Reality TV: The new, most popular form of fiction today. Survivor (Wednesdays, CBS, 8-9 p.m.) is outrageously popular. It's been joined by Big Brother. Neither of them is all that interesting. They are, however, fashionable.
One thing that can be said for "Survivor" is that the actual competition for food and equipment, and for immunity from expulsion, is the best part. It's the game that keeps the entertainment afloat - the rules matter, the effort matters, the team matters. And "Survivor" is nicely photographed - plenty of long views of the ocean, close-ups of wildlife, and a sense of the expanse of nature - even the tropical heat has a majesty about it.
CBS's "Big Brother," on the other hand, is dead ugly to look at. The only relief from that all-square interior and the duller, all-square exterior is the human faces themselves.
Jeff Probst, the host of "Survivor," said that he was "interested in human nature," and watching humans reveal what they are really made of fascinated him. But if you watch that show enough, you know that the contestants gossip about each other and complain of their shortcomings on national TV. It gets nasty.
Watching "Big Brother" - which so far hasn't caught on with viewers the way "Survivor" has - for the first few nights was a lot like listening to gossip, too.
One woman cried because her husband was mean to her before she entered the house. This is not an actress reading a part - this is a woman who is seriously at odds with her spouse and is telling the world about it.
One man says he thinks his life is not as interesting as the others', so later he plays the fool by wearing a wig and cackling like a chicken.
Another man judges everyone else in the house on the most superficial bases.
All the insecurities common to most of us have already started to surface: We can see issues of race and class, youth and maturity, male and female, creating tensions.
What we do not see are the internal mechanisms of each person's thoughts. We do not see where their individual grasp of decency may lie - the way we would in a good play or film.
The better natures of these people may be hidden from us by all those candid cameras. After all, the producers have to keep viewers coming back. The essence of all "dramality" programs, as "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett terms his peculiar brand of reality TV, is conflict.
Conflict is at the heart of all drama, and comedy, too. But good fiction is meant to reflect life, to distill it so that we may better understand the human condition and reflect on what it means to live a meaningful life.
The really sneaky thing about "dramalities" like "Survivor" and "Big Brother" is how they appear to be real, when in fact, they are so terribly contrived.
The image the viewer receives of "human nature" is bleak, distorted, and engineered by the producers and editors.
One might hope that reality TV would extend empathy - but it doesn't do that.
Viewers tend to choose the contestants they like (or dislike) on "Survivor" based on the evidence given them, which is inherently superficial because editors have subjectively trimmed and picked from reels and reels of footage.
Never is it bleaker than when members are voted off. On "Survivor," the individual who is expelled has his symbolic torch snuffed in a hokey ceremony. All very junior high.
It remains to be seen if "Big Brother" (on CBS five nights a week for three months) will be more enlightening than "Survivor" has been.
When a similar version of the show aired in Germany, a movement sprang up to ban it for its violation of human dignity. It doesn't matter that the guests volunteered or that they were looking for financial reward - or that it was popular. Once compromised, human dignity is difficult to salvage. And with four video streams on the net (view them at www.bigbrother2000.com), fans in the United States are already choosing sides about the American edition.
A better use of one's TV time might be Nuremberg (TNT, Part I on Sunday, July 16, 8-10 p.m., and Part II on Monday, July 17, 8-10 p.m.). This ambitious mini-
series stars Alec Baldwin as Chief Justice Robert Jackson, the brilliant prosecutor who tried 22 Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, Germany, after World War II.
The crack cast is also headed by Christopher Plummer as Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, the British prosecutor, and Brian Cox as Hermann Goering. They are marvelous in their respective roles. But the film has many problems, the worst of which is that it fails to describe the war crimes clearly enough. Then, too, a gratuitous romance between Justice Jackson and his secretary has absolutely no place in this story - a turning point in modern history wherein war criminals were held accountable in the eyes of all mankind for atrocities committed "under orders" during the war.
The best of the dialogue is taken from actual courtroom records. The gifted Baldwin captures the idealism and political savvy of Jackson, and the brilliance with which he turned on a dime and reinvented his questions in order to trap the defendants in their own boasting. When he utters Jackson's closing argument, he stirs the conscience with the best of American idealism. He reminds us of the integrity of human empathy, the absence of which results in evil.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society