Hardship for the hell of it


In the 1950s, according to film historians, all those Godzilla movies and other B-films in which ordinary-sized things were supersized-from giant ants to 50-foot women-were products of the world's Cold War fear of annihilation from nuclear war, and Russians.

Nothing could stop the nuclear Armageddon, not even Tokyo's perpetually replenished (and quite excitable) police department. Back then, I was going from fallout-shelter drills during school hours to films like Day of the Triffids on weekends, and I never connected the experiences. These were just monster movies.

I was thinking about that recently when-and you must continue reading even after I start writing about Survivor, just about a line from now-I tried to figure out what turned S into such an unpredictable hit. And then it struck me: Maybe it had to do with our own fear of prosperity. Or boredom with it.

The fact is, the only people who actually did any organized complaining about S were members of PETA, who were mad that perfectly good rats and slimy bugs were being wasted for CBS.

But once, maybe in the Reagan years, somebody would have pointed out the indignity of mythologizing 16 men and women who were playing a pretend game of survivor while "out on the streets, there are millions of starving, out-of-work, out-of-luck Americans engaged in an all-too-real struggle to live day to day" and blah and blah and blah. I could just hear Geraldo saying that, Hugh Downs bobbing his head in shamed agreement.

And it's still true. There are poor people.

But you know what? We're too rich, or at least we're pretty comfortable, to care too much. As a nation, we're fatter than we've ever been. We're still driving SUVs despite their horrendous consumption of fuel, and we've got just about more phones than we have telephone numbers. To paraphrase the old song by Cameo, we got things we can't even pronounce.

They're just closing down the pumice mine in Arizona that made a fortune in the manufacture of stonewashed jeans made to look worn (because, really, none of us are doing enough hard work to beat up a pair of jeans the old-fashioned way). Native Americans, who hit their own rough patch in the real-life survivor sweepstakes a couple, three hundred years ago, successfully complained that the pumice plant was on sacred ground. But the owners pointed out it was just about time to close up shop anyway, because modern science has now discovered how to artificially make jeans look worn, well, artificially.

Modern television has given Americans a way to experience hardship. CBS made deprivation part of the game, kind of a nostalgia thing.

That probably explains Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, too. One of the strategies of the game is giving up when you've got enough. But curiously, losers aren't crushed; they're just kind of wrinkled. There's no desperation in it. There doesn't have to be.

Likewise, with S, it's revealing to me that none of the castaways were on the island because they needed the money; no one was pathetically poor or indebted. No one needed that million for an iron lung for auntie.

But honest, I didn't mind S (but it needed a Gordon Lightfoot kind of singer, I think, to turn each episode into a doleful ballad), and I'm not overthinking What It Means. I am saying that, if the economy were bad, the idea of an entertainment show about real men and women battling and conniving to survive and to eat, would be close enough to reality to make a show like S really uncomfortable. And a failure.

But these days, there's a chicken in every pot (and on Big Brother they raise'em, though mainly as a visual), jobs for everyone, and initial public offerings that hold out the possibility you'll be a millionaire by the time your voice changes. Life is pretty easy, even if, as it turns out, national prosperity really isn't much fun. That's why thousands of Americans are beckoning to be chosen for three weeks of torture in the Australian outback for Survivor II. They've never had it so good, that's why.

P.J. Bednarski is the executive editor of Broadcasting & Cable. His column will appear every other week. He can be reached at pbednarski@cahners.com.