Vulture is holding the ultimate Reality Rumble 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. As round one continues, Tara Ariano pits RuPaul’s Drag Race’s fourth season (the Sharon Needles/Chad Michaels/Phi Phi O’Hara showdown) against the seismic and groundbreaking first season of Survivor, which introduced the world to alliances.
On the surface, RuPaul’s Drag Race seems like a winking spin on America’s Next Top Model, with RuPaul self-awarely sending up Tyra’s mother-hen loopiness. But at its core, it is perhaps the most hardcore talent competition in TV history — and no, I’m not kidding. Where contestants on other performance competition shows have their future staked on one talent, Drag Race queens need to be good at putting on their own makeup, styling their own wigs, making their own costumes, modeling (both on the runway and in front of the camera), celebrity impersonations, improv comedy, dance, and, above all, lip-synching.
RuPaul brought the kitchen sink to reality TV, but Survivor created modern reality TV in 2000 by taking away the kitchen sink — and every other creature comfort — from its contestants. Survivor (adapted from a Swedish TV format) could have just been a show about ordinary people trying to keep themselves alive without modern conveniences (or antique ones, for that matter) and it would have probably been pretty cool. But by adding competition, manipulation, and starvation, it became something else entirely: Lord of the Flies, where you were only allowed to kill people’s dreams. It’s hard to imagine a TV landscape before such terms as “alliance,” “the social game,” and “blindside” weren’t expected, tired terminology: These were all coined in the first season of Survivor. (As well as the rich tradition of spurned players bitterly venting their grudges: That staple was deemed nonnegotiable right after embittered badass Sue Hawk delivered her “rats and snakes” speech at that inaugural go-round’s final Tribal Council.) The influence of Survivor’s first season not only inspired a genre that still dominates TV fourteen years later, but its influence is spotted in every single competition reality show we’ve seen. Even in 2003’s first season of Last Comic Standing, loud contestant Ant tried to nonsensically strategize and build alliances … even though voting was based on talent. What was he gonna do, blindside his competitors’ punch lines? But it was an elimination show, so he, as so many other reality contestants, habitually did as Survivors do: build an alliance, throw people under the bus, say “Game on!”
Even though Survivor’s slogan was “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast,” when it first debuted in 2000, it seemed like only one man — Richard Hatch — seized on the importance of “Outwit.” A fascinating standout character who became the archetype (and name-check) for every evil reality mastermind since, Hatch, a gay corporate trainer, seemed at first like an eccentric reality pest, a middle-aged, doughy version of an arrogant, intelligent Real World roommate. He had an abrasive personality and liked to walk around naked, but his ability to spear fish also made him the valuable chief provider of food for his team. And while in his confessionals he reveled in smugly laying out how dumb everyone else was and why he was going to win, it took a while for it to occur to the audience that he was right: He was too irritating to stick around, right? We viewers had no frame of reference for what he was doing.
It seems insane now to not realize the importance of “having the numbers” when going into Tribal Council, given that we all live in a democracy and know majorities win. And yet, the other contestants blithely stumbled through with haphazard strategies while Richard quietly assembled a loyal voting bloc with Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch (the craggy homophobe whose friendship with Richard taught us all how to love), the Calamity Jane–like Sue Hawk, and rafting guide Kelly Wiglesworth (whose last name’s lack of a double-G still nags like an upside-down book on a library shelf). The outsiders slowly figured things out, but not in time: Remember how Sean (or “Dr. Sean”) stuck to his strategy of voting people off alphabetically, even as others implored him that it was the last chance to break up Richard’s alliance? Dumb missteps have been made by many players in the ensuing 27 seasons (27! High school freshmen have never known a world without it!), but none seem quite so avoidable in retrospect: In Survivor’s second season, players flew in to the Australian Outback knowing they “need the numbers.” Survivor now constantly introduces new twists (shuffled teams, Redemption Island, returning players) to mix up the game to avoid people just running Richard’s game plan, since it’s so foolproof — as long as people don’t make dumb mistakes. (Which, granted, is a rare occurrence.) One of the dullest recent seasons came in 2011, when Boston Rob Mariano marched to the million-dollar prize like it was his birthright, simply because he built an alliance and kept them loyal with calm faked pledges of loyalty. No panicking, no blindsided leader, just constant majorities all the way to the big prize. Common sense, but bo-ring.
