Sunday, April 19, 2015

Reality TV and the Modern Murder Mystery

First, a few observations:

Sometimes people ask me about creative writing. Sometimes people ask me about Survivor. They almost never ask me about both these things at the same time. In fact, they almost never care about both of these things. In other words, I have no clue what niche audience I am hoping to appeal to with this post  but, by Grabthar's Hammer, I have wanted to write this for a while and I will.

This post might also be motivated by my
unrestrained grief for the loss of Joe.
If you are interested in only one of these topics, then perhaps I can frame this in a way to make it more interesting to you. The question I plan on answering today is this:

For someone who values art and stories, what role can reality TV play in legitimately filling that need? And more specifically, why does Emily, a dedicated, serious children's author, who values things like story, plot, character and pacing, love Survivor, a reality TV show that seemingly stands in direct opposition to all those things?

To begin with, I didn't always. When Survivor first hit television, I was a jaded thirteen-year-old and convinced that it, as one of the great grand-daddy's of all reality TV, signaled the end of a cultural era. It was proof that television was dying, but before it did, it would mutate into it's most horrific incarnation yet. 

I could offer no explanation for why someone would want to watch it. It was a distortion of reality. It was contrived and phony. It purported to know something about the human condition while demonstrating that it had no clue how to showcase ordinary people without forcing them to play with jigsaw puzzles in bathing suits.

What I didn't know was that His Mightiness, the Great Jeff Probst... sort of kind of was already aware of this. Yes, Survivor isn't real life. This gets said once an episode. And yet (and yet) it exposes something terrifyingly real about the human condition - namely, what we might be willing to do in order to win a million dollars. Probst and everyone who has ever been on Survivor know that what they're selling is a fiction. And they sell that fiction very very well.

The host of Survivor, Jeff Probst discusses the Philippines and the future of the franchise.
Behold His Probstiness!
A couple of years ago I was reading up on Charles Dickens and came across some literary criticism that made a very interesting comparison. It pointed out how in Dickens's day, books often came out in serialized chunks of about four or five chapters at a time. When we say that Dickens was "paid by the word" what we actually mean is he was paid in installments for each of these five chapter segments that came out  in magazines. Eventually, he would republish the whole cycle as a single book. As a result, there's a bit of a four-five chapter rotation in most Dickens novels. They say that in nature your no more than ever three feet from a spider. In Dickens, you're never more than four chapters from a cliff hanger.

Some of these are real doozies too. People spontaneously combust. They see ghosts. Their wedding dresses catch on fire. They find their long-lost mothers. All of this was to leave readers hungry for the next issue and to keep subscriptions up. Comparing Dickens to visual media, he was not writing "movies" with his books, but rather sensationalist, serial TV. Dickens's novels are socially aware soap operas, where someone is always discovering a new orphan or that their uncle has drank himself to an early grave.

It's my argument that just as Dickens is the classy soap opera, Survivor (and the numerous elimination style reality TV game shows that followed it) is visual media's answer to the mystery novel. The reason why is because both are predicated on one simple question: Who done it?

In my second semester of my Master's, I took a class on writing mystery novels. One thing we stressed over and over again was that in a mystery, it's hugely important for the author to know the end result of their story. Once they know that, the art of the mystery novel is direction and misdirection. They simultaneously have to lead the reader toward and away from the ultimate conclusion of the story, so that once the reader finishes, they are both satisfied and surprised.

Ideally, Survivor does the same. Each season starts with a cast of suspects and with the viewer knowing that only one is going to be responsible for the mayhem that goes down on the beach. Everyone else will be their victims. They will be outwitted, outplayed and outlasted. The question is, who? There will be direction and misdirection. There will be shocking twists where the prime suspect is eliminated. There will be days when the villain triumphs and others when the heroes strike back. But once all is said and done, like in so many mystery novels, even the heroes will have blood on their hands. 

Some might argue that Survivor lacks the unpredictability of most fiction. There's a set timeline by which tribes are formed, swapped and merged. There's a reliable vote-out every episode. You will hear Jeff yell "Dig deep!" and "Wanna know what you're playing for?" over and over and over again. But all fiction has it's tricks and conventions, especially mystery novels. And just because there is a rhythm to a story doesn't mean that the way the elements play out won't surprise you. It can be hard to guess when that next blindside vote is coming, or when an alliance is going to crumble over petty manners at camp. And like long running mystery novel series, each additional season adds to the lore of what can or can't be done by the players. In previous seasons, iconic pairs like Amber and Rob, Stephen and JT, Denise and Malcolm, and Amanda and Todd ran the games they played. This current season, appearing to be in a tight pair with someone has been the most reliable way for one member of the duo to get voted out. Everyone knows how dangerous those close friendships are and so they aren't permitted to form. This evolution in strategy is exactly what mystery authors also have to learn. How do they keep readers guessing after they've seen over and over and over again how this author unpacks the tale of a deadly crime? 
All Hail the Queen!

For those of us who love Survivor, I believe we love it the same way other people love a good mystery novel. It gives us something to solve and makes us question how we're being manipulated into believing one thing, when another might be true. The All-Star seasons give us reoccurring characters. And like all good fiction, it straddles the line between the real and the unreal. One of the most iconic and long lasting relationships to come out of reality TV came not from a dating show, but from Survivor. And how many other major works of fiction can boast that their most terrifying reoccurring villain, the only one to slay all their enemies not once, but twice, is an unassuming Latin American army wife? Survivor knows something about the messiness and unpredictability of real life that many works of fiction, with their familiar, WASP casts, are still striving to figure out.

Returning to the beginning of my post, I stated that I thought as a teenager that Survivor was contrived. Frankly, it is. But by definition, so is fiction. Authors contrive the circumstances and then let them play out. What sets any work of fiction apart from the rest is when it can master both its contrived premise, and yet hold onto its belief that it can still say something true about real life. Perhaps it will only answer one question, like, what does it take to make someone commit murder? Or what does it take for someone to win a million dollars? But those questions are worth answering. And if there's one way that I think such questions are best answered, it's with a good story.


  1. Great post Emily! It's all about the story - no matter what form you may find it in. :)

    1. Thanks, Kristi! That's very much my feeling too.