As the seventeeth season of Mark Burnett's annoying “dramality” begins
let's revisit the first season with someone who was there. By Bill Vaughn
BECAUSE I AM A vindictive and self-indulgent man, I am given to all manner of fits and childish acts. But this deranged vendetta, even for me, was majorly over the top.
In the bow of a rushing, 35-foot fishing dory, wedged against the boat's hardwood ribs to prevent the whitecaps from hurling me into the South China Sea, I was loading one-quart Glad-Lock Zipper Bags with miniature bottles of Bombay Sapphire gin, one bottle per bag, along with a snotty personal note. When each unit was complete I inflated it with a puff of breath, sealed it, and tossed it angrily into the surf building just off our starboard side. It would drift briefly, I figured, before washing up on the surprisingly empty, agonizingly close beaches of Pulau Tiga, a wet, jungly island twice the size of Central Park, seven miles off Borneo's northwestern coast.
When my rivals came upon this alcoholic virus from the sea, their behavior would be altered, fates would waver, the future would warp, and I would have at least a taste of the yummy revenge I'd traveled 10,000 miles to enjoy. Or best-case scenario:My infantile meddling would cause their whole dumb show to not go on at all.
I'm talking about Survivor, a concoction of game show, endurance contest, and soap opera being taped by CBS at that very moment just out of sight on this very island. If you haven't watched one of these episodes yet because you've just emerged from an ashram or a coma, here's the theme: Eight men and eight women are “marooned" on a “deserted” equatorial island; for 39 days they must ferret out food, water, and shelter, plus avoid the lethalities that thrive on equatorial islands. Multiple crews of image workers take turns filming their struggle, aided by hidden surveillance cameras—coconut cams, I suppose, yam cams, whatever. As a booster in the fuel of this narrative engine, the hardy castaways must meet every three days in a “tribal council” and cast secret ballots to banish one of their own from the game, presumably for not playing nice.
Sixteen go in, one comes out.
When only two remain, a congress of ejectees votes to choose the ultimate survivor. U.S. audiences will witness this historic moment during the show's 13th and final episode this August. The plucky champ wins One Million Dollars!
But let's get back to me. The squall that had blown in just as we left the mainland was now peeling spray off the whitecaps, and I was drenched. I realized that in order to get a real chance of monkeywrenching the show, I'd have to go ashore. However, I'd been warned by august persons administering the East Malaysian state of Sabah that setting foot on their beloved Pulau Tiga at this time would not be allowed, that until filming was completed in two weeks the island belonged to CBS and trespassers would be subject to arrest.
My captain, a sweet-tempered, twentysomething fisherman thrilled to be earning some unexpected touro-bucks, suddenly killed the engine.
“Speedo, wassup?” I yelled sternward toward the cabin. I often called him Speedo, but his real name was Robin Sabribummus.
“Tiga?” he shouted, confused. “This is where you want?”
I wiped the brine from my eyes and stood. The first mate, Saoler Koril, was tying the boat to the piling of a pier running some 50 yards from sea to shore. There was no sign of life on the island, and I wondered, not for the first time, if the whole show was a hoax filmed back in L.A.—a conspiracy theory of mine no doubt inspired by those rumors that the moon landings were staged. How else to explain why we had so easily slipped past the armada of goons in powerboats I'd been warned about?
I had been preparing six months for this moment. I had an agenda (disrupting business as usual for CBS). I had a strategy (get the contestants drunk, burn down the set). I bore the necessary tools of insurrection (more units of booze-with-message, a conch, matches). On the other hand the thought of some Malay prison, where robust, trembling felons would inquire in whispers whether I wanted to be the mama or the papa, lacked appeal.
As Speedo and Mr. Koril stared and waited, I wavered. But only for a moment.
FIRST CBS BROKE MY HEART. Then CBS pissed me off.
