Sunday, December 20, 2009

metaDRAMA: The Cost of Niceness

It's no surprise that I like theater--I spend most nights writing about it. But what is it about theater that thrills me? It's the opportunity to view the world differently--more immediately than with the slow build of fiction, and more interactively and collaboratively thanks to the work of not just the writers, but the actors, directors, and technical staff. Sure, there's never going to be anything more "real" than the life you yourself live, but it's not easy to learn from the world around you, especially if you're limited in what you do. And even if you're one of the people that others live vicariously through, it's hard to pause in the middle of an adrenaline rush and consider the implications of it.

But theater's not the only place to get it. Films, while less intimate and often too epic (even if small in scale), can change you entirely--whether it's the whimsy of Amelie, the terror of Funny Games, or the heartbreak of Requiem for a Dream. And the small screen, too, has its strengths: well-written television shows allow you to follow people over a long series of changes, as in Friday Night Lights, or to follow an entire culture, as with The Wire. They are more flexible, in their week-to-week shifts, and so are best-fits for the complex allegories of science-fiction, be that Battlestar Galactica or Dollhouse. They aren't always good at showcasing talent--So You Think You Can Dance nails it, American Idol falls flat; Top Chef is sharp, Hell's Kitchen is dull--but that's largely because they get lost in trying to fulfill America's stereotypes, or to give voice to everyone's inner critic. I'm generalizing, greatly, but that's because I want to get to the lesson I've learned from one of the mainstays of reality television: Survivor.

Russell Hantz, 36, owns an oil company, and he's a brute. He's the bad guy of the show, the bully, the "bruiser," as Jeff Propst calls him. He lies to everyone, insults people (to the camera, but never to their face), and over the course of the game, outlasts, outplays, and outwits everybody. And yet, he loses. To Natalie White, 26, a player who remained allied with Russell from Day 1. This is no respect to Natalie--I actually admire her strategy; she knows she's not a physical competitor, so she's nice to everyone, and she lets Russell do all the work. However--and this brings me to the point I'm getting at--that's because she can afford to be nice. And this is the lesson we learn by watching this season of Survivor.

Russell's team--perhaps in part to his sabotage of it, but moreover a result of their bad luck in getting good players and winning challenges--makes it to the merge as the underdogs. 8-4. And it is entirely due to Russell's smooth-talking and penchant for finding--and knowing when to play--hidden immunity idols that they actually manage to take the lead. He has no choice but to play hard--at the cost of some feelings, perhaps--because the result is to just lie down and eventually be voted out. The moral question, though, is did a person that nasty deserve to win? Well, had it been Donald Trump doing the voting, yes. And had it been America voting, yes. But when push comes to shove, we tend to whitewash our own sins and pillory those who have done wrong. Because that's how we stay in control.

Once I've "made" it, it's easy for me to follow the rules. In fact, I want to, because I know that in following those rules, I'll ensure that nobody else will be able to take my job. Objectivism is great for those who are incredibly talented at something; capitalism is fantastic for those who have a lot of money. Communism, or socialism, well, they're terrific for people who don't have as much as others. The point is, we choose to play by the rules that will advance us, as needed, and then shift to new ones when the time suits. There's a reason why "nice guys" are supposed to finish last: because if they're genuinely nice, they'll let everyone else go in front of them. So why--especially in the context of a show about surviving, would you vote for the nice guy?

Watching Survivor isn't always deep, and in fact it's cherry-picked in the editing room to be commercially entertaining and superficially satisfying. And yet, this season, we were allowed to shift our perspectives as Russell, time and time again, peeled back the layers of deceit that we usually wear, showing the truth about how we actually play. It's easy to be nice when there's no danger of you going home--and for the record, Russell wasn't a social asshole, he was a moral relativist. It's not necessarily a good feeling, to watch and realize that the conventions we hold dear are exactly that--conventions--but it's an important one. And though it's not as tightly written as a drama, it is, for one of those rare times in entertainment, something real.

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