Tuned In

The Church of Probst

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I’m a secular Jew (Mom’s side) from a half-Catholic family (Dad’s side), so except for weddings and funerals, neither side of me usually makes it into a temple or church on Saturday or Sunday.

What I have instead is Thursday night. I still watch Survivor regularly, good seasons or bad. The current one, Gabon, has a fairly decent cast, if not one of the all-time best: I love bespectacled old Bob and am amused by secret Olympian Crystal, who hasn’t shown much athletic firepower but evidently must have gold-medaled in whining. 

But mostly what Survivor gives me is a sense of ritual. Most reality competitions are like this to an extent, but Survivor is so faithful to its pageantry, script and formality that Jeff Probst seems less like a host than a kind of priest. Just as in a religious service, once you’ve watched enough Survivors, you can feel the rhythms of the narrative in your bones. It’s like a mass, with the same regular ritual incantations: 

“Want to know what you’re playing for?” … “In addition, the winning tribe will send one member of the losing tribe to Exile Island. Worth playing for?” … “Survivors ready. Go!” … “______ wins reward!” … “[Losing tribe name]: I’ve got nothing for you.” … “We now bring in _____, returning from Exile Island. We’re now ready to get to today’s challenge. First things first…” … “On my go.”… “_____ wins immunity!” … “I’ll go tally the votes.” … “______th person voted out of Survivor: Gabon…. The tribe has spoken. Grab your torches, head back to camp.”

Whenever I struggle to understand why people watch shows like Law & Order, which so strictly follows its formula week after week, I have to remind myself of my attachment to Survivor, which is even more repetitive. There has to be room in every TV schedule, I guess, for an appointment of eternal familiarity, a Latin Mass of television.

What’s yours?

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