Survivor: An Escape from Reality through Reality Television

By the summer of 2000, we had survived Y2K, and 9/11 was inconceivable. The world was different, innocent. There were no smart phones, no social media, the internet was still for students and nerds. In May, a new TV show debuted called Survivor, kicking off the silver age of Reality TV. Started by The Real World on MTV over half a decade earlier, Reality TV was about to become a cheap form of entertainment and change pop culture forever. Unlike the Real World where some young adults lived together in an apartment or house in a big city, Survivor took the concept, moved it to an exotic location and made it into a game show. Not only did these people have to survive themselves and each other on a tropical island, but they competed for money.

That summer my father wasn’t doing well. His heart was failing quickly, and he was often in the hospital. My mother and sister and I would travel an hour to the hospital to be with my father where he stayed for weeks at a time. One of the side effects of heart failure is his body couldn’t dispel excess water, yet he felt thirsty. He thirsted as someone walking the desert and begged for water as if he was an addict. We were permitted by the hospital staff to fetch ice chips in a plastic orange cup every hour. After we left my father and we would get home right before Survivor started.

I remember watching every episode with my mom. We would sit on the couch and watch this new game show, unlike anything else on TV at the time. For the hour after we would debate what we just watched: who was right, who did a good job, who was a jerk, who we want to win. The contestants were winnowed down, week after week, until there were only a few left. We watched Survivor because that world was a little worse than our own; these people had no food, no shade, no water, trapped on this island, with mostly unpleasant contestants. The show distracted us from the hospital for a little while.

On August 14 my dad got a heart pump, a mechanical device surgically set in his stomach and pumping for his heart. Power cords connected batteries to the outside of his body. I just started a new job and could barely focus, terrified what would happen. I don’t remember watching Survivor that week, but I would be surprised if we missed the second to the last episode. We probably watched, but we couldn’t even be distracted by television, our minds still on the hospital. As the first season ended, I remember watching with my mother in our living room. I had just gotten home after a 90-minute drive from my job in the Detroit suburbs when it started. The finalists were whittled down to Richard and Kelly. I wasn’t cheering for either, but anxiously waiting for the result nonetheless.

In a twist, the past contestants were brought back to choose the winner. Each took a turn voting for Kelly or Richard, standing up and writing a name on a card and after six votes, a three-three tie. Right before they cut to the commercial, the last person put her sharpie to the paper.

“I know who won,” my mother said.

“How?”

“I saw where she put her pen on the paper.”

I saw it too but pretended I didn’t. The contestant placed the marker at the bottom left of the card. If starting in the upper right, she could have written K or R, but in the lower right, the letter was most certainly an R. Richard won. I played dumb, wanting 5 more minutes, just a few moments for this show to distract me from life. I hoped that maybe it wouldn’t end, maybe another twist.

Richard Hatch was not the only survivor that August. My father, also Richard, was a survivor. The heart pump improved his health greatly and assisted him until he was eligible for a heart transplant. He made it through two major surgeries and a lot of complications, and he’s still going.

I never watched another episode of Survivor. I tried to watch the next season, but I wasn’t interested anymore. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen a real survivor. I’ve witnessed the pain of illness and the difficulty of recovery. I’ve experienced medical challenges and watch my father going through something much worse than any TV producers could think up. Reality TV can only distract you from so much, and maybe from what’s the most important: family, love, living in the moment.◾️


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