On October 9, I opened my morning paper to discover an intriguing headline: “Survive This.” The story told how a producer named Mark Burnett was soliciting applicants for a “reality-based” entertainment about people cooperating, or not, in their quest to cope with the rigors of precivilized life on an uninhabited tropical island. The photo showed footprints on a gleaming beach, thatch-roofed huts on stilts, and palms leaning artfully toward a tranquil lagoon—most everyone's idea of Eden.
Although I hadn't thought about it for 30 years, the searing imagery in Lord of the Flies swarmed across my brain. When I had read and read again William Golding's novel as a freshman in high school, I didn't see it as a statement that man's institutions are evil because man is evil. All I knew was that the book had overwhelmed me with a sudden, aching need to be someone else, far away. My father was a furious redneck tyrant, my mother had died when I was seven, and we were living in a trailer court scraped from a sugar beet field in North Dakota. I began to identify with the characters. First I was Ralph, the reasonable social democrat who believed in the survival value of cooperation. Then I was Jack, the bloodthirsty hunter who bent others to his will just for the fun of it. Finally I decided I was most like Simon, the dreamy mystic who wandered fearlessly around the jungle communing with the spirit world. Although selfless and hardworking and brave, Simon nevertheless ended up tragically—killed by his peers—and romantically, I thought at the time, his battered body carried away by the tide. Before I finally put away the book, I saw that it was actually the splendid, primordial isolation of Golding's good island itself that appealed to me most, this lush, nurturing playground free from the shackles of school and work and all those dreary adult expectations.
I dropped the paper and loped to my computer to download a Survivor application. Here was a chance to verify whether my adolescent fantasy was something that could actually come true or was merely an illusion fabricated by desire. In the space where the application asked who my hero is, I wrote Muhammad Ali, of course. When it asked which of the Gilligan's Island castaways I identified with, I replied that these were cartoon people and that a better question would be which character in Lord of the Flies was most like me (again, Simon). And I answered the query about why I thought I could be the ultimate survivor by bragging that I was wise enough to understand that the thing that tears apart groups faster than anything is sex. More important, I told them, I know how to make alcohol from fruit.
Then I hired a team to film the three-minute videotape of myself CBS demanded. I put together a vignette in which I rode my mare around, showed off a footbridge I had built, and cut firewood with my chainsaw between bursts of monologue intended to portray me as an engaging dinner partner, even if dinner was, say, rat-on-a-stick. When I emerged from the post office after sending off my package to Beverly Hills, I was euphoric. I looked forward to the phone call arranging my first interview with the producers.
It was a call that never came.
When I read that the initial pool of 800 quarterfinalists had been culled from more than 6,000 applications, I was devastated. I fell into a deep and simmering funk. My wife, Kitty, avoided me. The dogs studied me from a distance. I sat outside and let snowstorms bury me. Finally I saw the light. There was another way to get to the island of my dreams.
First, I landed a magazine assignment to write about the show. Next, I talked my way into the press corps that CBS was organizing for a two-day, canned tour of Pulau Tiga during filming. I got my shots and took the first of six weekly anti-malarial mefloquine pills. (Nightmares are one of the drug's side effects, and I had a doozy straight out of Lord of the Flies. In it, I had indeed been accepted by the contestants as a player, but only because I kept my face hidden behind a deposed contestant's head, which was impaled on a stick sharpened at both ends. When I woke up I decided I'd rather suffer malaria than another dream like that.)
Then, in March, mere days before my trip, CBS threw me off the press bus. The publicity minion handling my arrangements, a Colleen Sullivan, said that I would have to be “bumped” because the media corps had grown too unwieldy and Mark Burnett was getting nervous about the distraction. I was floored again. Rejected both as a contestant and as a journalist covering the contestants—a double rejectee!—I issued a blood oath on the spot: I would storm the island on my own. But not as a fan—as a sworn enemy.
