Monday, May 31, 2010

Tenth Anniversary: "Survivor" Premieres (May 31, 2000)

Ten years ago today, on May 31, 2000, the very first episode of "Survivor" aired on the CBS television network. Surely, no one knew then how much a part of the culture this reality show would become and that it would still be on the air a decade later. Watching that first episode this past week, so many years after its initial airing, it's astonishing how primitive the game is compared to its modern counterpart. It's not unlike watching those old black and white silent films from the 1910s, in that you know you are watching something influential and groundbreaking for its time, but its innovations have so much become a part of the culture and improved upon in the mean time that it is almost tedious to watch in its first incarnation. But as a cultural artifact from the first half of 2000, it's fascinating to revisit, both because television has changed, but so too have we as television viewers (and for that matter, as Americans). Plus, the first episode becomes an origin story of sorts for many of the traditions and contestant mistakes that have become such a part of "Survivor" the television program and the game itself.

The show begins by depicting the sixteen anxious contestants throwing supplies off a boat in the South China Sea. The program's host, a very young looking 37 year old Jeff Probst, explains that the contestants are divided into two tribes (Tagi and Pagong) and that they are to set up camp on the beaches of a nearby island. The contestants leap into the sea and the game begins in earnest.

This being the first episode, Probst pops up a few times to explain the set-up, rules, and conventions of the game, but much of the action focuses on the contestants' interaction with one another. (Contestants who survive well into the season, like Colleen Haskell, Jenna Lewis, Greg Buis, Gervase Peterson, and a number of others, receive very little screen time, as the emphasis must be upon those whose departure is a bit more imminent.). There are some basic character moments, such as the brief depiction of a praying Dirk Been (shown above), a twenty three year old from Wisconsin and the fifth contestant to be voted out. We also see much of Richard Hatch, who we know would go on to win the game with his series of Machiavellian machinations. He, a corporate communications consultant, initially quibbles with truck driver and Tagi tribemate Sue Hawk (who lectures him that what works in the corporate world will not work on the island).

Hatch (depicted above in the red hammock) does attempt to use some corporate speak to his advantage. In so doing, he convenes the Tagi tribe and acts as if the game is a corporate team-building session. (This does not go over well with those assembled, who just seem bored by it.). But Hatch also knows what will make good television: In one private interview, he claims to have already written himself a check for a million dollars, while in another, he admits that he is concerned what might occur if his level of arrogance is discovered by his fellow tribe members.

Meanwhile, at the Pagong tribe, sixty four year old Kansas real estate developer B.B. Andersen (who would last just one more episode) finds a water map and consults with twenty-nine year old Ramona Gray (the fourth to be voted out of the game). They agree that their strategy should be "not giving up the secret of the water supply," although that tactic, if ultimately carried through, was unsuccessful for either. (B.B., for his part, wears what appears to be a home-made shirt featuring a collage of photographs of what must be his extended family members.).

B.B.'s exit from the game is heavily foreshadowed by a number of mistakes he makes. He spends a good bit of time complaining that there are a lot of "lazy people" on his tribe and that they "can't have lazy people" in the game. He gets into an argument with his fellow tribe mate, Gretchen Cordy, who believes he is working too hard and suggests that he take a quick break for fifteen minutes. He declines her suggestion and insists on continuing his attempts to build the tribe some type of structure to inhabit. But his younger tribemates do seem to like the curmudgeon in their midst; they even nickname him "Viagra." Ew.

Back at the Tagi tribe, seventy-two year old Rudy Boesch understands his dilemma. He notes that the hardest part about the game is "hanging out with young kids" when he, a former Navy SEAL, doesn't "even know what MTV means." But unlike B.B. in the Pagong tribe, Boesch knows that it is he who must fit in with the younger group, not vice versa. Twenty seven year old attorney Stacey Stillman (depicted above) has other ideas for Boesch: his ouster from the game. She is unappreciative of his age and prickly demeanor, but he would outlive her in this game.

Also on the Tagi tribe is 63 year old Sonja Christopher, an eccentric musician who takes with her to the island a ukulele. She suffers some type of injury or minor scratch, which her tribemate, Dr. Sean Kenniff, attempts to repair. She also sings a song called "Bye Bye Blues" about pharmaceutical anti-depressants. Quirky, and older than average, her days were numbered.

Typically, reward and immunity challenges are done separately, but the first episode featured a joint challenge, in which the winning team would be awarded both immunity from tribal council but also 50 waterproof matches (which must have been of great utilitarian value to the newbies).

The challenge itself was pretty basic by "Survivor" standards. Each team must take a raft to from the water to the beach, and along the way, light various torches and then, their respective side of a fire spirit statute. The catch: each tribe member must have one hand on the raft at all times. Introducing the inaugural challenge, Probst warns the contestants not to put him "in the position of having to make a judgment call" about their compliance with the challenge rules. This is an amusing remark, as these days, Probst isn't the least bit shy about doing just that.

Ultimately, Pagong prevails over Tagi, much to the disappointment of Kelly Wiglesworth (depicted above), who would come in second place in the game. There is much celebrating by the members of Pagong (including a very happy Colleen Haskell, whose excited dancing about can be seen in the background in the aftermath of the challenge).

In typical "Survivor" fashion, the loss by Tagi leads to much scurrying about and politicking by the members of the losing tribe. Boesch contemplates the beginning of an alliance with Hatch (although there is not much discussion generally of the value of alliances). Stacy attempts to recruit others to vote for Boesch, while Sonja seems unaware, for the most part, of her fate.

