Reality TV has always had cast members who are entertaining, outrageous and a little bit crazy. A decade ago, "Survivor" was won by a smart, strategic and often naked man named Richard Hatch, and the people who've followed him onto our television sets have brought varying degrees of insanity.
That's bubbled over on cable, where VH1 produces dating show after dating show of obnoxious attention-seekers, and MTV's most-successful show, "Jersey Shore," features a lot of screaming and fighting.
But "Survivor" has largely been immune to the tendency to get crazier as the years have passed. Sure, the CBS competition series has people with intense passions, big personalities and annoying behavior, but it's never been as over-the-top ridiculous so quickly as it is now in its 21st season.
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"Survivor" seems to have tried to find as many people to follow in former players Russell and Coach's footsteps as possible, sending a cast of extreme personalities to Nicaragua. Former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson was the most famous person ever cast on the show, but he was overshadowed in terms of personality by some extreme type-A people on his team. Never mind the other tribe, which performed a ridiculous chant and dance as they entered each challenge location.
After goat farmer Wendy Jo babbled her way out of the tribe in week one, things got really ugly. Because Shannon's alliance decided to turn on him, he went off on his team at Tribal Council, exposing alliances and acting obnoxious. All of this stunned host Jeff Probst, who said he "never had an opening question open that much whoop-ass on a tribe" in 21 seasons. Among other things, Shannon lashed out at Sash and challenged his sexuality, insisting that "New York's full of a bunch of a gay people," unlike Shannon's home state of Louisiana.
All of that shocked the tribe, which sent Shannon home. He later tried to defend himself in post-eviction interviews, but continued to act obnoxious and homophobic, proving that Tribal Council wasn't just a fluke.
But the insanity didn't end there. Shannon passed the crazy torch to NaOnka, a 27-year-old P.E. teacher who seems smart and tough, and absolutely hates a lot of people for no reason at all.
Last week she destroyed part of her tribe's reward to get a clue to an immunity idol. Yes, just a clue, which of course would only save her at one Tribal Council — if she were able to decipher the message and find the idol, but she couldn't. So she alienated everyone and managed only a halfhearted apology for smashing their bananas.
She didn't apologize, however, for getting physical with her tribemate Kelly B., which shocked Probst yet again. You'd think he would be used to insane behavior after watching Russell Hantz lie about Hurricane Katrina affecting his family and then burning his fellow cast members' clothing, but no. In his Entertainment Weekly commentary on the episode, Probst wrote, "You KNOCKED DOWN A WOMAN WITH AN ARTIFICIAL LEG! ON PURPOSE! SPECIFICALLY BECAUSE YOU KNEW THAT WOULD THROW HER OFF BALANCE SO YOU COULD STEAL A CLUE THAT SHE FOUND FIRST!"
Hating the likeable
It's fun for reality show contestants to hate on one another, especially if we agree with their reactions. But NaOnka's hatred stems from nowhere. Worse, it's often directed at two people who are really likeable: fun-loving and admittedly dumb Jud, who's been nicknamed Fabio; and Kelly B., a triathlete who happens to have an artificial leg.
NaOnka reserves her most brutal comments for interviews, so her fellow cast members are learning about them only now on TV, but she addresses them and says awful things. For example, acting as if she were talking to Kelly B., NaOnka told us, "Hopefully I'll push you so hard that damn leg will fly off." She's also called Kelly B. a "charity case," even though the other girl tried to conceal her artificial leg from her tribe at first.
Kelly B. has proven herself to be a major competitor despite her leg, so this criticism is both distasteful and pointless. Why hate for no reason? Similarly, Jud has done nothing of any consequence, so NaOnka's ranting about him is way out of proportion.
Out of proportion
And that's what's off about this season of "Survivor": behavior seems out of proportion, and just doesn't fit the tone. If Probst is shocked by this behavior, it's no surprise that a lot of viewers are wondering just what's happening. Judging by the preview, NaOnka's behavior gets even worse Wednesday night.
Big personalities do work — see Ben "Coach" Wade or Russell Hantz for examples, never mind basically everyone on the all-star season last spring — but they need to make sense. Love them or hate them (or both), Russell's deviousness was both personality and strategy, as was Coach's.
They aren't just crazy for the sake of crazy, and that's where "Survivor" has gone this season.
So many of the cast members on "Survivor: Nicaragua" seem like they belong on CBS' "Big Brother," which this past season had a pretty dull cast but often had extreme, crazy personalities that got more insane when they were confined to that tiny soundstage house for 10 weeks.
Both "Survivor" and its fellow high-quality CBS reality competition "The Amazing Race" are cast by the same person, Lynne Spillman, while "Big Brother" uses a different casting company. It shows in the quality of contestants — or at least, it usually does.
Sometimes, abrasive people make good TV. But good TV isn't made of abrasive people, and "Survivor" and all the shows that have followed it over the past 10 years need to remember that.
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