reality rumble

What’s the Best Reality Show Ever? Finals: Survivor vs. Project Runway

Photo: Bravo and NBC

The first time I saw the Survivor season one finale, I was at a high school graduation party. At first, a few of the kids snuck off to watch the episode, and then a few parents joined them, and by the time we got to the now infamous “the snake and the rat” speech, just about every guest was crammed shoulder to shoulder, jockeying for a view of the episode’s final moments. “Is he a bad guy?” someone’s well-meaning dad asked. I believe the general response was “sort of,” as various factions argued for Richard’s skills and others noted his maniacal weirdness. Is Richard Hatch a bad guy? I’m still not sure.

He was the guy who was cutting off rats’ heads 19 minutes into the first episode of Survivor, insisting that people communicate only on his terms, and lounging around naked even as other contestants complained that it made them uncomfortable. But he was also the only guy who could spear fish — and thus was the main food provider for the castaways — and seemed like the only person with a coherent plan for how he was going to win $1 million. It’s a contest: Just because no one else is being strategic doesn’t mean Rich should be punished for doing so. He had the legit survival skills to win just on a task-based metric, so you couldn’t write him off completely, and yet his bright blue eyes seemed to pierce though the TV screen and bore into your brain, reminding you this guy can’t be trusted.

More than 50 million people watched that episode, and in the 14 years since, the finale of the first season of Survivor has taken on legend status, thanks in part to Sue’s rivetingly telegenic speech, but also because it’s still one of the most vivid portrayals of human bitterness and resentment. The loathing on the various castaways’ faces as they write down their votes should be studied in acting schools across the world: This is what it looks like to be over it. There were a few moments of cheery sportsmanship (like from the upbeat Jenna and the perky Gervase), but the overwhelming feeling is one of seething. You don’t see that kind of collective dissatisfaction on TV that often; in sports, one team is always rejoicing. In dramas, sadness usually stems from tragedy, not exhaustion. The finale of Survivor was like watching a divorce-settlement proceeding: Yeah, someone’s going to walk away with some money, but man, everybody’s going to walk away with a heavy heart. That’s a staggering amount of emotion to wring out of a 44-minute episode, let alone a reality show.

Writers and performers always talk about how villains don’t see themselves that way; the Joker thinks he’s the hero, etc. Richard Hatch is probably the best example of that in the last 20 years of American entertainment, and he was just a dumpy weirdo guy living on a beach! Everything about Survivor’s first season has become part of the American pop landscape: forming an “alliance,” the idea of being “voted off the island.” Heck, Hatch himself still makes appearances in People magazine sidebars. It’s like The Simpsons of reality shows — ubiquitous to the point that one forgets it’s an actual human creation, not just something that has always been. We say “d’oh”; Jeff Probst is on television; our planet has one moon — these are our truths.

Project Runway will never have that kind of cultural permeation. It’s on cable, for starters (first on Bravo, now on Lifetime), and fashion design has less of an inherent appeal than beach-set in-fighting. We have perhaps all thought about how we’d survive on a deserted island. Far fewer of us have wondered how we’d design a functional, fashionable outfit made only from repurposed items from a garden-supply store. Many episodes and many contestants are memorable, but I can’t tell you where I was when I saw them. I can tell you, though, that Runway taught me what cutting something on the bias means, how to think about proportion in clothing, how to “edit” an outfit per judge Nina Garcia’s taste, and how to think about fit and finishing for off-the-rack clothing. Runway walks that line between accessible information (the Tim Gunn critiques are in very plain English) and aspirational talents (like … designing and sewing).

Survivor is a behemoth. Runway is an upstart.

When we set up this bracket, we decided to focus on the one, best season of each show. Reality shows, more so than dramas or comedy, are designed to be repetitive: There are always more rose ceremonies on The Bachelor, always more eclectic architecture on The Real World. For Project Runway, there was some deliberation as to which season to focus on; season one had so much verve, and such a great villain in Wendy Pepper, and season four had boy-genius Christian Siriano. We decided on season two, though, because it had the right combination of intense talent, no perfect front-runner, as well as the high jinks and spirit the show often embodies. For Survivor, though, we knew right away our pick would be season one: Even though plenty of seasons have had compelling cast members, daring challenges, emotional outbursts, and surprise oustings, season one set the tone not just for the rest of Survivor but for a good chunk of reality TV in general. Even before it premiered, Survivor was generating a lot of buzz, and it seemed like everywhere you went in the summer of 2000, someone was talking about whether Jenna had gotten a fair shot, whether Greg was really a big threat, if Colleen should be a model. Survivor was recently renewed for a 29th and 30th season, so the show’s still doing something right, but nowadays contestants know what they’re getting themselves into. Back then, this was totally new! The first season sort of invented itself.