At tribal council, Probst coins a number of phrases that he will use for the remainder of the series, including the statement that at the council "fire represents life." Commenting upon what other tribe members are thinking, Probst asking Sonja, "How are you holding up physically?"

Nothing good can follow that framing of the issue by the host.

In the end, Sonja draws four votes, Rudy gets three, and Stacy gets one from Hatch (who comments that he chose her for "subtle reasons," though he is not entirely certain what they are). Stacy comments that she voted for Rudy because he is an "ornery guy, [who] doesn't really help that much, [and] for a navy seal doesn't know how to start fire."

Some dramatic close-ups from the very first tribal council (including Sue immediately after the vote is announced and Stillman and Hatch during an early part of the proceeding):

But Sonja is not bitter. Leaving the group, she says, "Go get 'em, you guys." A 2008 piece by Joanna Weiss of Slate analyzed Sonja's ultimate fate in the game:
At first glance, Sonja seemed a lovely addition to the mix of islanders: an artsy senior citizen who played the ukulele, she had a bright view of human nature and, unlike some of her playmates, was genuinely nice. Sure, she had a fateful stumble during the first immunity challenge, but her true vulnerability ran deeper. This was an island of snakes and rats, and Sonja's guileless personality made her seem impossibly weak. In a scene midway through the first episode, Sonja played a cheerful ditty called "Bye-Bye Blues" for eventual winner Richard Hatch. He applauded her gamely—he probably even meant it—but you know what he was thinking: bull's-eye.
The episode serves as an interesting snapshot of America (and Americans) in early 2000. It was a time well before that year's divisive presidential election, more than a year before 9/11, and long span of time before the rise of social media. These contestants were certainly not the breed of would-be stars and starlets desperate to use a reality show to advance an acting career (that would come later); this group of sixteen just seemed to be a gaggle of randomly assembled Americans (none of whom had the advantage of previously watching the game they were playing). That lack of knowledge was deadly to some in the game, as none of them, at least in that first episode, seemed to appreciate the power of voting blocs and alliances. (Boesch spoke of a budding alliance between he and Hatch, but they voted differently at tribal council.).

The direction and camera work have also advanced considerably since that first episode. (In fact, it's initially jarring to see an episode not filmed in HD). These days, the show is far, far superior in quality, both with respect to its direction and cinematography. Those advances are readily apparent when viewing the first episode, which is not nearly as ambitious in that respect.

How different the game is now; these days, it's populated by students of the show like Russell Hantze, super-fans who bring with them to the island an institutional knowledge of what came before. Further, as the series has progressed, the producers have opted to select a higher percentage of hotties and beefcakes, many of whom are the least interesting of the bunch.
Some other fun thoughts upon watching the program;
  • Stacey Stillman, eliminated in the third episode, would later sue the show and its producers. In early 2000, when the program was filmed, Stillman was a young California attorney who had become licensed to practice law just over a year before filming in December of 1998. She is now a managing associate in the Silicon Valley office of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, L.L.P., and of all things, she has represented Facebook.
  • The lovely Colleen Haskell (pictured above) would become enough of an "America's Sweetheart" to land a role in the 2001 Rob Schneider movie, The Animal, but would ultimately vanish from the pop culture landscape. Rumor has it that she was asked to return for the all star edition of "Survivor" in 2004, but she declined. Alas.
  • Sue Hawk, Richard Hatch, and Rudy Boesch did appear on "Survivor: All Stars" in 2004. An awkward and troubling altercation between Hawk and Hatch resulted in Hawk voluntarily removing herself from that game. (They had mostly smoothed over their differences by the time of the reunion show in 2004).
  • Sean Kenniff would try to reinvent himself as a journalist and commentator, but how anyone could take him seriously after he adopted that ridiculous alphabet voting strategy later on in the game is beyond those of us here at Chronological Snobbery.
  • Where to begin with Richard Hatch? His post-"Survivor" career has been engulfed by legal problems. A good rule of thumb: If you win a million dollars on a popular television program, be certain that you report it as income to the Internal Revenue Service.
  • Probst have proven himself to be a fine reality show host. Sure, he seems to favor the strong alpha-males in the competition, but he injects just enough personality and commentary into the show without it seeming as if he is trying to be the show's star.
The day after "Survivor" premiered, on June 1, 2000, Sonja, as the ousted contestant, appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a clip of which is below. (It's interesting to watch, for at that time, Stewart had only been the host of that program for about a year and a half.).

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Sonja Christopher
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We here at this site did not watch this first episode of "Survivor" when it first aired. In fact, in the summer of 2000, we weren't watching much television, but we caught the fourth episode (airdate June 21, 2000) after a neighbor remarked that he personally knew one of the contestants. After that, we were hooked on the series, so much so that we began to follow the speculation about the winner online. In this, the first season, the ultimate winner was named at the final tribal council, rather than live on the night of the series finale. Thus, the winner was a known quantity, and theories abounded about who it might be. (A particular favorite site was the original Survivor Sucks site (see more here), which offered some theories, many later disproven, about who might be the next to go. Remember the Gervase X theory?). Whatever the case, we've watched the show on and off in the last decade, sometimes skipping a season, but always returning (although we were disappointed to see Russell Hantze lose two seasons in a row).

You can see the first ten minutes of the first episode here:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And I have never watched one single episode. I'm pretty proud of that.