Debra Lafave Naked! And, uh, Something on Survivor
When I talked to infamous Apprentice contestant Omarosa Manigault Stallworth last night, she's hadn't yet watched the first episode of Survivor creator Mark Burnett's racially-divided version of the classic reality TV competition.
We first met a few weeks ago, when she called after my first column on the whole mess was printed. Besides namechecking her in the story, I'd pointed out how this was just going to bring Burnett's subtle handling of race issues on Survivor and The Apprentice to the forefront; it was a unique enough take that she felt compelled to call my cellphone on a Saturday and commiserate.
Last night, speaking by cellphone from Los Angeles, she was similarly sour about it all.
“He’s so cynical about race anyway. Mark Burnett, the ultimate social reearcher – he doesn’t think race is an issue anyway. My question would always be -- what I ask people to think about when I do lectures about this stuff -- is what did they leave out? What are you not seeing?”
That's always the problem with reviewing reality TV shows. To turn a Rumsfeldian phrase: You don't know what you don't know.
As I noted in the fall TV preview, someone had tipped me that this edition of Survivor would avoid accusations of spreading stereotypes by focusing on tensions within each group -- at least, initially. And that was the story of the debut episode, for sure. (watch a broadband stream of the first episode here.)
The urbanized, assimilated young folks in the Asian American tribe, Puka, laughed at the old world attitude of nail salon manager and former Vietnam refugee Anh-Tuan "Cao Boi" (pronounced "cowboy") Bui, the third oldest competitor. Nevermind that he cured a headache for buff fashion director Brad Virata through a massage designed to eliminate his "bad wind" (apparently, leaving a red mark on his forehead was a worse transgression).
The Hispanic tribe, Aitu, bristled as the most out-of-shape member, heavy metal axe-grinder Billy Garcia, laid around while others worked. And the African American tribe, Hiki, floundered as jazz musician Sekou Bunch tried to assert leadership and then split the group along gender lines.
You could almost hear the extra excitement in host Jeff Probst's voice during the typically high-velocity opening, as contestants were scrambling around the ship which ferried them to their islands, grabbing as many provisions as they could carry in two minutes.
"It is a social experiement like never before," he shouted. "This is more than a test of survival skills. This is also a test of social skills. Out here, it's the impressions you make on the other castaways that determines your fate."
But this Survivor unfolded much like the other ones -- down to the first ejectee, Bunch, who at age 45 just happened to be the oldest (and most overbearing) contestant on board. His loss only seemed to confirm another Survivor triusm: Don't try to lead too early; you'll only piss everybody off.
Those with an agenda may gripe (or celebrate) that the black team was the first to lose a challenge -- in typical Survivor fashion, they lost because they couldn't work together effectively in assembling a boat divided like a puzzle.
Unfortunately, what last night's show really revealed was that the excitement over the race divisions may be so much smoke and mirrors -- first, because the tribes are mostly separated, so there's little cross-group tension yet.
And secondly, because Burnett's agenda seems to be proving that those who focus on race difference are wrong-headed (expect one member from each tribe to be put in another tribe before long, just to ratchet up the race tension).
Of course, because he controls every aspect of the production -- from the casting to the setting to the challenges to the editing -- Burnett can really make this show say or mean anything he wants to.
Note to Jeff: It's not really a social experiment if you can put your finger on the scale anytime you want to.
Why the Headline?
Considering how many people are searching for Lafave stuff these days, I figure I'd lead with a headline sure to turn up in a few hundred search engines (I've said before that I'm shameless about courting pageviews, didn't I?)
Anyways, I promise I'll have something on Lafave madness later today, but I've got an interview and a Floridian story to crank out in the meantime...and click on any photo to enlarge it....(hmm,which one will get the most clicks, I wonder?)
UPDATE: Because I promised -- what I had planned to note about Lafave was a simple thought. When I first saw Lauer's Lafave interview, I assumed the reason he presented no quotes from anyone critical of Lafave was that it was a condition of receiving her cooperation.
I have since been told by a reliable source that there were no conditions on the interview. And that the mother of the boy she slept with -- whose interview with MSNBC's Rita Cosby was plastered all over the channel alongside clips from Lauer's talk -- was not contacted by NBC for the Dateline story.
So it seems they didn't even try to present a balanced story, turning Dateline NBC into a showcase for Lafave's self-centered version of events. So much for journalistic balance...