TV: Jim Crow's Survivor

"Survivor: Cook Islands," which premiered Thursday night, received much more than the usual preshow buildup thanks to a controversial gimmick: the four tribes are segregated—and we do mean segregated—by race: black, white, Asian and Latino. When CBS revealed this twist a few weeks ago, many people around the country were incensed that the show would pit races against each other as entertainment (though, curiously, no one has ever complained about women competing against men). A group of New York City councilmen even called for a boycott of the show. Now that we've seen the first episode, it's clear that those councilmen were right. Separating the tribes by race is a terrible thing to do, but not because anything patently offensive has come from it. On the contrary, the debut episode was so boring—certainly the most boring debut episode of any "Survivor" ever—that some people will wonder what all the fuss was about.

It's clear that CBS and "Survivor" are desperate for their gimmick to make waves. When the show opens, the contestants are packed into a wooden boat that evokes images of slaves being transported across the ocean. Before they even hit land, contestants described in voice-overs their own fears of what the show will produce. "It's wonderful that there's more minorities," says Yul, an Asian investment banker. "At the same time, I'm worried it might play into caricatures and stereotypes." This is what is known as priming the pump. Yul's answer obviously came from being asked a pointed question by a producer.

But nowhere in the first episode did we see any stereotypes being exploited. No one called anyone a bad name. No one strategized based on a perceived weakness of another race. The black tribe does talk about its desire to "represent"—to portray the race in the best light possible. "Yes, black people know how to swim and paddle. We don't [only] run track," says Rebecca. But it was all just a lot of PC talk. When the black tribe did lose the first challenge, no one suggested—and the show was careful not to imply in any way—that it was because black folks couldn't swim. Nor did anyone say that the Asians won because of any perceived advantages of their race.

Even the episode's most sinister moment— when a white contestant steals a chicken from the Asian team —goes by without anyone even nodding or smirking. If the show can't, or won't, create any real drama when a white guy doublecrosses a minority, then it seems unlikely that the show will be able to produce any real tension from this phony format.

There is one contestant, an Asian man named Cao Boi, who is actually prone to race-based comments. The problem is, he makes them only about Asians, like how they're skinny, or smart. "Nobody suspects these little people with slanted eyes are strong enough to do anything. People always underestimate the Asians," he says. It's not exactly an endearing remark, but you can't really call it racist either, any more than you can single out Rebecca out for making the comment about blacks and swimming. Cao Boi—a hippie dude who pronounces his name "Cowboy"—just sounds like a buffoon, and his castmates are quick to call him out on it. Expect him to be the first member of his tribe voted off.

Of course, this was just the first of 16 of the Cook Island/Jim Crow edition of "Survivor," so anything can still happen. Clearly, the producers desperately want race to figure into the show, so we're bound to see it become an issue as time goes on. When the cameras are running nonstop for 39 days, someone is bound to do or say something stupid. But the racial angle already feels like an unusually fake call from the "reality" TV playbook, something put on by the producers rather than something organic to their peculiar living arrangements. Every "Survivor" fan knows that the first episode of each season focuses on the quest for fire. This season's debut was all about creating a smokescreen to hide the fact that "Survivor" is running out of gas.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The originial version of this story incorrectly said the chicken was stolen from the black team.

TV: Jim Crow's Survivor | News