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Race-based groups are a casualty on `Survivor'

September 30, 2006|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times

On Thursday night, following a protracted battle with negative press, the continued indifference of participating contestants and a presumed bout of soul-searching, CBS brought the grand race experiment on this season's "Survivor" to an abrupt, unsatisfying end. It was one week old (three weeks in TV time).

Not halfway into the season's third episode, the show's race-based tribes were dissolved, with no preceding fanfare, and no explanation. There's no more room for high-minded self-justifications on the part of the network and show producers about diversity: Bringing the experiment to such a swift end confirms it was even more of a stunt than it appeared at first scan, a bald-faced attempt to spur viewership in the wake of last season's "Survivor," the 12th installment, which was the lowest-rated.

The producers might have been vindicated had they seen the concept through a few more episodes -- and had race actually become integral to the text of the show, rather than just serving as a neat visual ploy -- but given its brief run, they come off only as frightened, and relieved to get back on familiar ground. Could have been cold feet, or the realization they'd selected a uniquely uninterested cast. Or perhaps they succumbed to a knee-jerk need to lean on easy, after-school-special cultural politics.

After all, the contestants do. "We're back to America," said Parvati Shallow, formerly of the white tribe, after the reassignments to ethnically balanced groups. "We're a melting pot."

To the contrary, rather than making an argument for integration and inclusion, the rejiggering did a better job highlighting the shortsightedness of its participants. Take Stephannie Favor, formerly of the African American tribe, who noted, post-merger: "The way our tribe is blended at this point, it's all about people and who we are and what we bring to the table. You really don't see color, you see the heart of that individual, and what they're doing to make your tribe stronger."

The inescapable conclusion is that when groups were segregated by race, it was the only thing members could see, which is patently false. There were promising potential rifts in each group, now lost.

Instead, the new tribes quickly rearranged along familiar axes. The result is that "Survivor" has now become a war between competing acculturation strategies -- Opportunists vs. Hippies. At the show's "tribal council" elimination, Yul Kwon, who falls squarely in the former camp, outlined the dilemma neatly: "Some people are strategizing and trying to make alliances and came here to play hard to win the game. I think other people came here hoping this would be a personally fulfilling experience for everyone."

In other words, back to "Survivor's" quotidian quibbling, its thankless manipulations, its insufferable lethargy. It'll be interesting to see if members of certain ethnic groups will be eliminated sooner than others, but the show's chance to make broad statements, for better and worse, has been neutered.

Nevertheless, "Survivor" could still live up to its potential as a lens into American society's darker corners. After all, the struggle to get ahead -- and conversation about how best to do so -- is maybe the only puzzle more particularly American than race itself.

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