Every girl has a weakness, and if you either know me in person or read my blog frequently enough, you likely know that I have quite a few. One of the healthiest and least destructive is my addiction to reality TV. Indeed, I’ve always had a great love for TV, in general, ever since childhood. While I’ve never seen many classic movies everyone else has seen, I remember that show that was on the air for less than a season. While some people say “I don’t watch TV; it’s a waste of time.”, television has always been more like a consistent friend in my life. When I am sad, it can lift my mood. When I am worried, it is a story that distracts me from my problems. Characters on television or contestants in reality shows I will likely never meet become real enough for them to feel like part of my day. I invest in them. I care about what happens to them. When a show comes to an end, it’s a little bit like losing a friend. The same way some people are passionate about movies or books or music, I’ve always felt that about television. It’s ironic that I spent more than half my life as a stage actress (my obsession with musicals is pretty close to my obsession with TV, but there simply aren’t as many of them readily available.), but my earliest childhood memories involve being fascinated by stories I saw on television.
In any case, I’ve blogged about my love for and experiences with CBS’ Big Brother in the past, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I’m one of the devoted followers willing to watch the TV Guide channel for two hours a day just to see what’s happening in the house. Since my favourites have all been voted out and the season is almost over, I thought this meant the end of my relationship with the TV Guide channel. (I mean, it’s an annoying channel. Half the screen shows a scrolling guide to which you eventually become oblivious, and at night, they show advertisements for cat toys and ways to make perfect pastry pockets. During the day, you see these horribly tragic commercials about abused pets, thanks to the ASPCA.) However, since Survivor premiers the day Big Brother ends, they’ve been showing seasons from Survivor past.
Again, as many of you know, I have a friend who appeared on Survivor–and through her, have made a network of acquaintances who are part of the CBS Survivor family. (I do give them credit; they are an interesting and resilient group of people.) However, it occurs to me that while I may have never watched Survivor before going through the Big Brother audition process (I was not a fan of Real World or any other reality shows before CBS came on the scene with their shows.), I associate the first season of Survivor with a number of important memories in my life.
They happened to air the first part of the first season of Survivor today, and I was reminded that I liked it because it seemed so different from the way reality shows are today. The show premiered when I was 20; I’d just gotten my college degree and had hoped to be spending my summer in the CBS Big Brother “house”. When that didn’t happen, I was disappointed, but interested in watching the girl for whom I was an alternate, and quickly found the show compelling. At the same time, Survivor: Borneo premiered, and I remember being skeptical about whether or not I’d like it. By the end, when someone had their torch snuffed out and had to leave, I found myself crying. I’ve been a fan of both shows ever since.
Both Big Brother and Survivor changed formats incredibly since the 2000 seasons. Contestants are now largely edited, everything is overly produced and edited, and fans of the show know what challenges are likely to show up. Re-watching the first season of Survivor, I’m reminded why it was the only one that was emotionally charged enough to make me cry when someone was thrown out of the game. Neither the production team nor the cast seemed to know how to act or what to expect. Instead of the highly-produced, well-edited shows we’ve gotten used to in the intervening 12 years, the original Survivor seems a bit like a documentary of people who signed up to play “Lord Of The Flies” or “The Hunger Games”. The people were not overly fit, glamourous, or Hollywood in any way. They were truly diverse. They were not made into characters, but shown as real people with both positive and negative attributes. They were not given make-up touch-ups and didn’t walk around in cute bikinis all season. Sometimes, they *looked* like people having a rough time on a desert island. Looking back, I realise that honest way of creating reality TV allowed you to empathise with the people on the show in a way that isn’t as easy anymore. These days, any illusion of reality is gone. You don’t suspend disbelief; you remember it’s a game staged by a network. But, at the beginning, there was so much more reality to TV. (it took most of the participants a majority of the game to figure out that by voting together, you could form “alliances” to get rid of one person. On one episode I saw today, nearly every person had their name put down, and when one woman realised that a group of people had voted against her, she remarked in a heartbreakingly honest, shocked tone of voice, “Oh, my God. It’s me.” For a moment, you had the sense that something more dramatic was going to happen to her than simply walking off a CBS set.
In the summer of 2000, since I was not locked in a set on the CBS lot, I was off on auditions looking for a job. My first was for Disney World. I’d auditioned twice in NYC, and was finally flown down to Orlando for a final callback. I didn’t get the job (which is a different story for a different time, and most of you have heard it.), but I spent a bit over a week in a hotel in Orlando. (Sadly, it took that long for me to get out of a rather depressed and directionless funk, and finally phone a friend in Miami…and thus started a whole new set of adventures for me.)
I’m not sure why I decided to do that, except I didn’t know where to go or what to do, and I’d never been to Florida when I was younger. To save money, I was in a cheap hotel on the outskirts of town, the kind of place where the only things in walking distance were a Wendy’s, a Piggly Wiggly, a gas station, and a Goodwill.
I thought I’d feel free and adventurous when I finally got there, even when I didn’t get the job. I was still determined to look for adventure and experience, but instead, I surprisingly felt dreadfully alone and lost. It was the first time I realised the world was this big place, and I was just this average girl right out of university who’d been turned down for every major audition she’d landed, and didn’t want to go to NYC to wait tables like everyone else. I had a small suitcase, a laptop, a cell phone, and a CD player (yes, there was a day where there were no iPods. ). The hotel room I was staying in was sad. In general, my life felt sad.
(Strangely, this phenomenon has never left me. I love traveling, and unless I’m with one of a handful of people in my life, I prefer to travel alone. However, when I get there, I will feel immensely sad for the first day or two at being alone, and not being near anything precious to me.)
There were a few things that weren’t sad about that trip. One was the fact that it rained every day at 3 PM. I loved watching the downpour. Another was the fact that I was talking online to two different people I didn’t even know, but were highly important fixtures in my life (and remained that way for a very long time.), and things like my blog and internet chats with strangers who didn’t feel anything like strangers helped me through feeling quite isolated. The last thing I remember was Survivor. As soon as the show came on, it lifted my spirits, and for just a little while, I was transported into someone else’s adventure and felt stronger just by vicariously watching.
To this day, I hate Orlando, and it’s amusing that I ended up making my home in the South, when I’ve never been particularly fond of much, outside of New Orleans and perhaps Savannah. But, on rainy days when Survivor is on, I am 20 years old and utterly lost in the world again. Yet, I am happy with the memory, because I can recall what it’s like to feel that young and have that belief in adventure and know that anything in the world is possible. It isn’t a feeling that I have these days, and haven’t for many years—but years of method acting have left me with the ability to recall it, and small things are enough to evoke that memory.
Although I’ve traveled such a great deal since then, lost and rebuilt so much of my life, and in many ways, had the lifetime of adventures that 20-year-old me so desperately saw herself destined to have, that particular week of my life is terribly easy to recall. And, while I’ve also lost and replaced suitcases and their contents, the contents of apartments and storage units, and many of my possessions throughout life, it seems fitting to me that I still have all of the items I purchased at the Orlando Goodwill. (regretfully, I am not the size I was at 20, so the day I’m able to wear them to something will be a proud one. *laughs*)
That one week of my life was not in any way a happy one, but it was one that really affected me on some strangely deep level, and the original Survivor will always be a huge piece of that memory.