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Survivor: Cook Islands
Hey, Hey, Come Out and Play!

Ordinarily, Survivor holds little interest for me. For that matter, few reality shows do. After all, we're devoted to unreality here. But in a desperate bid for my attention, Producer Mark Burnett did the daring, the unthinkable, the thing that dare not speak its name unless it's for a 20/20 special: he made Survivor about race.

Undoing the Great American Melting Pot by taking his castaways to the Cook Islands, Burnett intended to get people talking. Of course, everybody's afraid to talk, and it's likelier that other seasons have really dealt with the racial angle better by having, you know, people of different ethnicities having to work side by side to survive.

The only other Survivor I've watched was the first one, and I thought that old-timer Rudy getting over his prejudices towards the gay Richard Hatch was a pretty good moment in television history. Rudy later learned to dislike Richard because he was a jerk, not because he was gay.

In truth, the only tribe that seems truly weirded out by the separation was the "white" tribe, with a girl named Parvati asking if that was exactly kosher. Every other tribe just seemed to get it all together, with the Asian tribe acknowledging that it's not like there's a unity within themselves - two are Korean, one is Filipino-Hawaiian, one is Filipino. Then there's Cao Boi, whose name fittingly sounds like Cowboy, a refugee from the Viet Nam war who defies stereotypes by becoming an aging hippie.

There might have been a briefly awkward moment when in voice-over a member of the African-American Hiki tribe claims that none of them like to be told what to do, making it hard to come together and work. But it's in a vacuum, not being thrown against anybody else's preconceived notions, nor even tested to see if any other Hiki disagrees.

So it doesn't seem so shocking, and nobody seems to acknowledge the variation within the Raro ("white") tribe. You've got a boxer named Parvati and a Burning Man devotee named Jessica that also captains a roller derby team. There is a stereotypically clean-cut couple, but in the token old man role, Survivor plays most disingenuously.

Jonathan Penner gets a caption claiming his occupation as writer. At first, that seemed interesting, like maybe this guy would churn out an intriguing book about his experiences or at least have poetic observations to make. But his chiseled good looks kept nagging at me before I realized he'd had a role on The Tick. He's an Oscar-nominated short filmmaker, true, but he'd also been a sitcom actor, a regular on Tea Leoni's show The Naked Truth.

Now, it's not likely that anyone else on the islands will recognize him as such. For an actor, it might even be painful that the Hiki tribe singles him out only as "the guy in the blue shirt," or alternately, "the guy that stole the Puka tribe's chicken."

But once washed-up sitcom actors start competing on this show, it's time to acknowledge it as nothing more than an extreme All-Star Almost Anything Goes. I can hardly wait for Susi Quattro and Butch Patrick in the next installment.

Ultimately, if you're going to try to scandalize viewers into watching, do something to stir it up. Make Jeff Probst say something offensive, challenge the contestants on their racial suppositions, something. Or just admit it's still just one occasionally compelling game show that brings out the best and worst in people without mentioning the worst instincts in society.

Derek McCaw

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