony, on the other hand, had plotted to remove Woo only a few days earlier). He probably believed taking the high road might convince the jury  –consisting of constants previously voted off –  to hand him the championship. Throughout the game, Woo seemed conflicted by the duplicity around him. He did little to distinguish himself.

Well, other than acting like a normal, happy person.

So Tony won easily. And it was only after the jury had their say that the moral bankruptcy of Survivor finally hit me (and by “hit me” I mean my wife pointed it out to me).

There is no set of guidelines for the jury to check off when voting for the champion. Nothing stops them from picking the person who tried the hardest or was the kindest or helped out the most at the grueling camp. Nothing tells them what “playing the game” really signifies. Yet, for all seasons I’ve watched, the jury selects the most manipulative contestant rather than the more honorable or the most civil or the hardest working.

Not only that, but most of these people have been personally deceived by the manipulator. Before voting, jurors are permitted to ask some questions, which typically deteriorates into melodramatic venting and confrontation with the person who had lied to you. In the end, however, they always seem to respect the schemer, probably because he was capable of deceiving and thus “played the game.” The manipulator normally defends himself using two justifications:

  • I was just playing the game. Ethics don’t count here.
  • Everyone lies in the game, so it’s ok. You would have done it, too.

It’s a bit like The Simpsons character Nelson Muntz’s observation that shoplifting is a victimless crime, “Like punching someone in the dark.” So, one wonders, how far can you go: sleep with someone to make it to another round? Would that be ok? Because, you see kids, if you’re in a game, ethical lines can be crossed. If your friends lie to you, it’s completely cool to lie to them. If a lot of money’s at stake – not a few thousand but maybe a million – you can swear on your kid’s life. And, as Tess Lynch at Grantland points out, the show is marketed by host Jeff Probst, as some sort of wholesome all-American merit-based competition:

When Jeff Probst, live in the studio, gathered a group of Survivor-fan children around him to encourage them to compete as soon as they’d grown abdominal muscles, he was doing so during a finale that would prove that integrity and honesty is nothing against manipulation and well-executed lies.

Now, it’s only a dumb TV show, I know. But I do wonder why it can’t be structured to reward virtue on occasion. I wonder why juries of real-life people, when left to make their own rules, would default to favoring the unscrupulous rather than the honorable. It’s conceivable that no one would watch a show that rewarded good behavior. There is no doubt that duplicity and deception makes for entertaining television (I would argue that the most entertaining show on television right now is Fargo). But somehow watching the greedy shallowness of real people is a lot more pathetic and depressing.

Then again, sometimes screwing over strangers just isn’t entertaining enough. Probst unveiled next season’s plot for “Survivor,” another round of “Blood vs. Water,” this time in San Juan del Sur. This set up features siblings, spouses, girlfriend/boyfriends and relatives competing for the million dollars. Last season, a daughter voted her mother off the game for the chance at the prize. She lost. So I guess that’s something.

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