Surviving in the Mainstrrrm

09/03/2010 at 11:06 am 1 comment

A prologue / preview / preamble / preliminary post pre-empting a progressive persuasion, picking apart the preconceptions of popular culture, performance and post-Howard arts funding.

Part Zero: Survivor Season Twenty: Heroes vs Villains

I’m no friend to ‘reality’ TV but this has become one of my favourite shows of recent times. It’s pure-grilled American cheese, true; and after ten years and nineteen seasons you have to hand it to the folks behind this for keeping it real. Rarely have you seen characters of this complexity outside HBO; and for that, each self-contained series provides its own fascinating insight into the human condition. Herein lies the reason why Survivor, one of the original forays into the genre has outlasted the competition (at least on Australian screens), and spawned countless variations on the theme.

Take the last season: even if you didn’t watch it you might have seen the ads centred around “Evil Russell”; who pulled off some serious Machiavellian shit during his time on the island. He’s a study in manipulation – perfect fodder for an actor taking on Iago or anyone writing political drama. Oh, he’s got charm alright, a wicked sense of humour, an ego the size of a Texan oil field and it’s all out there. He’s like Al Swearengen from Deadwood only real. He’s also less foul and murderous, so it’s win-win.

This is frankly the kind of thing that Australian television (‘reality’ or not) misses dearly. Characters seem to be cast/chosen for their lack of defining features – whereas in this show, the more interesting are celebrated. Season twenty is no exception. You couldn’t write these kinds of people if you tried – somehow it would seem stereotyped, but within the high-pressure scenario of the game we get a real glimpse of humanity stripped to its core. The characters are quite literally dehydrated, starved, and harassed by the elements to the point where any veneer of civilisation is gone. Thus we get some seriously catty and catastrophic clashes, and when things go downhill they can get really bad, and fast.

Given the social dynamic is unpredictable – it can also be a very smart show. Last season I was impressed to see the producers chose to focus on a confrontation that centred around racism. When one contestant called another “ghetto trash” without a hint of irony (i’m not racist… but); his tribemate calmly, eloquently explained how these kinds of comments are offensive. When was the last time you saw anyone calmly talking about race on commercial TV that was Australian made? We just don’t go there. I’d argue that this is part of the reason so many Australian ‘reality’ shows go belly up. The slightest hint of politics and you can find the producers hiding under the nearest giant clamshell.

The hype: Heroes vs Villains is an unfortunate typecast that vastly oversimplifies the characters in play. The appeal behind the show is that the characters transcend such easy categorisation. But it plays to the fans – who love and loathe their favourites with a passion. Any one of these contenders are a genuine prospect to win, which ups the ante no end, especially since many of them seem to be playing for pride (hardly anyone cares about a paltry million dollars these days) – and you know what comes before a fall. The Egos have landed, in Royal New Zealand Air Force Helicopters, no less.

Despite your opinion of the show’s appeal, it’s hard to ignore the degree of influence Survivor has had over the industry. Not too many other shows have made it to Season Twenty. What can we learn from this? Well, some basic principles apply:

1) It’s ok to have diversity within a show, Gay, Black, Asian, Latin, Big, Small, Rich, Poor, whatever – without making it the theme of the show. This is critical for writers especially; don’t make a character’s ethnicity central to their function in the narrative. It will just perpetuate the stereotype. For such a diversely populated country it’s pretty embarrassing that one of our longest running shows depicts a coastal town with not even one Chinese Restaurant.

2) An original idea is gold. Remember the Australian version of Survivor? Neither does anybody else. There’s no point in copying what the US or UK does, and then wondering why it’s not as good. This goes as much for live theatre as TV, we need to get out from under our elder sisters’ wings and define our own stories. Survivor made up its own rules and stuck by them, in doing so defined a new genre. We can afford that kind of thinking if we want to make a proper mark in creative history.

As advertised, I’m using this post as a preamble to discuss the future of Arts funding. “What’s my point?”, you must be wondering. Well the fact is that what gets funded is generally considered to be “popular” or “mainstream” arts. There are parallels between TV & theatre which go beyond the two relatively simple lessons I have drawn from the success of Survivor. Yes, we could use more diversity and yes, we can afford to step away from the constant crutch of ‘classic’ works from other cultures (and other centuries). But more to the point, the concept of “mainstream” is really just a construct used to perpetuate a myth of what’s popular. But when you look at the battleground for prime time TV – the longest surviving, most influential (and thus most popular) shows all broke the mould. The Simpsons, M*A*S*H, Survivor, Monty Python; even Twin Peaks ran for five years.

But it seems our Arts Council seems intent of handing the majority of funding to those who emphasise presentation of “popular” European and American plays. I’m not suggesting there’s no place for it, but it seems odd that there’s an imbalance between prioritising that and funding new Australian work as well. Like a fifty-fifty split at least you think? If you want to make a splash in the cutthroat world of mainstream TV you have to be bold, you have to be different, you have to swim your own way. You have to be prepared to drown. It’s not a stream when everybody wants in; it’s stormy weather. Besides, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a blindfolded man do a faceplant into a table maze.

In the coming days I am going to expand on this thesis for increasing the proportion of funding for local product, and emphasising new work. There’s a lot of discussion that’s preceded this move, and I’ll be talking on that too. It’s a huge debate that’s gone on for years and years, some of which I touched on in the review for Mike Mullins’ presentation Politics of Change a couple of weeks ago. I’ll be looking at Cate Blanchett’s speech to the APAM and the various responses; and putting a case for redefining notions of popular culture and mainstream art.

Survivor: Season Twenty “Heroes & Villains” starts tonight on one of the commercial channels. The one with everywhere Eddie.

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FOR ONCE I DON’t KNOW WHAT TO SAY When Less Variety is More… Bloggers Unite!

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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

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