EVER SINCE THE FOX Network's Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? aired last February, the media have been atwitter over the ethics of reality TV. Professional handwringers began colliding in their stampede to condemn the artifice and Darwinian cruelty of shows like Survivor. “Has television lost its mind?” the Washington Post whined, adding another jewel to some pedant's collection of oxymorons. “Why does so much mass-produced culture seem addicted to the lurid, the amoral or the just plain out there?” Rather than reflecting society's norms, the Post sermonized, sleazy television may be lowering them. Blah, blah, blah.
Let's not forget that America's norms included, for an era much longer than the brief lifespan of TV, entertainments dominated by blood sports like public torture and execution. I defend television because I am a true devotee; in our house it's called teedle, and I spend at least four hours a day basking in teedle's wan, consoling light. At the top of my personal “reality” curve would be two offerings from Comedy Central, Win Ben Stein's Money and The Man Show. At the bottom is a viewing disaster called Eco-Challenge, an annual hard-core adventure race set in various rugged locales. This April's Eco-Challenge Argentina, in which teams of four hardbodies raced by foot and horse and kayak for 12 days across 197 miles of Patagonia, was the worst. Because it was a matter of hours that separated the athletes at the finish line, rather than seconds, watching the little figures skitter around the scenery was like waiting for seawater to evaporate so you can get some salt. Coincidentally, the race director and the man who sold the Eco-Challenge idea to the Discovery Channel is none other than Mark Burnett.
Let's also not forget that this new wave of reality television swamping America came from Europe—Highbrow Heaven, home of your Wagners, your Prousts, your Klees. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was a British idea. Mark Burnett bought the concept of Survivor from the Swedes, who have been producing their Expedition Robinson for three years on an island off the West Malaysian state of Johor. (The winner of that contest gets a mere 65 grand.)
One day, while searching obsessively through all the trash being written about the show, I opened my paper and found an Associated Press photo of the chosen ones. The women looked like marginally worthy opponents, but the men! You couldn't find a less promising collection of gomers at any of those backwater beer joints frequented by poachers and shade-tree mechanics. OK, one, Rudy, 72, was an ex–Navy SEAL, and Sean, 30, claimed to be a neurologist, but looking at them, I knew I could outwit them blindfolded. How this dim and sneering bunch passed ten days of grilling by CBS and six hours of psychological testing was a mystery. My bitterness was now complete.
Meanwhile the show moved on without me, and the contestants were shipped off to Pulau Tiga, where they were discovering that the island can be a formidably unhealthy place for campers. No Club Med, it swarms with evil vectors that bite and suck and cause malaria and Japanese encephalitis, mammals that harbor rabies, plus poisonous spiders and snakes and unrelenting heat and humidity. And even though CBS planted sugarcane and tapioca on the island to supplement their crude diet of fruit, fish, and vermin, the players were being scrutinized every waking moment by overfed helicopter and ground crews. Add to all of this the humiliation of a national audience watching as you walk the Walk of Shame off the island, and it's no wonder CBS felt compelled to supply the losers with a shrink as they were whisked away via chopper. (The first ejectee from 1997's Expedition Robinson, a Bosnian refugee who was reported to have been suffering from depression, killed himself shortly before the show aired.)
No comforting shrinks were laid on by the suits at CBS for this unbalanced writer, however, after they rejected me not once, but twice. But, hey, that's OK. I believe that doing something amusing with your rage is the best therapy of all.
SO IN THE FIRST MOMENTS of April Fool's Day I boarded a Malaysian Air 747 in Los Angeles, popped three Xanax tablets, and woke up half a day later in Taiwan, my new khaki shirt soaked with drool. Five hours later I got off another jet in Kota Kinabalu, or KK as the locals call it, a hard-driving berg of 112,000 souls crammed into blocks of boxy high-rises painted colors not found in nature or squalid collections of tin-roofed shacks built on stilts in polluted tidal basins. I stepped outside into air that felt like the inside of a sweat lodge. Within seconds my hair was the temperature of broiled wire.
