Can 24 million Survivor fans be wrong? Call me un-American, but apart from a mild antipathy for an obnoxious castaway or two and a superficial physical attraction to a couple of others, I can’t work up even an iota of concern over which of them will next be kicked off their thoroughly charted “desert” island and packed off back to the world of hot showers and ratless cuisine. And if I am not actually in the minority — there are something like 275 million people in this country, 90 percent of whom have apparently found something better to do with their Wednesday nights than watch this show — yet I am obviously swimming against some kind of meaningful cultural tide. Joining (and bettering) Who Wants To Be a Millionaire in 800-pound gorillahood, Survivor has made the cover of Time, that almanac of meaningful cultural tides, while its phenomenal ratings have insured a sequel, set in the Australian Outback, for which the producers expect as many as 10,000 applicants. They will not have to worry about me making it 10,001.
The only trick any TV series has to perform is to get you to tune back in, and Survivor is undeniably brilliant in this regard, merging big-money game-show cliffhanger with Real World–style reality soap opera. Like other game shows — and, for all the Outward Bound rhetoric, Lord of the Flies face paint and great fields of skin, it is a game show — it gives much less than it gets: The million-dollar reward to the surviving survivor is a kind of illusion of largess, a drop in the budget an evening’s ad revenue will more than cover; ultimately, these people are all shills for the network, and CBS is profiting from them in both the short and the long term, as it re-positions itself as youth-friendly and Fox-edgy, where once it made a great fuss of being down with families and old folks. The network also has a Survivor tote bag to sell you, as well as a book, a coffee mug, a shot glass, a baseball cap, a folding chair, and several styles of T-shirt, bearing such slogans as “Don’t Vote Me Off” and “The Tribe Has Spoken” and all available from its online “store”: “Feel that invincible feeling while watching the invigorating Survivor CBS TV show! Survive the monotony of everyday life when you watch this electrifying show wearing your new ‘Distressed’ 100% cotton olive green T-Shirt!”
Monotony would of course be the essential quality of life on a desert island, which is why straight-faced host Jeff Probst (formerly of VH1’s Rock ’n’ Roll Jeopardy) is sent in to stir things up with relay races and bug-eating contests; so much time is spent jumping through these hoops, and at the tiki-torch-lit “Tribal Council,” which has the commingled air of a Cub Scout den meeting, Esalen rap session and frat-house blackballing, that I rarely feel I’m watching anything at all actual; the slow motion and the agony-of-defeat soundtrack music don’t help, either. (It isn’t actual, of course — the art department has cooked up pirate maps and treasure chests, and there are men with cameras everywhere. It makes The Real World look like . . . the real world.) And I can only imagine the show will get less interesting as it goes on, as there are fewer and, I would additionally hazard, less appealing people left to watch; the finalists will not be finalists by virtue of their being matey. “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast” is the show’s motto, not “One for all, and all for one.”
A friendlier odyssey, though no less grueling in its way, is related in the new Disney Channel documentary series Totally Circus, in which 37 absurdly talented kids spend the summer as performers in Vermont’s Circus Smirkus, pitching routines, mounting a show and taking it on the road. The Big Top is no more my fantasy getaway than the desert island, but this is a real, not a manufactured, adventure, with something substantial to say on cooperation and competition, as opposed to Survivor’s puffy, hypocritical blather about teamwork and tribes. (Oh, I know — it’s just a stupid game show.) The series is a kind of companion piece to Disney’s summer-camp series Bug Juice, but where Bug Juice is about finding oneself, Totally Circus concerns kids already so aware of, focused on and busy actualizing what they’re about that one almost can’t help but feel that the first 12 or 13 years of one’s own life were wasted. What was I doing all those years just playing? I could’ve been working on my skills. I could be juggling chain saws by now.
Nuremberg, TNT’s docudramatization of the creation of the famous war-crimes trials, is not immune from the ills of its kind, which is to say that while it is supposed to be true, it is only a movie, and yet as a movie, it is restricted dramatically by its mandate to represent the truth. Yet — though it is corny in parts, and streamlined and simplified throughout — it seems to me a generally decent compromise, fairly engaging across its four-hour length and at least interested in raising a few questions about good and evil and the meaning of justice, even if it doesn’t have anything too new or remarkable to say about them. If nothing else it invites investigation into the more conventional historical record; if it doesn’t exactly make history come alive, it at least helps make one alive to history.
As chief prosecutor Robert Jackson, Alec Baldwin cuts an unusually dashing figure for a moonlighting Supreme Court justice, wire-rimmed spectacles notwithstanding, and his chaste romance with his assistant (Law & Order alum Jill Hennessey, without much to do but moon) seems as much mandated by his leading-man status as by the flirtation’s possible basis in fact. (Nothing much is done with it anyway.) Baldwin, who hacks around in real-world politics, is a genuine true believer, and has about him a gee-whiz quality — “The Nazis on trial at Nuremberg,” the movie’s press book quotes the actor as saying, “were like the New York Yankees of bad guys” — evocative of a kind of old-fashioned midcentury American optimism that suits his character; Judge Jackson’s quixotic notion was to make “aggressive war,” such as Hitler waged, illegal. It’s been a long time, locked as we are into the ironic stance that seems the only defense against a world in which George W. Bush might be elected president, since we could be so beautifully naive.
And so we bid arrivederci to Nancy Marchand, who left this life a day before her 72nd birthday, lauded and laureled for her portrayal of the compulsively manipulative Livia Soprano on television’s most prestigious series. (That would be The Sopranos.) It was a good part, obviously — layered and ambiguous in ways that TV roles rarely are — but it also seems to have become a better one as it grew clear to the writers what Marchand could do with it. “Bravely disheveled” I called her performance last year; it was an egoless rendition of egomania. Marchand’s Livia compounded self-pity, confusion and need with a coldness of purpose in such a way that it was difficult to know where pottiness ended and plotting began. All in all it was one of the most interesting, least sentimental portrayals of senior citizenship ever to grace the tube.
Marchand had a deep background in theater and a smattering of film credits, but was finally best known for her television work, which included series and miniseries, a couple of soap operas, and guest shots from Cheers to Homicide; apart from Livia, her most significant parts were as the Katharine Graham–ish Mrs. Pynchon on Lou Grant and, going back to that age called Golden, as Clara, opposite Rod Steiger in Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, an event the medium still wears like a merit badge. That Marchand was critically ill during The Sopranos’ last season was public knowledge, and the show accommodated and to some extent exploited her condition — though, of course, the one thing Tony Soprano would not expect his mother ever to do was die. I’m no fan of Death, but I’m less one of Decline, and to see an artist go out working and at the top of her game is still somehow a wonderful thing.SURVIVOR | CBS | Wednesdays, 8 p.m.
TOTALLY CIRCUS | Disney Channel | Fridays-Sundays, 4 p.m. | Repeats Fridays and Saturdays, 11:30 p.m.
NUREMBERG | TNT | Sunday-Monday, July 16-17, 8 p.m.
Copyright Robert Lloyd © 2000 and 2011