April 14, 2008

These Things Matter: Reality Showdown

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I’ve watched pretty much every reality show at one point or another in my life. Some have caught on with me more than others, but the two that lord above all the rest are Survivor and American Idol. I’ve watched Survivor from its very beginning, intrigued by the concept of dropping a bunch of idiots on an island to engage in swimming competitions and arbitrary voting processes. As for American Idol: I had watched some episodes here and there in the earlier seasons, but it wasn’t until my girlfriend forced me to watch every episode with her later in the shows run that I became a bigger fan than even she is of the pseudo-talent competition.
Many of you are probably saying to yourselves, “wait, these shows are still on?” American Idol is in the middle of season seven, while Survivor is undergoing its 16th (!) season. Not only have the shows survived, they’ve flourished, and are still going strong in the ratings. While American Idol is not as far ahead of everything else as it was during its peak in Season Five, both of its episodes sit atop the ratings list each week. Survivor, as well, consistently ranks among the top 15 shows each week, amazing considering how few even realize it’s still on.
So, the real question is this: Which is better? For me, answering this question is like choosing between Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore — both are great, so why even choose? Well, as the column name indicates, the answer to this question really does matters, so I will try to choose.
Perhaps I should break it down category by category …
Host: Ryan Seacrest is the smarmiest, least funny kiss-ass on television today; he has no distinguishable talent but, naturally, everybody loves him. He doesn’t fear overexposure (read: willing to appear for anyone willing to write a paycheck), although most of his gigs are pretty choice (Idol, The Emmys, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, etc). Jeff Probst, on the other hand, can only really be seen on Survivor. He shows a genuine interest in the proceedings of the show and is not afraid to sound like a dick, very much unlike Seacrest. Many might disagree, but I easily would rather listen to Probst.
Cast: Based on the last two seasons of American Idol, it is very possible that the country is just plain out of available singing talent. The producers have had to resort to allowing instruments on stage to mask the deficiencies in some of the contestants’ voices. However, there is an infinite number of potential crazies and lunatics to fill each 18-person cast of Survivor, and it’s rare that a group falls flat.
Disastrous Contestant: Survivor’s most famous disaster is Johnny Fairplay, the guy with bad teeth and a Ric Flair-inspired walk who infamously lied about his “dead grandmother” just to win one extra challenge. Unless you are a big Survivor fan though, you probably wouldn’t recognize him. Everyone, however, remembers Sanjaya, the talentless teenager that captivated a nation with his out-of-tune performances and ridiculous haircuts each week on Idol.
Biggest Weekly Trainwreck: On Survivor, the train wreck occurs every time Probst tries to lead a discussion at tribal council, as the congregation inevitably results in a contestant trying to philosophize on who has been catching the most fish. But those moments don’t, and can’t, come close to the roller coaster ride that is Paula Abdul. Her weekly cocktail of prescription pills and vodka puts her in the perfect mood to ramble incoherently and embarrass Simon Cowell just by sitting next to him.
Rip-Offs: The success of these two shows spawned more reality copies than probably any others. Survivor gave us myriad other shows where the contestants themselves decide which of their competitors get “voted off the island,” such as Big Brother, The Mole, The Amazing Race, and Paradise Hotel, none of which even came close to giving us everything Survivor has to offer. Thanks to American Idol, we have other great shows where random judges subjectively decide who should go home, like Top Chef, America’s Next Top Model, The Apprentice, and Dancing with the Stars, among many, many more.
Rigged Factor: The likelihood that both shows are rigged is exceedingly high. Survivor producers have long since stopped showing us exactly who votes for whom, and every year there are rumors from the contestants themselves that the producers try to influence their votes. But American Idol has the infamous “producers’ discretion clause,” leaving open the possibility that the producers can do whatever the hell they want with the fans’ voting results. This, very possibly, happens every single season, or else the crummy contestants would last longer than they actually do (Although, somehow Taylor Hicks was able to win…).
Fanbase:The fanbases for both of these shows are extremely annoying, mostly because of people like me. Idol fans are really annoying because they talk about the performances as if they are by legitimate artists, which is ludicrous. Survivor fans are bad too, since they act like they’re in a special private club, offering each other extremely in-depth analyses of each episode and voting process. It’s impossible to say which fanbase is more insufferable. I guess in the end choosing which show is better overall comes down to choosing between which fanbase you’d less wish to strangle.