The cast of Surivor: Borneo is stacked with plenty of characters who were, by the year 2000, already familiar reality-TV types: there’s Dirk, the Bible-beating farm boy; Richard, the scheming gay guy; Colleen, the cute, free-spirited hippie chick. But what’s striking is the actual diversity of the castaways/tribe members. Sure, the group skewed younger and more attractive than the American populace, but the original cast included three players over the age of 60. Sweet, accident-prone Sonja was the first to get the boot, and the island’s remaining fogies, B.B. and Rudy, are the focal point of this episode, “The Generation Gap.”
As I started watching this episode, I was a little sad knowing that B.B. would be sent packing by the end of the hour. How could those youngin’s vote him off? He’s such a hard worker! He made them chopsticks! Have they ever made chopsticks for anyone? But it quickly dawned on me: B.B. is a total nightmare. He’s erratic, mule-headed, and—worst of all—kind of an idiot when it comes to basic survival skills. He insists on building the team shelter out in the open, on a strip of sand that’s underwater during high tide. Then he washes his shirt (the one with the pictures of his family on it) in a bucket of fresh water, and tries to pretend it’s no big deal. B.B. is not the most consistent thinker. He whines about the lack of team effort, then he bitches about the idea of group votes. “This is not a democracy. I’ll vote on things that don’t matter, but things that matter, my comfort, I won’t vote,” he kvetches. $10 says that B.B. is somewhere at a Tea Party rally as we speak.
Then B.B. makes a radical suggestion: maybe they should intentionally throw the immunity challenge, that way they’ll have fewer mouths to feed. B.B. being B.B., he actually refers to it as the “indemnity challenge,” which is hilarious (equally hilarious: when he absentmindedly calls Jenna “the lady in the pink swimming suit.”) At this very early stage, it’s interesting that B.B. clearly doesn’t really understand the strategy of the game. Thinning the herd would make sense if Survivor were really about living off the land, but it’s not. As Richard’s eventual victory proved, the game is about strategy more than physical hardiness. B.B. takes his crazy idea one step further and suggests voting himself off, but he instantly starts to backpedal, warning that if he or Gretchen gets voted off “that’d be like dropping an atomic bomb.”
If B.B.’s erratic behavior is surprising, then Rudy’s tolerant streak is even more so. “The Generation Gap” plays a lot like an episode of The Real World: Borneo. The rest of his tribe already knows abut Richard’s sexuality, but they all worry about how Rudy the old-timer will respond to the news. As they sit around discussing Richard’s “homosexual lifestyle” (a phrase that strikes me as inherently judgmental, somehow), Rudy stands a few feet away, throwing knives at a tree—or at least that’s what the editors make us think. We’re made to believe that Rudy is going to be some kind of bigot, and primed for a big confrontation, but Rudy mostly just shrugs at the news. Sure, he uses some politically incorrect jargon (“queer”), but he seems to care less about Richard’s sexuality than, say, Sean, who nervously suggests Rudy drink a beer before applying sunblock to Richard’s back. Rudy even sings Richard’s praises. “The homosexual, he’s one of the nicest guys I ever met,” he says. “Me and Richard got to be pretty good friends, not in a homosexual way, ’dat’s for sure.” Duly noted, Rudy.
Both B.B. and Rudy are vivid reminders of something that too many reality producers have forgotten: old people make for great TV. Subsequent iterations of Survivor, which is now in its 23rd (!) season, have been much less demographically and aesthetically diverse. The age limit hovers around 50, and the castaways tend to be more obviously “sexy” than anyone on Survivor: Borneo ever was. Case in point: the most recent season includes a “lingerie football player.” This shift may have been inevitable, but it also takes away some of the magic, if you will, of the show. Part of what made the first season of Survivor such a sensation was the stripped-down sexiness of island life—the dirt, the sweat, the improvised fashion, the make-up-free faces. It was seeing girl-next-door types like Jenna and Colleen embrace their inner cavewomen. I’m not a dude, but I’d guess it’s slightly less thrilling to watch a lingerie football player, already accustomed to ruthless, semi-nude competition, taking part in ruthless, semi-nude competition.
Now is probably the time to talk about Colleen. She wasn’t much of a presence in the première episode, but in “The Generation Gap” you can see the makings of the Blistex-commercial star she would become. Colleen’s a few years older than me, but watching her on TV now, I feel like an ancient hag: she’s just so dewy. Something tells me she probably still looks about 16 years old, but my Google search turned up no trace of her after her appearance on That ’70s Show, so I have no way of verifying this. There are some reality stars (hint: anyone with the initials “K.K.”) whose fame itself strikes me as an affront to civilization, a sure indication that we’d all be better off if a terrible plague came along and wiped most of humanity off the map, and we had to start all over again from scratch. (Now that’s a reality show I would watch. Mark Burnett—get on it.)