My hotel, the Magellan Sutera Sabah, was a striking white-stucco complex with red-tile roofs sprawled on a sequestered landfill jutting into the South China Sea. Opulent and friendly at the same time, it was the ideal venue in which to conceal myself while I spied on media people and the CBS production teams rotating back and forth from Pulau Tiga, where filming had been going on for three weeks. I learned from my map that the island was two hours southwest by car and then a half-hour by boat.
On the way to my room I spotted an American with a ponytail lugging a duffel bag bearing the CBS logo. I introduced myself with my nom de guerre, Richard Kraneum, fearless book designer, and found out that he was an American journalist named Julian who'd worked for CBS at one time but was in Borneo to write an article for a weekly magazine about a show called Survivor.
“Survivor?” I mugged. “What's that?”
The next day, I struggled to conceal my glee when Julian surrendered the name of a Survivor ejectee, which a CBS crewman with more mouth than brain had let slip that morning. Julian, of course, had been forced to sign the network's insanely restrictive “Embargo Agreement” forbidding him from publishing anything about the fate of the contestants. I am not under any such restraint.
The loser's name, as you may have learned by now if you've been tuning in, is Joel.
“Jeez,” I said. “Think they put Joel up at the hotel?”
Julian was watching a burly man with beard and sunburn make his way across the lobby. “That might be Joel right there.”
“Let's follow him,” I suggested.
But beardo was moving as if on a mission, and we lost him. Julian headed off on errands just as a helicopter roared into view and landed on the jetty guarding the marina nearby. I hurried to investigate. A couple of louts disembarked into a waiting golf cart and zipped past me back toward the hotel. They were wearing T-shirts with the Survivor logo (outwit, outplay, outlast) on the front and the plea don't vote me off on the back. Duh.
I caught up with them just as they were making their way into the lobby. They were laughing about Joel, wondering how he was filling his lonely days. As I eavesdropped on their gossip about another loser, Ramona, I also learned that they'd been assigned to pick up pizza from Ferdinand's, the Italian restaurant in the hotel. The pizza was going to be airlifted back to the island via the chopper, possibly as a reward for the winner of some silly swimming or fishing or blowdart contest that Mark Burnett had cooked up to keep the players at each other's throats. More important than the treats, the winners of these contests would be immune for one episode from the Walk of Shame. Or maybe the pizza was a morale-builder for the crew. Not that they needed it. They were feasting like swine on deli snacks and cold beer at the Survivor Bar, a trough built for them on the island.
I began to think that Mark Burnett was a lot like me, even though he was now my enemy. Well, yes, he was some sort of British expatriate raised in humble beginnings who claims to have been a British paratrooper, while I was a pinko raised in humble beginnings who had once made a modest career scorning my government from the pages of a leftist newspaper my cadre published called the Borrowed Times. Yet I believe that, like me, Burnett's amusements as a boy included putting different sorts of insects into a jar to see which species would triumph. While Burnett originated the unfortunate Eco-Challenge notion and had his own production company, I spent five years organizing the Festival of Champions, an annual event staged in remote Missoula County, Montana, where players from all walks of life vied for lava lamps in contests like paintball wars and roadkill cook-offs. As far as I could tell the only thing he had over me was that in photos he looked OK in floppy hats, whereas I look like Ichabod Crane on mescaline.
The next morning, with a growing James Bondian savoir faire, I happened to step into the hall outside my room right behind a crew guy in a Survivor T-shirt.
“Don't vote me off what?” I called in my hearty, American-touring-the-Orient voice.
He explained the Survivor concept and I nodded with enthusiasm as we walked to the lobby, where a crowd of production people and journalists was gathering for buses that were going to transport them to some fishing village where the boats to Pulau Tiga awaited.
“One guy totally freaked out,” my man volunteered when I asked him how the contestants were holding up.
“Wow,” I said. “Who was this guy?”
“Some guy named Bob. They shipped him back to the States.”
I wondered if this was the self-destructive player I'd heard about who had been banished from the island by a united female vote after declaring that the only thing stupider than a woman was a cow. The women mooed as he left.
