Reality TV Let Me Be the Worst Version of Myself — and That’s Great

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by CBS via Getty Images

All week long, Vulture explores what happens to reality-TV contestants after the show ends — and the future of the genre itself.

Before he became the fifth person voted off of Survivor: Worlds Apart last spring, Max Dawson was best known as the professor at Northwestern University who taught a class on reality TV structured like an episode of Survivor, with challenges and midterm-exam immunity. Dawson may be off the island, but he hasn’t left Survivor behind — he now works as a reality-TV consultant in Los Angeles, and will soon host a new podcast about the show. The transition from teacher/scholar to television character, however, was not easy, as he watched his friends turn into some of his harshest critics. But as Dawson explains in the following as-told-to, life after reality TV is just an extension of life before it.

I created the Survivor class in 2011, at a time when I was feeling frustrated by the career I had chosen. As a junior professor at Northwestern University, I was having premonitions of being the 68-year-old professor who teaches the same syllabus on autopilot year after year. I was looking for a forum that would allow me to talk to other people who were really interested in reality TV, and that included other fans, players, and journalists.

That desire to reach out and connect was one of the first things that set in motion my time as a contestant on Survivor’s most recent season. It also led me to where I am now, working as a reality-TV consultant in Los Angeles, having conversations with people who make shows, and trying to get them to open up to new approaches.

But back when I started teaching this stuff, I didn't give much thought to the lives of the contestants I'd watched on Survivor or other shows. The deepening of my interest in reality TV coincided with my growing interest in social media, both as a scholar and as a user, circa 2007. I was following other academics at the time, and they were tweeting about their favorite shows — high-quality serial dramas, prestige pieces on HBO. And here I was, most excited every week to watch and talk about Survivor, with no one to talk to about it. Meanwhile, reality-TV stars, especially those who had been on Survivor, demonstrated that they were thinking about, writing about, talking about, and podcasting about reality television. These are the people I wanted to be in a conversation with — people who were having these experiences themselves, and thinking about them reflexively.

I started seeing my class and social media as very much connected — they both provided an opportunity for a form of play that is just not available that often as you become a grown-up. Social media is one area where you can still play when you're a grown man or woman. Reality TV is another. How we behave in both realms is incredibly similar. And my engagement with the reality-TV world has completely expanded the opportunities I have to be playful, to have fun in ways that being a functioning adult in society doesn’t allow for. Games in general give us spaces where we can act out on impulses that we wouldn't or shouldn't otherwise indulge. On a playing field you can be aggressive, cutthroat, selfish, and results-oriented. You don't have to make friends. In fact, it's probably better that you don't. Reality TV is no different. It can be healthy to have an outlet for these sorts of impulses.

When I started the casting process for Survivor, I was rebuffed at first when they said, "You're too nice. You're too polite." On social media, I'm much more aggressively narcissistic, egocentric, and kind of hyperconfident-arrogant. I've always regarded it as a character that I've played. Not to say that it's not a part of me, but it's a side of me. This was the character they wanted to see. It became very easy for me to draw on a side of my personality that I had formally only expressed through typing on a Twitter screen, to amplify those characteristics even more to create this caricature of myself. This is not a dishonest portrayal — it's just taking elements of my personality that I would normally only allow to come out through snark on Twitter. It felt like taking the governor off aspects of my personality that I spend a lot time trying to keep under wraps or eliminate outright in the interest of being a better friend, a better co-worker, a better partner.

When the show aired, people were calling it one of the worst seasons ever. I was portrayed in a humiliating light. I don't think that's an exaggeration or me being overly sensitive. And it's not me taking objection, either. There's a classic Survivor pre-merge episode structure where there is an arrogant guy who thinks he knows everything and gets his comeuppance. In season 29, it was Drew Christy. In season 30, it was me. It was to a T, that template playing itself out again. That's always a great episode. If I can take any satisfaction from my experience, I think my episode is one of the better pre-merge episodes. It was at the expense of my dignity, but it made for good TV.

Watching the season back at home months later, though, I felt disappointed that viewers weren't staying open-minded enough, that they were taking everything at face value. In retrospect, it's kind of unreasonable for me to say, "If you knew the real story, you'd like this more, or you'd like him more, or you'd like me more." (My ability to be harshly critical of the show was also challenged by this new appreciation I had for just how much it took to do the simplest thing on that show. The amount of man and woman hours that went into setting up a simple confessional interview alone. This made me possessively sensitive about audience and critical reaction to the season.) Even for myself, the only way that I really could watch some of the episodes I was on was to just look at myself as a two-dimensional character and derive some enjoyment from that. Because if I allowed myself to connect what I was seeing and hearing back to myself, it was really painful in many instances.

But what was most difficult was seeing people I knew, and in some instances, people I considered to be my friends, eliminate everything they knew about me based on all our other interactions. I had a few people attempt to connect things they had seen onscreen to parts of my history in ways that I felt were really disconcerting. In other words, not aspects of my life that were public or that I was comfortable with sharing, but private aspects of my life — which then became a talking point in a podcast or a cast preview — where people were claiming some kind of expertise on me because one time we had had a deep, confessional phone call. And now that information was playing into how this person was talking about my character.

All that said, I come away from the experience positively. Even though some of the people around me came away from it with a smaller view of me, I left it with a better sense of self. It gave me a place to express a side of my personality that society doesn’t allow us to express. The key is making sure that you only indulge these parts of yourself inside the confines of the game. Play Survivor on the island, not in your everyday life. The worst sort of reality-TV people are the ones who don't respect those boundaries: The ones who backstab and scheme and blindside in real life, and the ones who are incapable of leaving the game behind, and thus become bitter and vindictive toward one another, even when there isn't a million dollars at stake. Having an outlet like the show, or even Twitter, lets me channel these impulses in a way that allows me to be a more balanced person in my offscreen life. In the end, the most positive part of my experience has less to do with Survivor than it does with who I am.