The Drag Race queens have, in a sense, been playing a form of Survivor since the day they decided to put on a dress. During the dressing room gossip sessions (and the extra backstage footage in Untucked, the Drag Race companion show), we hear heartbreaking stories of the contestants’ struggles to be their authentic selves in an intolerant world. In season four, 30-year-old goth queen Sharon Needles spoke about being bullied in high school for effeminacy, abuse that school administrators did nothing to stop. Sharp-tongued glamazon Phi Phi O’Hara — at 25, one of the season’s less-seasoned queens — described having been disowned by her father for being gay. Mama hen Latrice Royale, 39, the “chunky yet funky” diva, had served time in prison and described drag as her lifeline. These war wounds bond them together, and when contestants begin quickly referring to each other as “sisters,” you believe they’re telling the truth. And when longtime Vegas showgirl Chad Michaels schooled the younger queens on the Stonewall Riots, you got a palpable sense of cultural history being passed to a new generation.
At the same time, drag culture is highly competitive, and tearing down other queens is a valuable skill set. It’s known as “throwing shade” or “reading” — and it is literally a competition on the show, as RuPaul hands the contestants reading glasses, gleefully declares “the library is open!” and waits for the zingers to fly. Though insults like “Chad, it’s called Forever 21, not Forever 41” may seem petty, they serve a larger purpose: a queen who can’t handle a little shade will topple in a homophobic, transphobic world. Reading is combat training: survival of the fittest, you might say.
While the Drag Race contestants enter with a similar skill set but different approaches, Survivor’s casts are purposefully selected for their dissimilarities. (That said, though there may be truckers and college students and rocket scientists and former professional athletes, the contestant Venn diagram tends to overlap most in the field “people who look good in bathing suits.”) Players are selected without having to prove any particular talents (not even the ability to build a fire, which I still think should be a prerequisite, just as the ability to drive stick should be on The Amazing Race). Survivor contestants are, whether they would say so or not, participating in a psychological experiment, and each season must contain a mix of personality types that will mesh or repel each other in compelling ways; the Real World approach, with the rewarding twist that saying, “I’m just keepin’ it real!” and acting like a jerk may still get you more camera time, but is also the quickest way to get yourself ousted. The interpersonal politics are hard enough on, say, Big Brother, where you still generally have food to eat and a bed to sleep in; on Survivor, you have to manage your social game while trying not to die of dehydration, exhaustion, or exposure. The queens of Drag Race have a lot to deal with, but they know where their next meals are coming from.
A Survivor finale is a socratic battle between two leathery, emaciated shells of their former selves, attempting to defend their game to a panel of determinedly angry jurors whom these finalists have mostly wronged. It is the time for these final two or three to perch on a log and either own their backstabbing or point to the other as the true villain; a million-dollar spit and spin. A Drag Race finale, however, asks contestants to do the near-impossible: outshine RuPaul herself. The competition boils down to a performance in one of Mama Ru’s music videos (one of the show’s many blatant self-promotional moments, presented with an oversize wink), along with a final dramatic runway show and lip-synch to determine which queen deserves to inherit RuPaul’s throne. In season four, the face-off came down to Chad Michaels, Sharon Needles, and Phi Phi O’Hara, each of whom represented not just different strengths but different approaches to/traditions of drag. Chad Michaels was the warhorse: a cabaret performer who’d had some (much) cosmetic surgery to make herself look more like Cher. Sharon Needles, as her name suggests, went darker — drag as avant-garde performance art. The two of them had proven over and over again how deserving each was of winning the title, but the third finalist, fame-hungry fashionista Phi Phi O’Hara, was a reminder of how far moxie can get you in a competition like this. None of Phi Phi’s fellow queens respected or liked her, and her inexperience kept her from making friends with any of the other contestants, but that’s probably what kept her on the show. (Her scathing read of another queen, “Go back to Party City where you belong!” single-handedly made the backstage after-show tucked into must-see TV.) Sharon and Chad were so personally close that if the third contestant had been someone who also got along with them — say, Latrice Royale, with her checkered past and indelible personality — the finale would have been a dull hour of mutual support and admiration. Instead, the suspense came from seeing whether the season would end with a righteous win (Sharon or Chad), or with a shocking outrage (Phi Phi).
