One and Done
How not to be the first contestant kicked off a reality show.
There's no television type quite so pathetic as the first person dropped from a reality show. He's the embodiment of broken dreams, the guy who survives the rigorous casting process, films the opening credits, tastes the elixir of TV fame … then gets booted in Episode 1. And usually, there's good reason. He's too abrasive, too inflexible, or just too amorphous to last.
Reality producers say once filming begins, it's often easy to see who's expendable. "You're always pulling people aside and coaching them and telling them, 'This isn't what we picked,' " says Stuart Krasnow, executive producer of NBC's Average Joe and Oxygen's The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency. "Some people never pop, and other people pop beyond your dreams."
When CBS's Survivor debuts tomorrow night, will you be able to spot the contestant who doesn't make it past Episode 1? Can you identify the warning signs of first-episode implosion? What follows is a catalog of failed reality types—and a series of lessons gleaned from their bad examples.
Lesson 1: Don't be dull.
In the premiere of the current season of Bravo's Project Runway, designers Jerry and Stella, charged with making clothes from items in a grocery store, created outfits that seemed equally hideous. Stella sheathed a model in garbage bags. Jerry made a shapeless raincoat from a shower curtain. Yet in the end, it was Stella who survived.
Why was Jerry the first to go home? It was a matter of charisma, and Stella clearly had more. As a designer to rock stars with a penchant for leather and metal, she had a deep, growly voice and cheeks so sunken that one blog has dubbed her "Cheroin."
Jerry was homely, too, but not in an interesting way, with his chubby face, short hair, and a dress code of unadorned T-shirts. He was cocky but not deservedly so. He was neither a sure contender nor a brewing troublemaker. And if producers had a say—which they usually do—they probably asked that he be auf'd.
Jerry sneered at everyone else's clothes, but even his snootiness lacked character. "Crap on top of crap" was his idea of an insult, but this show thrives on more colorful critiques: One contestant said Jerry's outfit belonged on an ax murderer, while judge Michael Kors compared it to "a handiwipe gone wrong." In interviews, Jerry has since said he wishes he'd unleashed more caustic stuff. It's a lesson too many contestants learn too late.
Lesson 2: Nice guys finish last. Same with nice ladies.
Before reality TV became the force it is today, before everyone understood how cutthroat these games could be, there was CBS's Survivor, and there was Sonja. In the show's first-ever season, in the long-lost summer of 2000, she was the first to have her torch snuffed out on the island of Pulau Tiga.
At first glance, Sonja seemed a lovely addition to the mix of islanders: an artsy senior citizen who played the ukulele, she had a bright view of human nature and, unlike some of her playmates, was genuinely nice. Sure, she had a fateful stumble during the first immunity challenge, but her true vulnerability ran deeper. This was an island of snakes and rats, and Sonja's guileless personality made her seem impossibly weak. In a scene midway through the first episode, Sonja played a cheerful ditty called "Bye-Bye Blues" for eventual winner Richard Hatch. He applauded her gamely—he probably even meant it—but you know what he was thinking: bull's-eye.
Lesson 3: Don't be chicken.
Reality contestants have learned from Sonja's mistakes; these days, most seem to arrive on set with hackles raised. Yet a few still seem shockingly naive about the demands of the contest at hand. Sonja, at least, was game for the rigors of life on a desert island. Sometimes, a reality contestant signs up for adventure but winds up looking sorry she didn't stay home.Take Stephanie, the first woman cut from the CW dating show Farmer Wants a Wife.
Among the city girls in heels who hoped to win a farmer's heart, Stephanie was the most squeamish about country life. Tasked in the first episode with putting chickens into pens, she was reluctant to grab the poultry. Farmer Matt wasn't charmed, and the producers probably weren't, either. Why bother coming to rural Missouri if you're not willing to get down and dirty on the farm? The show's humor derived from the contrast between city and country life, and to play up the divide, the women had to be willing to embarrass themselves. Most of Stephanie's competitors were squeamish, too, but they ran eagerly after the birds, throwing caution—and fear of chicken-poop stains—to the wind.
Joanna Weiss is an Op-Ed columnist for the Boston Globe and author of the novel Milkshake.
Still from Survivor: Gabon © 2008 CBS. Photographs on Slate's home page of: Jerry Tam by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images; Sonja Christopher by Kevin Winter/ImageDirect; Jeffrey Ross by Ethan Miller/Getty Images; Stephanie Horn by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.