Decade’s big ‘Survivor’

Reality show helped rewrite TV model

Take a bow, producer Mark Burnett: “Survivor” is the most influential program of the soon-to-be-concluded decade. (There’s no prize, but you seem to be doing OK.)

While this might sound like a no-brainer — pick the granddaddy of modern reality shows that set the stage for the blistering onslaught that followed — the competition was quite stiff. Moreover, confining choices to programs birthed in the ’00s eliminated two series with strong claims, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “The Sopranos,” which both premiered in 1999.

Several other programs had a powerful impact that, at least to this jury of one, merited strong consideration.

Another class of 2000 invention, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” hardly reinvented the crime procedural, but it did stylistically renovate an old formula in slick new packaging — and launched a string of spinoffs and imitators that ranked as the decade’s most popular genre.

Almost remarkably in hindsight, “24” was one of three series dealing with the CIA or a spying facsimile that were developed in 2001 (remember “Alias” and “The Agency?”) and nearly derailed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Indeed, the Fox drama underwent last-minute editing of a plane explosion in its premiere; emerged as the only survivor of that trio; became a political lightning rod and point of debate over the U.S.’ use of torture; and set a new standard for wildly serialized storytelling.

“Lost” also upped the ante on the density and complexity of episodic drama and expanded international boundaries (such as including subtitles in primetime) in a way few had dared. Although other programs had tapped into rabid online fan bases, the ABC drama elevated the Web’s role in creating a rich ancillary world far beyond a show’s weekly life, from fan-generated scholarship to Hanso Foundation websites.

More subtly, “Lost” took the bold, sure-to-be-emulated step of anticipating its inevitable decline and announcing an end date three years before the scheduled May 2010 finale — while the program was still a sizable hit. In the history of television, the general rule has been to hang onto success until a series outlives its welcome. At the urging of series masterminds Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, ABC had the fortitude to let “Lost” chart a more dignified course.

There are, certainly, other worthy contenders. Jon Stewart transformed “The Daily Show” into an indictment of media excess and TV news’ high crimes and misdemeanors that somehow manages to be a searing indictment and remain frequently hilarious. No program, meanwhile, had a more profound effect on TV writers than HBO’s “The Wire,” a civics lesson that truly represents the great American novel as crafted for television.

And yet from a business and a cultural standpoint, nothing was as game-changing as “Survivor.”

The unscripted competition program rewrote the rulebook in so many ways that its most obvious accomplishment — birthing imitators built around thrusting ordinary people into unusual situations — is really just the tip of the iceberg.

By premiering during the summer and finishing its initial run with an astonishing 52 million viewers, Burnett’s program finally put teeth into the year-round programming mantra, changing TV’s cycles and rhythms. It also kicked open the door to international formats, after decades of American jingoism in that regard.

The program also created a new breed of “stars,” providing fodder for morning shows, magazines and other programs. In redefining (and lowering) the entrance criteria for fame, its ripple effect has stretched from news to politics to publishing. Looking at them now, it’s hard to imagine US Weekly or People were ever able to fill an issue without these instant celebrities.

“Survivor” forever altered TV’s economic model, fueling understandable unease among talent — while emboldening penny-pinching moguls — in a way that doubtless played a significant role in the decade’s bitter labor discord.

Finally, “Survivor” has undergone its own gradual fade, falling victim to the hyper-caffeinated culture it helped establish. Even the genre’s patriarch can continue reinventing itself — to outwit and outplay, if not outlast — for only so long.

So congratulations, “Survivor.” We’ll never forget you, until of course the next big thing comes along.

Now douse the torches, and prepare to re-light them for 2010. The critic has spoken.

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