At one tribal council, Sue defends alliances as being just a microcosm of how contemporary America works: Lobbyists form alliances with politicians every day, she says. Why shouldn’t tribe members form alliances with each other? Survivor committed to that idea in subsequent tribal council meetings, that the show was a distillation of global politics. Maybe so. But Survivor’s also a distillation of lunch-table politics, of who’s paying attention to whom, of which two people are dressing alike so you know they’re operating as a duo; who’s the tough jock and who’s the brassy one from the wrong side of the tracks. All that formative bad behavior was coming out in spades, more than it ever has or had on The Real World, and more than in most other contest shows.

That can be thrillingly watchable. But Survivor relies on bringing out the worst in its contestants, and it does that through the low-level torture of constant physical discomfort and starvation. Stand on this board for as long as you can. Whoever stands there the longest gets … a … uh …sandwich. While Survivor challenges these days can be more elaborate, many still center on simple endurance: Stand on this post the longest. (People go for hours.) The last person to keep a ball balancing on a stick wins. (Again, hours.) Eventually, you might win $1 million, but in the meantime, you’re competing for a piece of pizza. Survivor rewards outdoorsmanship and certainly rewards physical fitness, but it’s primarily rewarding people who can withstand tremendous psychological stress.

Runway, like every reality show since The Real World, also relies on some level of psychological manipulation: Contestants live together, work on tight deadlines, get very little sleep, and are frequently cajoled into trash-talking one another. But Runway also rewards creativity, style, sewing skills, and ingenuity. Oftentimes, designers’ creations are staggeringly beautiful. (Oftentimes, they are hideous wrecks that the judges promptly and comically eviscerate.) Artistry is exciting.

In digging into these shows again in the last few weeks, I noticed one big similarity between Richard Hatch and Runway’s Santino Rice: They both asserted their dominance at various points by simply being the loudest. Yes, they were both very well suited to the tasks at hand, but they also gained an advantage by annoying their competitors. Richard did so on purpose, while Santino did so more incidentally, but in both cases that kind of social dominance has a powerful inertia. You had to go along with Rich or Santino no matter what; they just had that kind of sway over everyone. At least Santino had the bonus of being hilarious. He imitated Michael Kors, Tim Gunn, sometimes the other contestants; clip after clip shows him cracking up his fellow designers. Richard was met more with eye rolls than chuckles, so it was Gervase who wound up being the jokester on Survivor — even though his idea of a fun time was sitting back while everyone else busted ass. Just because you brought a pack of cards to the island doesn’t make you “the fun one,” Gervase!

Just about everyone from the first season of Survivor gained some kind of postshow fame — there was even a Rudy action figure — and several returned for subsequent seasons of the show. Runway’s cast members also became part of the reality-show industry, hosting fashion TV shows and reappearing on all-star seasons. Person for person, though, the Runway cast was more fun and interesting than Survivor’s: Sue Hawk was the only Survivor contestant with any kind of heroic spark. The so-called snake Kelly was more of a contestant-bot, and the childlike Colleen’s dopey invectives to be nice felt both foolish and useless. Rudy’s rank homophobia turned me off from the get-go. But on Runway, I was rooting for the garrulous Santino from day one. The young, gifted Daniel Vosovic was all puppy-dog charm, and even the overly dramatic Andrae Gonzalo seemed like he’d be a fun guy to get a drink with. Chloe Dao, who eventually (wrongly!) won, was poised and professional; even sad sack Kara Janx had her fun moments. There’s a joylessness to season one of Survivor, and it’s not an accident: Everyone is lonely and hungry and exhausted and bug-bitten and trying to scheme, and it’s just no fun. Interesting, sure, but passionless. (It’s also gallingly homophobic, with Rudy constantly crowing about being around “queers” and Sean praising Richard for his “fat naked fag” strategy, something it’s hard to picture anyone saying on television today. The series is a product of its time, but the show aired in 2000, not 1955.)

Project Runway is all about the passion, and season two is especially exuberant and gleeful. Even when people are crying and screaming at each other, it doesn’t seem like hell. It seems like a place where emotions run high because people are working hard. Survivor helped define modern reality shows, and Runway helped legitimize reality-contest series. When it comes down to this final decision, I don’t want to reward a show that’s primarily about enduring suffering. It feels more like a psychological experiment than something fundamentally telegenic. Survivor’s clearest imitators are Fear Factor and (American) Big Brother, neither of which make much of a case for contemporary humanity. I’d rather reward a show that’s about skills, about enthusiasm, about talent, about the good kind of charisma — partially because I’d rather see more shows copy that model, to have more shows like Top Chef and FaceOff. Survivor is engrossing. But Runway is enchanting.

Winner: Project Runway, season two

Reality Finals: Survivor vs. Project Runway