Fortunately, Sharon emerged triumphant, and justice was served, and the fact that it could be (and that the viewer could trust that it would be) is part of what makes Drag Race so great. Most of what determines contestants’ longevity in the game is what we can see: makeup, performance, tuck. On other judged shows, like America’s Next Top Model or The Apprentice, judges’ criteria can be annoyingly vague. Tyra or Trump will drop terms like “smizing” or “leadership” that manifest in totally different ways from week to week. But on Drag Race, if a queen never quite manages to smooth out her contouring or finish her hemlines (Latrice Royale’s downfall), we see it. If a queen’s lip-synch is sloppy, we see that, too.
Four seasons in, the viewer could trust that the Drag Race universe is a place where justice can be served. It’s ruled by a benevolent queen who can be influenced by performances, but who ultimately makes the final judgments and maintains order. RuPaul is a judge, but she’s also a mentor, who spurs the contestants that she refers to as “my girls” to push themselves to their best possible work. Like all the best (drag) mothers, she is encouraging and warm, but with high expectations she expects to be met.
On Survivor, there is no judge, because there is no law. The lengths you go to secure votes is bounded only by your own ethics — which, again, is exactly why Richard Hatch won that first season. While physical strength or agility is instantly clear in the challenges, one’s most relevant mind-fucking talents are obvious to the home viewer, but only appreciated by fellow competitors the moment that the tribe has spoken. (And the devious powers of truly effective puppeteers are often only recognized by their victims when they’re home watching the show on CBS, seeing the real reason they got screwed.) The closest thing to an objective arbiter is host Jeff Probst, who needles the contestants at tribal council about their good or bad strategic moves. Though Probst, unlike RuPaul, doesn’t get a vote as to who stays or goes in each episode, he freely advances his own opinions, and makes no attempts to hide his own prejudices. (If you’re part of a voting bloc that gets rid of a musclebound dude — Probst’s favorite kind of player — early, you will hear about it.) Other reality contest hosts (Ryan Seacrest, Julie Chen, Phil Keoghan) are just figureheads, pushing the producers’ narrative of good guys and bad guys but making no judgments themselves. Probst is the only one who seems truly invested in the game, determined to blow on any spark of tension.
Survivor collects 16 Americans and drops them in the shit to create a whole new society out of whatever chaos and limited resources surround them, while also plotting their paths, together and separately, to a seat in front of a jury full of people they’ve screwed over in the hopes that a majority of them will either feel more slighted by their opponent or find their strategy sufficiently admirable to reward. Drag Race collects a dozen or so drag queens and puts them through the beauty pageant of a lifetime, judged by the most famous and successful practitioner of their art; while they may scramble over each other to be top of the heap, whatever chaos there is in the process and preparation must fall away when it’s time to stomp the runway in front of the queens’ ultimate arbiter. But no matter the cosmetic differences (pardon the pun), and diverging player-vs.-judge elimination methods, the fact is that without Survivor’s gripping introduction to the only-one-survives format, there would be no Drag Race. All points to the filthier mastermind, Survivor.
Winner: Survivor season one.
Tara Ariano is the West Coast editor at Previously.TV, a co-founder of Television Without Pity, and an expert on both hoarding show therapists and Will & Grace guest stars.