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Survivor: Cook Islands goes racial

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Survivor: In 2000 it was America’s gateway drug into the world of reality television. Six years later, it’s hard to remember life without it. Voting a teammate off the island, ingesting insects and other-other-other forms of white meat, and winning “immunity” are all examples of Survivor’s impact on popular culture.

TiVos across the country are clogged with reality game shows riding in the wake of Survivor’s success, and such copy-catting has taken its toll on the original. The show’s creators are forever on the lookout for ways to keep it fresh, but at what cost?

Survivor’s latest season, Cook Islands, is more inappropriate than it is enticing. It began with 20 contestants separated by race into four teams. The initial tribes are thus: Manihiki (African-American), Aitutaki (Hispanic), Rarotonga (Caucasian), and Puka Puka (Asian-American). Actually, Hispanic isn’t a race, it’s an ethnicity, but that’s only one of the many ways that Survivor: Cook Islands got it wrong.

Normally, when a show’s creators are extra-conscious of race during the casting process, it’s because they want to create conflict. Just look at FX’s Black. White. or MTV’s The Real World: Characters are picked to push each other’s buttons. In the case of Survivor, however, tension was not the goal — maybe they figured living on an island was hard enough. Mark Burnett, the show’s producer, has told the press, “We’re smart enough to have gotten rid of every racist person in casting.”

It’s admirable that Burnett wasn’t out to capture scenes of staged racial conflict, but it still doesn’t explain the motivation behind Survivor’s new format. Sure, he wanted to mix things up, but his past efforts to do the same have been much more PC.

In Survivor: Marquesas, Burnett introduced the Purple Rock tiebreaker as a remedy for elimination stalemates. Three seasons later on Pearl Islands, voted-off islanders were able to participate in challenges as members of a special Outcast Tribe. And the next season, Survivor: All-Stars, was entirely devoted to veterans of the show, ending in an engagement between Rob and Amber. Compared to these, segregating tribes by race seems like kind of a bold move. Why couldn’t Burnett just give us another Purple Rock tiebreaker?

In a word: diversity. Critics have long chastised Survivor for the makeup of its cast, which has been predominantly white ever since the show’s debut in May 2000. Maybe the show’s creators were hoping to kill two birds with one stone by reviving the format and normalizing the demographic at the same time. But even if only 25 percent of its contestants are Caucasian, Cook Islands remains a pathetic attempt to manufacture racial harmony.

One of the reasons Survivor has been so whitewashed over the years is that approximately 80 percent of the show’s applicants are white. Burnett actually had some trouble finding the other 75 percent of his most recent cast. According to Entertainment Weekly, contestant Nathan Gonzalez of the Manihiki (black) tribe was recruited at a sporting event. And casting didn’t stop there: Those in charge combed myspace.com, realtor.com, even the turned-down applicants of The Amazing Race.

Sound a little forced? It shows. We might as well rename the this season Survivor: California, because that’s where a whopping 13 of its 20 participants currently reside, as reported on realitytvworld.com. Of those, nine (that’s 45 percent of the total cast) live in or around Los Angeles. Now that’s what I call diversity. I’m sure each of the L.A. contestants has a unique perspective to offer the rest of the island.

The Golden State aside, Cook Islands is still a farce. Host Jeff Probst has been quoted in multiple sources as saying that he and Burnett were hoping to tap into a theme of “ethnic pride” that they detected among their applicants. Bad idea.

Case in point: the Puka Puka tribe, whose members are Vietnamese-, Korean-, and Filipino-American. Last time I checked, the recipe for “ethnic pride” doesn’t call for five people with ties to three different countries. What would they be proud of? How they’ve all been mistaken for Chinese? Survivor’s new format is only lumping together five different cultures under the generic label of “Asian-American.”

I suppose it’s possible that I’m just missing the point about what Burnett and Probst are trying to accomplish. If they really thought it through, the change in format might make sense over time. It’s a legitimate theory, except for one thing: In Cook Islands’ third episode, the four tribes merged into two teams of mixed racial composition. Short-lived and controversial? Sounds like a publicity stunt. Really, the worst part about Survivor’s formatting faux pas is that it didn’t even mean anything.

Call me superstitious, but I can’t ignore the fact that Cook Islands, the first season of Survivor to really cross the line, is the show’s 13th. Maybe 13 is unlucky, but it’s also a pretty big number. Television seasons are like dog years — anything above seven is probably pushing it. My diagnosis? I think it’s time we put Survivor to sleep.