A pair of white minibuses rolled up to the Magellan and the mob piled on board. As they pulled away I noticed an empty seat. This sucks, I thought. I have to get to Pulau Tiga, and pronto.
IN THE COUNTRY'S official language, Bahasa Malaysia, “Pulau Tiga” means “three islands.” This tiny archipelago is known to tourists as Pulau Tiga Park. The smallest island, Pulau Kalumpunian Besar, is sinking; at low tide only an S-shaped strip of sandbar pokes through the surf. The middle islet is a fang-shaped bit of wild terra 200 yards long known as Pulau Ular, or Snake Island. It's home to gazillions of yellow-lipped sea kraits, striped, three-foot nasties with flattened tails and sealable nostrils enabling them to swim underwater every night while they feast on eels. By day they return to the beaches to lay eggs, suntan, and excrete salt. Not a bad gig for serpents, but their crib was certainly not a fit habitat for Richard Kraneum, mostly because the krait is one of the planet's top ten poisonous snakes.
The big island of Pulau Tiga itself, all 1,500 acres of it, is a can of Volcano Lite: Its main geographical features are three low hills formed from superheated mud that spews periodically from the earth's bowels. The last major spewage occurred in 1941, and there are still vents here and there that fart gases and steam. The island is home to troops of long-tailed macaques that live on the mangosteens, rambutans, jambus, mata kucings, and other fruits thriving among the groves of palm and dense thickets of casuarina and barrington trees. Flying foxes also live here, plus sea turtles, monitor lizards, pythons, and bearded pigs. Then there's the curious megapode, a big-footed bird that is built like a chicken and emits a cry they say sounds just like a cat's.
To the credit of the Malaysians, this peculiar little world of sea and jungle was designated a forest reserve way back in 1933, one of the many sanctuaries the government has put aside to save them from ruin. But Pulau Tiga Park is not, as CBS would like the world to believe, deserted. And it is certainly not undeveloped. There are groomed trails, park service buildings where rangers live, a guest house, and a hostel. Plus a diving operator named Douglas Primus has a small, new resort whose first guests have been Mark Burnett's production crews. Last year a thousand tourists visited Pulau Tiga Park, up more than 10 percent from the year before, which was 10 percent more than the year before that.
“But you cannot go there,” I was told by Francis Liew, the deputy director of the board of trustees of the Sabah Parks. I had taken a cab to his office in a slab of government buildings facing the central market. “Not until after April 20, when they're done filming.”
I asked him what sort of money CBS had put up for the use of Pulau Tiga.
“Oh, none at all.”
“Then what are you guys getting out of it?”
“Americans will see the program and they'll visit Sabah.”
At dawn the next morning I stood in my skivvies on the balcony of my room and surveyed the restless sea. Suddenly a pack of skinny Malaysian dogs shot onto the lawns below, chasing a feral cat. One of the dogs lunged and caught the tip of the cat's tail. They played catch with the poor animal and then killed it in a murderous frenzy that left me nauseated. This was a dark omen for my assault on the island, but I packed my bag anyway, including two dozen units of booze-with-message, the 12-inch conch shell I'd also brought all the way from home, and a box of hotel matches in a Baggie.
I hired a cab to take me the 60 miles south to Kuala Penyu, a fishing village clustered around an estuary. In his confusion about the mission, the Indonesian driver took me straight to a dock owned by the Sabah Park Service. As I surveyed the waterfront, a cabin cruiser pulled up and deposited a large Indian man with gleaming teeth before pulling away again. I told him I wanted to go to the island and could he arrange for that cabin cruiser to come back and get me?
“Sir, that is certainly a fine boat,” he cried happily. “But it belongs to CBS, and since you are not CBS you cannot ride upon it. Were you CBS you would be on your way”—and here he brushed the palm of one hand against the other—“as we speak.”
CBS can't own all these stupid boats, I thought. Behind a grimy café called Kedai Ah Ann I found a row of wooden dories bobbing in the dirty brown water. A crowd emerged from the café, led by a boss man. They turned out to be fishermen who worked at night.