But Colleen falls squarely into the “Julie from Alabama” category of reality stardom, in that America’s love affair with the adorable ad student from Maryland actually makes me think we might not be totally screwed after all. How could you not love Colleen? She gives Audrey Tautou a run for her money in the “gamine” department. She’s funny and, as we’ll learn later on, surprisingly tenacious. This week everyone’s buzzing about her budding quasi-romance with “Ivy League Graduate” Greg, and we see them taking a dip in a leech-infested morass deep in the jungle. If that’s not a dream date, I don’t know what is.
B.B. is an awesome old coot, but “The Generation Gap” will go down in the annals of reality-television history for one reason and one reason only: beetle larvae. These days Survivor is a respected elder statesman of reality television. It’s considered one of the handful of reality shows it’s okay to watch, along with The Amazing Race, Project Runway, and Top Chef. The generally accepted principle is that the more skill and strategy demanded by a reality show, the more acceptable it is to watch (and star in). Compared to the horror show that is Jersey Shore, Survivor seems downright wholesome, but it’s worth recalling the outrage it provoked back in 2000. A popular criticism was that the show was a return to the days of the Roman Empire, when spectators watched gladiators tear each other apart for their entertainment. It’s hyperbolic, of course, but watching the castaways forced to eat chubby, writhing beetle larvae, I can sort of understand the revulsion.
To watch “The Generation Gap” is to watch the birth of what is now a staple of reality TV: the icky food challenge. From Fear Factor to Man Vs. Wild to Bizarre Food, watching people eat what we consider gross food is an experience that never quite loses its visceral appeal. There’s just something elementally gut-churning about it, yet at the same time, food is perhaps the most culturally relative thing there is. Would the people of Borneo recoil in disgust if someone plopped a bowl of squirming pepperoni pizza Hot Pockets in front of them? If they did, could you blame them?
It’s interesting that going into the “indemnity” challenge, the tribe members predict they’re going to have to eat something disgusting. It goes to show how Survivor tapped into to our basest instincts. Tough-guy Gervase struggles the most with eating the larvae. He winds up like a boxer before a fight, licking his fingers repeatedly, but it takes him close to a dozen tries before he swallows his first bite. The rest of the castaways are quicker on the draw. Some of them bite the head off, then swallow the rest of the larva meal whole, so as not to have to taste the nasty little critter (this would be my approach), while others—most notably, Colleen—chomp away, savoring every squishy bite. When in Borneo, as they say.
Since no one is eliminated in the first round, Probst calls for a tie-breaker in which the most squeamish members of each team have to eat another two larvae. Stacey, clearly trying to prove she’s not a priss, shoves the larvae down her gullet and swallows them in a nanosecond. She opens her mouth wide and sticks out her tongue to prove she’s finished her meal and—boom!—Tagi wins immunity.
Going into the tribal council meeting, the Pagong members discuss who they’re going to send home, and it’s pretty clear that B.B. is doomed. He’s old, he’s erratic, and, oh yeah, he also volunteered to go home. Nevertheless, it’s an emotional send-off. Colleen cries as she puts on her socks for the trek into the jungle, and Gretchen seems a little heartbroken to vote against her pal. As the tribe gathers ’round the fire pit, Probst lays on the cheese. “What happens here is sacred and needs to be respected,” he intones. “Tonight one of you will have your flame extinguished.” The best part is when he actually refers to the tribal council set as a “ruin,” which is either some really purple prose or a diss of the production designer. In any case, the votes are pretty predictable, though both Jenna and Greg vote for Ramona. It’s pretty clear that Ms. Lazybones needs to suck it up if she wants to stay on the island for much longer.
- Not to sound like B.B., but I find myself deeply skeptical of Ramona’s alleged “illness.” It’s unclear whether she’s sick or just the world’s pickiest eater, but I think it’s the latter. In interviews, she seems perfectly fine, yet she can’t even keep a bowl of rice down? I’m calling bullshit on her.
- I am sure there are some Colleen fanatics among you who have been more successful at Google-stalking her than I have been. If so, please share in the comments.
- Greg is not so hard to find. He’s now working at a green-energy firm in Colorado. Guess he’s putting that Ivy League degree to work.
- Where did all the Survivor tube tops come from? Did Mark Burnett have them made? I need to know. Also: ha, tube tops. How very 2000.
- Something else that’s very 2000: the tankini. What a loathsome swimwear trend.
- I love that the fishing pole Sean spent five hours building looks exactly like a prop from Gilligan’s Island.
- I also love how the women are the first to really embrace the “native” look, what with their turbans and face paint.
- Survivor experts: What’s the grossest food-related challenge on the show to date? I’d nominate the pre-chewed pig from season 5.
- If you want to watch along, I recommend this YouTube account, which has most of the first season… for now, anyway. (Shhh… don’ tell.)
- There’s a lot of rat-foreshadowing in the episode. They haven’t gone there yet, but you just know it’s coming soon.