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reality rumble

What’s the Best Reality Show Ever? Round 2: Survivor vs. Real Housewives of Atlanta

Today we continue the second round of Vulture’s ultimate Reality Rumble, a bracket to determine the greatest season of the greatest reality-TV shows, from The Real World on. Each day, a different writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until Vulture's Margaret Lyons judges the finals on March 25. Today, in the second quarterfinals matchup, the first season of Survivor, the birthplace of alliances, goes up against the second season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, which taught a nation how to dance with "Tardy for the Party."

In the summer of 2000, I watched Survivor in real time. Each week the same group of friends came over and we’d sit hunched forward on the futon that was also my roommate’s bed, unable to believe what we were seeing. We were cavemen hypnotized by the first licks of fire, apes beholding the monolith. We compared the drama unfolding on TV to world events, great moments in history, our own lives. I was working for a magazine that you’ve never heard of, where the office drama was so out of control that the whole endeavor shut down the day the first issue launched; I was able to apply everything on the show to what was happening at my job, like a transparency laid atop an overhead projector printout. I would go into work and there’d be people whispering in stairwells and I’d think of Richard and Sue plotting their next move, water dripping from their bathing suits onto the sand.

How well do you remember it? Richard. Rudy. Sue. Colleen. Maybe Kelly. I’m betting those are the main names jangling around in your head. Lost to history are those like Sonja, who, before getting voted off on day one, sat on a log and sang “Bye Bye Blues” on her ukulele, squeezing out the only drop of humanity we’d ever see from Richard as he watched, rapt. Sweet, funny Colleen was whom we related to most, the one we liked to believe we’d act like if we were on the island. She used the confessionals like Tim used eye contact with the camera on The Office and made keeping your sense of morality intact seem cool. “Be nice to each other,” she whispered to the others after they voted her off. It didn’t hurt that she was undeniably adorable, to the point where that wasn’t a subjective opinion but a statement of fact, legally binding. There’s a moment when she’s asked about why she’s hanging out so much with Greg (ID’d as simply “Ivy League graduate” in the credits because Survivor never missed an opportunity to stoke the flames of inferiority, creating villains where it could). She’s forced to articulate a reason, and goes with because he reminds me of my friends back home, since she can’t just point out the obvious: that they’re the two most attractive people on the island. There isn’t much I wouldn’t do to obtain the extended footage of Greg walking away from the tribal council after he got voted off eighth, just to know whether she looked at him more than he looked at her.

More than anything, I love the way that Survivor acknowledges the unfairness of it all. Richard Hatch formed an alliance and established the model that was forever after followed. Thirteen years later, when fellow season one teammate Gervase returned for Survivor: Blood vs. Water, he was asked to form an alliance as soon as his feet touched the shore. Richard’s victorious strategy had seismic consequences, as being first usually does. If Eve hadn’t bit into the apple, perhaps we’d now live in a world of no wars, no sickness, no “I just want to be friends” conversations. And if Richard hadn’t convinced three strangers to swear loyalty to him, maybe reality TV would’ve become something different. Maybe we would have been watching NeNe and Kim harmonize through “Ebony and Ivory” together instead of trying to pull each other’s wigs off.

I don’t know if it’s actually written into Real Housewives’ contracts that they have to keep their stats up to be renewed, like major league ball players, or if they just understand, but the explosive and defining second season of Real Housewives of Atlanta delivers an average of one fight per episode. Alliances form and dissolve, as gloppy as a lava lamp. NeNe versus Kim. Kim versus Sheree. Sheree versus Lisa. Lisa versus Kim. Kim versus NeNe. NeNe versus Kandi. The difference between these alliances and the ones on Survivor is that instead of helping the women get ahead, they just make it so they get invited to fewer parties. On the other hand, losing a friend affects the Housewives more deeply, because they have something that the island inhabitants never did: history. When Kim says she misses NeNe after their blow-up over Kim talking smack about NeNe’s husband Gregg, I believe her. They’re both such oddballs and I get flashes of loud, late nights, with the two of them out drinking and laughing, one standing guard while the other pees in an alley.

Only two of the women are married by this point; none of them are actually housewives. Newest cast member Kandi is living in a house she bought herself, with money she earned through her music when she was only 19 (as a member of the girl group Xscape). She’s accomplished so much more on her own than any of the others that watching her is sometimes distracting. It feels the way that couples view their single friends: It doesn’t make sense why she agreed to be on the show, so you find yourself sure that there’s something wrong with her that they’re not showing (as unlikely as that would be, given Bravo’s editing style). Kandi’s arc fluctuates between two contrasting themes: empowerment and humiliation. The first involves convincing her mom to give her fiancé, AJ, a chance. There’s one scene where Kandi, who raised her daughter on her own, is in her mom’s kitchen, pleading with her to acknowledge how big a deal it is for her to meet a guy who cares about his kids. Standing all around them are her aunts, nodding at what she says, and you get the scope of how many generations of single mothers have been in Kandi’s family and how they supported each other to get through. It’s powerful, sincere, moving stuff. And not nearly as fun as watching Kandi’s other main story line: the producing of Kim’s song, “Tardy for the Party.”