“How much will you pay?” the boss man asked when I told him what I wanted.
I withdrew a $100 bill.
“These will take you,” he said, pointing to Robin Sabribummus and Saoler Koril.
As we motored along the estuary and into the bay I scrunched down in the bow as far as I could so the bureaucrats at the Park Service office couldn't spot me. Five minutes out to sea the squall hit and I thought I might die. My heart was pounding with fear and the acidic zeal of the rejected suitor.
A HALF HOUR later Mr. Koril was tying us to the pier at Pulau Tiga. At long last my revenge was at hand. I listened for the sound of generators or helicopters that would tell me where the set was. It was the 23rd day of filming, and I knew Mark Burnett was on this island, not very far away. Wait—was that the scent of exhaust from a generator? I filled my lungs with air. There it was again. I slung my pack over one shoulder, jumped from the boat, and strode down the pier.
First things first. “I claim this island,” I announced as I stepped ashore, “for myself.”
I made my way down the beach toward the source of this faint exhaust, mindful of monitors and kraits and pigs. Not to mention spycams. But by now I really didn't care. The thought of that empty seat on the minibus was a very bad thing running round my brain. I began tossing zipper bags with notes and gin onto the coarse coral sand and up into the jungle.
“Dear Survivor,” my messages said. “If I were on the island instead of these pathetic losers like Joel, you'd be having at least 3.8 times as much fun as you're having right now, assuming you're having any fun at all. Anyway, while this little offering brightens your day I hope you'll wonder who I am.” The notes were signed, of course, “Richard Kraneum.”
I reached into my pack and found my bag of matches from the Magellan. I saw again my vision of the island on fire, lustrous amber flames in the palm trees rising against the charcoal sky, a shuddering, cleansing inferno just like the one that roared across Golding's island at the end of Lord of the Flies. You want reality, Mr. Burnett? You got it. Run, TV boy!
Then I flung the bag away as if it were burning my hand. Mama, what was I thinking? Mark Burnett wasn't the island's fault! There wasn't some twisted force haunting Pulau Tiga, compelling CBS to deny me my desires! And even if I were crazed enough to try and start a forest fire, the island wouldn't let me. The jungle was so wet a flame thrower wouldn't have a chance.
Besides, I realized, why should I risk serious Malaysian pokey time for something as cooked and contrived as Survivor? I had my own adventure show at hand, a remake of Lord of the Flies starring me as any of the characters I chose to be, and here and now was the good island on which to act it out.
I waded into the surf. The water was not warmer than my blood, as was the lagoon into which Ralph stepped at the beginning of the novel, but it was warm. I withdrew my conch, a gorgeous Triton's Trumpet, and blew into it from deep in my belly as hard as I could, just as Ralph had done to summon his fellow castaways. The shell issued a harsh, raucous note. Seabirds fled.
Far down the beach I saw the wavering images of people running in my direction. CBS goons, no doubt. I panicked—what a chicken, after all!—and scurried back to the boat, where I rewarded Speedo and Mr. Koril with bottles of gin. I was about to open one for myself when I was overcome by another compulsion. I ordered my crew to wait again, and I sprinted back down the pier, turned toward the figures now looming larger, dropped my trousers, and bent over.
A COUPLE OF DAYS later, just minutes into my flight home, I looked down and there were the islands of Pulau Tiga Park, surrounded by shallow seas precisely the same shade of blue as the bottles of Sapphire I'd left on those very beaches.
“Tag,” I whispered. “You're it.”
Weary, but happy that I had finally flushed William Golding from my soul and was going home, I leaned back and opened my newspaper.
Holy moly! Here was a squib about a new reality show that CBS intends to film this summer. It's called Big Brother, and it centers around ten people confined for three months inside a house in Los Angeles, where they must bake their own bread, grow their own vegetables, and tend to a flock of chickens. The winner gets $500,000. •
COPYRIGHT © 2006 BILL VAUGHN