Presidential candidates aim to Outlast. Outwit. Outpoll.
America will soon crown the winner of “Survivor: Washington,” and learn whether Mitt Romney managed to outwit, outlast and outplay the previous champ, President Obama.The political season has produced the inevitable deluge of sports metaphors and analogies. We’ve had come-from-behind victories, underdogs, a horserace and, of course, the tension-filled arena of the debates. Yet this is also the fourth election waged during what might be called the “Survivor” era, which has subtly altered virtually everything in society, including politics. The ultimate mantra of “Survivor” is to win, and do or say what’s necessary in order to do so. On a parallel track, reality television has also made everything a “journey,” a trip of self-discovery, albeit with a mass audience voyeuristically along for the ride. The related pressure to personalize candidates — to “get to know the guy,” as PBS analyst Mark Shields told the New York Times — has continued to snowball, well beyond when Bill Clinton played saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s show and fielded a “boxers or briefs” question on MTV. Perhaps foremost, anyone paying attention to the campaign, which thanks to cable news never really ends anymore, becomes privy to the game of politics, dissected at an unimaginable level of real-time minutia. And once it’s acknowledged that the spectacle exists as entertainment, the tactical aspects — all one big chess match — become as significant as ideas or policy. If it sounds unseemly that we’ve begun treating candidates like contestants on “American Idol,” why should we expect more from them? The nature of the game might be silly at times, even humiliating, but if you truly covet the prize, the occasional dip into the mud (metaphorically, anyway) is what you signed up for — another obstacle on the path to glory. As TV has seen in the countless competitions that have followed “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” which also launched in the U.S. in 2000, reality participants now show up spouting strategy, contemplating how to play the game, even harboring preconceptions about whether they’ll be perceived as heroes or villains — although in this context, the latter designation simply means a big personality the audience loves to hate. ” ‘Survivor’ is a morality play, and the morality is (that) how you treat others will result in how you fare,” series mastermind Mark Burnett surmised during an interview for the Archive of American Television. “In the end, it’s a management-training exercise about kindness and the way you treat others.” But that’s only accurate in terms of the ultimate victor. In the weekly run-up to that, “Survivor” and most competition shows become embroiled in tactics, and what contestants must do to achieve their objectives. Indeed, almost everything about reality TV reinforces the adage “The ends justify the means.” Because once the Kardashian clan or “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” gets established as part of the pop-culture firmament, few remember or bother to second-guess what events (or videotapes or scandals) helped propel them into the spotlight. In a counterintuitive New York Times think pieces published in January, Rob Walker wrote about how he adored the prolonged drama of the Republican primaries, and argued that reality TV had copied politics, not the other way around. Yet he also appeared to acknowledge how the two overlap in sucking up oxygen and attention, saying the campaign’s “reality-showbiz fireworks” compete with other popular narratives. “What it distracts from isn’t policy ‘substance,’ ” he said of the election. “What it distracts from is who won ‘The X Factor.’ ” To the extent media coverage scarcely differentiates between the two, that’s absolutely right — which doesn’t make the blurring of reality TV and politics less unnerving, particularly considering how such complexities are processed by what the media politely dub “low-information voters.” Incidentally, having conquered every frontier in the unscripted genre, including a TLC series featuring politician-turned-reality-star Sarah Palin, Burnett’s attention has shifted to a dramatic miniseries based on the Bible. That’s appropriate, since reality competitions and politics each ultimately adhere to the same 11th and 12th Commandments: “Thou shalt not lose”; and, “To the victor go the spoils.”