Out of all the women, Kim’s the one with the least inherent talent. Which is why it’s such a mystery why she chose a project that, in theory, required so much of it. She decides that she wants to make a hit song and she wants Kandi to help her make it, even though she has a terrible singing voice and no ear whatsoever for music. What follows are these deeply strange scenes in Kandi’s studio, where the audience knows that Kim can’t sing and Kim knows that Kim can’t sing, but Kandi somehow doesn’t, even though she presumably watched the first season before agreeing to sign on (because none of it’s real and all of it’s real). Kandi tries to be encouraging, telling Kim about how even the best singers freeze up sometimes. Kim, her eyes full of fear, says “I know, I know” while starting to cry, because when you’re a fraud, people being nice to you just makes it feel worse — like when you cheat on a test and then your mom hangs it on the fridge. The two professional producers sit at the board, their backs turned to the women but listening to the whole thing and just smiling, smiling, because what else are you supposed to do?

When Kandi finally pushes Kim into the studio, we brace ourselves for another moment like in season one, where Kim gets dressed down by the voice coach. Brace is the wrong word, actually. We hope for it. Instead what happens is that Kim talk-sings into the microphone and the producer guys fiddle some dials and smooth her voice out. By the end of the season, all trace of vulnerability will have vanished. She’ll cut NeNe out of the project, fail to show up for Kandi’s comeback concert, and “Tardy for the Party” will become an unlikely success story: the musical equivalent of Richard Hatch.

No one in the real world ever took Richard Hatch as seriously as the people on that island. His nickname back home wasn’t Machiavelli; that’s why it was so hilarious to see Colleen’s reaction to him: She was the only one who seemed to still remember what life had been like before. He wasn’t even as clever on future seasons of Survivor. Once the whole game had become about alliances, he couldn’t compete against the players who had more than one trick up their sleeves. I hate knowing this. I want his evil genius to be true.

It will be hard to understand now if you didn’t watch when it first aired, but when he won, it was such a shock, because it played out so darkly. The only likable contestant in the final four was Rudy, the 72-year-old ex-Marine with joints seemingly strung together with copper wire and whose dislike of gays was only balanced out by his dislike of women, doctors, Jeff Probst, and young people. (I liked Rudy so much that, to this day, I refuse to do a Google search to see whether he has died. Thankfully, my editor assures me that he is alive.) The rest were monsters. Kelly the backstabbing hippie. Sue the truck driver from Minnesota, whose accent sounded like Frances McDormand’s good and true Fargo detective, which somehow only made Sue’s awfulness more jarring. And Richard Hatch, this ludicrous man who would make everyone listen to his stories of being a corporate team builder, stressing how they all had to work together, and then turn to the camera and call them all idiots and pawns. On the first episode, he said the million-dollar check was already written out to him, which of course none of us actually believed. But then one by one, with the help of his alliance, he started to pick the others off. The alliance schemed their way straight through to the final four, as originally planned, except by then they all hated each other. Kelly betrayed Sue, Rudy lost the final immunity challenge, and then it was just two: Kelly and Richard. They spent their last day swinging back and forth on their hammocks, barely speaking.

In one of Survivor’s best twists, it was up to the last seven contestants voted off, “the jury,” to decide who won. In a rare moment of reality television characters being on the exact same page as the audience, everyone involved realized the strangeness of the situation. No one was excited about it. They dragged their heels as they walked to their seats, like a kid being called in from outside to do his homework. The jury knew all about the alliance by then, knew every scoundrel move Richard had pulled. But Kelly had acted terribly, too, pretending to befriend them while plotting behind their backs. The choice wasn’t about whom they liked more or whom they found more deserving. They hated them both. Richard won by trotting out one of the all-time classic dick breakup lines: I hurt you, but at least I’m being honest about it.

I remember us jumping from the futon when his name was announced as the winner. We screamed, we threw little Cheddar goldfish at the screen. And here’s the thing. It wasn’t because we were unhappy. We didn’t know how to feel. The closest contemporary television experience I can equate it to is Game of Thrones (spoiler alert) when the evil punk Joffrey is facing certain defeat at the Battle of Blackwater, and his dad suddenly swoops in at the last minute and helps him defeat Stannis’s army. That feeling you got of being unable to handle the injustice of it, but at the same time, there was another something happening in your stomach that felt like riding a roller coaster, this cocktail of dread and delight. The wrongness was so complete, it was exhilarating. He’d done it. He pulled it off. He’d acted the worst of them all and been rewarded for it.

In season one, the survivors would justify their behavior by saying “There is, after all, money on the line,” but it’s really hard to hear this now and believe it. It’s been so long since any of these shows have been about the actual prize. Maybe this was a precedent set by Richard, too, who blew through the million dollars he won and went to jail for tax evasion. The Housewives don’t compete for cash, but for screen time, and despite their large collections of Louboutins and vacation homes, many of them seem to be one spinoff away from financial ruin. Looking wealthy on the show is more important than actually being rich.

The innocence of Survivor stems not only from alliances being a radical new concept to us, but also to the contestants. They’re now a foregone conclusion, even on Housewives, with its stars waiting eagerly to throw down the gauntlet over any misheard remark or inappropriate fashion choice. On that first season of Survivor, there was plenty of time for the other players to figure out what was happening and do something about it, to curb Richard’s plan. But week after week, they just couldn’t accept that it was actually happening. What we were watching was the stretch of time immediately before these people’s lives changed and our culture along with it. Because what happened on the island did not stay on the island. It was broadcast out to all of us, in a way that those earliest contestants couldn’t have quite grasped. In all those times they talk about home, they always refer to it as though it’s going to be exactly as they left it. They don’t realize that they’ve become celebrities and that there’s no going home again. There’s only going Housewife.

Winner: Survivor, season one. 

Starlee Kine is a contributor to "This American Life."

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