'Survivor,' Eurovision and train wreck television

In the 37th season of “Survivor,” Angelina Keeley was a mess. Her antics in the reality competition show included: voting somebody out for their jacket, negotiating with the host for some rice, constantly bringing up that negotiation when convenient, humiliating another contestant with a fake advantage, losing a clue to an advantage of her own and generally just being a classic reality show villain. Needless to say, Keeley is among my favorite “Survivor” contestants ever.

There’s something beautiful about chaotic television. Ever since “Survivor” debuted in 2000, there has been a trend of competition shows where otherwise normal people have cameras shoved in their face for a few weeks in exchange for the prospect of notoriety and perhaps a million dollars. American audiences have indulged in these shows, consuming thousands of hours of schadenfreude entertainment. It’s addicting to watch chaos unfold!

However, perhaps nobody can pull off chaotic television quite like the Europeans. Since 1956, they’ve been enjoying one of the longest-lived examples of contest television: Eurovision. Eurovision is a song contest where singers from across the continent (...plus Australia) perform original songs, vying for the opportunity for their country to host the contest the following year. It, like “Survivor,” is a program where the lows are often just as entertaining as the highs — for every Angelina Keeley jacketgate there is a microphone-fumbling and mosquito-sounding performance from Moldova. As the show has aged, it has gotten progressively more camp, developing a reputation that leans into the absurd — a Greek song called “Alcohol is Free,” Icelandic performers who literally wear pixelated photos of themselves on their sweaters, an Irish stuffed turkey belting out “Irlande Douze Pointe."

Of course, both “Survivor” and Eurovision still have their moments of pure beauty. But do I watch reality television for its cunning strategy or breathtaking performances? Well, not always. Why do I – and millions of other enjoyers of trainwreck television — enjoy watching other people screw up? 

Schadenfreude – the human phenomenon to delight in others’ misfortune — is a bit weird to think about. Psychologists think humans might feel schadenfreude because it helps raise self-esteem. Indeed, higher levels of schadenfreude are correlated with increased rates of low self-esteem and depression. Nevertheless, it’s still human nature, and even if it might not be the best emotion, it’s still quite widespread.

Of course, corporations are primed to make revenue off of whatever human malady they can, be it via diabetes medications or social media tribalism. So it makes sense that the television programs that stumbled into a schadenfreude are also among the most successful, long-running and influential.

Television producers are betting that human nature isn’t going to change in the near future: this year, the American Song Contest is coming to the United States, promises of chaos and all. Modeled largely off of its European predecessor, the competition will feature all fifty states plus some territories aiming to prove their supremacy over their neighbors. While it may not have exactly quite the same allure Eurovision has (seeing dozens of different countries attempting to show off their different cultures is a little different than a single country competing against itself), fans of Eurovision are hoping that this new spin-off retains the same camp aesthetic of the original. The contest’s success will ultimately rest on whether or not Americans will eat up the silly chaos like they do on “Survivor.” 

Do I hope the American Song Contest succeeds, even if it means more schadenfreude in the world? That’s a rhetorical question — of course I do! It’ll (hopefully!) be a boatload of fun, and schadenfreude is mostly harmless, anyways. After all, look at Angelina Keeley: she’s embraced her portrayal on “Survivor” good-naturedly, and her Twitter is full of her responding to memes about her time as a castaway. If she can survive and even lean into a little bit of schadenfreude, then what’s the harm if we oblige as well? 

Jonathan Pertile | Recess Editor

Jonathan Pertile is a Trinity senior and recess editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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