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Survivor: The Complete First Season

Always a television follower rather than a leader, I jumped on the “Survivor” bandwagon a few episodes into season one, when all my friends started inviting me over for “Survivor” parties. I only actually showed up once (nacho night), but the show was something I kept on watching. I couldn’t stop. Like it or not, “Survivor” is great television. Maybe the reality thing was kicked off by MTV’s “The Real World”, but “Survivor” brought it out of the doldrums of basic cable and into the network mainstream. Even now, with the airwaves flooded by pervasive reality programming, “Survivor” is still the best thing going. Mark Burnett and his team had an original idea and ran with it. They’re to blame for the death of sitcoms and the rise of shows like “Average Joe” and “The Littlest Groom”, though their show shares none of the sickening amoral proclivities of those disturbing, sometimes midget-powered aberrations. Maybe we should string them all up just for that, but the Survivor itself is a killer product.

The idea is pretty simple. Grab a few money hungry contestants and strand them on an island. Every few days (each episode) they all get together and vote someone off. In between starving and voting, throw in a few physical and mental challenges. The show ends when there is only one person left. That person earns the title of “Survivor” (who cares) and most importantly a cool million dollars. As it turns out, the show isn’t really so much about surviving on a deserted island, but each other. The cameras are there for every step and misstep, chronicling the Survivors every second of every day. What they catch is TV gold.

Though Burnett keeps cranking out new seasons, the first time around was the best. Season one had something special that no other subsequent “Survivor” will ever be able to duplicate. I call it ignorance. No one had a clue. Not the cast, not the crew, not the self-important, seashell necklace wearing host named Jeff Probst. None of them realize how big the show would actually be, and more importantly no one (except maybe Richard Hatch) realized what it would take to win this game. Now the show is diluted with wannabe actors and television fame whores, mugging for the camera and studying up on old strategies already figured out previous Survivors to manipulate and dominate the game. But in season one, no knew. It was fresh, it was new, and everything was unexpected.

That newness is especially evident now, trekking back to watch Season one after having already watched seven follow up seasons of the show. Season one has a sort of raw look that gives it a kind of authenticity the current seasons just don’t have. It’s less high tech, more “in the moment” and that gives it a kind of authenticity I think current incarnations of the show have lost. Even host Jeff Probst remarks in the commentary track about how much better the show looked then. Now it’s slick, it “looks like a movie”. While it may be nice to have more money to put out a shinier product, sometimes I think reality television is better off when it’s low budget and on the fly. The first season of “Survivor” proves that.

Hey, remember how much everyone hated Richard Hatch? Remember the pissed off groan that swept around the world when “Survivor’s” conniving master-mind actually won the million? Funny thing… I actually found myself liking the guy this time around. Fact is shows like this are about characters and the “bad” guys are the most interesting of the lot. Conflict, insanity, and fat naked fags are what make a low brow show like this worth watching. You’ll thrill to Richard’s uncensored nudity. You’ll laugh at Dr. Sean’s Gilligan-like bowling alley. You’ll root for Rudy, even though you know he’ll never win. Season one has only gotten better with age. Pleasantly packaged, sharply presented, and packed with goodies, Survivor: The Complete First Season is a real homerun for CBS DVD. Unlike a lot of the other crappola TV to DVD translations being shoved on shelves for public consumption (insert scathing Will & Grace remark here), this one is stacked to the limit with stuff you just won’t be able to avoid watching. For me, this past weekend was Survivor weekend as I poured through the box set, being reminded why the heck I used to watch this show in the first place.

The very best thing CBS has done with this set is crammed in a big freakin bonus disc included with the separate episode discs (there is a version of the set without it, but that's not the one you want). Entitled “Season One: The Greatest and Most Outrageous Moments”, it is in fact not a cheaply produced, half-assed “uncensored” disc as the hokey title might suggest. Instead, it’s loaded with a gripping documentary on the show that takes you through the entire first season bit by bit, intercut with cast interviews and individual pieces about tribe mates. It shows you Survivors place in reality TV history, and sort of gives you an idea of just what it too to put this thing together. It’s a couple of hours long, but I could not turn it off. I was hooked. I think the documentary on the show may actually be even better than the show itself. It’s so good, that it would be worth buying on its own. Lucky for you, if you pick up the right set, you'll get it right along with your compendium of the show.

Also included on the “Greatest Moments” disc are a TON of fantastically put together encyclopedias and resources on the contestants and the game itself. Wonder who Jenna voted for on the Island? Just click over to her profile to see her entire voting record! What’s Rudy’s favorite food? Just a click away. Want detailed information on the island? It’s there and easy to use. Normally I’m fairly opposed to reading my DVD’s. I generally ignore text resources included with these things because well… I have better things to do than squint at paragraphs of blurry text on my TV screen. But this stuff is fantastic resource for anyone who is even remotely interested in the show. You’ll find yourself browsing it as a way to get inside the Survivors heads.

The episodes themselves are spread out over four discs, with discs two and three containing nothing out of the ordinary. But you’ll find commentary from Jeff Probst, Richard Hatch, Gervase Peterson, and Rudy Boesch as an extra on the first and last episodes of the show. Rudy doesn’t say much, but Jeff just can’t shut up. By the final episode I was pretty certain he was hitting on Rich. In between the manly flirting, they repeat a lot of the stuff that’s already been said on the documentary. However, when Jeff stops pretending to be self-deprecating, you’ll get some pretty interesting tidbits out of Richard and Gervase on the state of affairs not shown in the show. It’s good enough that I wish they’d included commentary for every episode, maybe mixing in a few more Survivors into the mix. Kick Jeff out and give Rudy more room to talk about homosexuals.

Hold on, CBS isn’t finished yet. Disc Four also has the Survivor Reunion Show, significant since that was the last time anyone uttered the name “Bryant Gumble.” You’ll also find a hokey episode of Letterman where he forces the Survivors to sound off his Top Ten. There are also a few more interviews done specifically for the DVD with Richard, Rudy, and Gervase. Again, they repeat some of what the documentary already says (and says better), but its fun to see the three of them sitting there together. Lastly, there’s my favorite little quick hit, on the fly footage of the Survivors arriving in LA, packing up, and heading to Borneo. It gives you a voyeuristic eye into the Survivor process, something which suddenly seems a lot more interesting after a dozen hours of non-stop Survivor viewing.

With the big freakin bonus disc, this is a stellar DVD set. Without it it's kind of run of the mill, but since I have the one WITH it, that's what I'm reviewing. CBS has really gone above and beyond with what could have been a quickly shipped out, bare bones “Survivor” box. It would’ve sold well no matter what they put on it, so give them credit for going out of their way to give their fans a little something extra. People love “Survivor” and it isn’t just the potential for free nachos. I’ve already had three people ask to borrow my set. Back off folks, I’m not done ogling Colleen.