One thing about me is that if I think something relates to Crime and Punishment, I’m gonna say so. And Netflix’s latest reality TV show, Surviving Paradise, is, ultimately, another retelling of Crime and Punishment.
At the heart of my favorite book is a question: To what extent is actual selflessness possible? Is something you consider a selfless act merely a selfish act masquerading as a good deed? If it’s all a matter of perspective, then who has the authority to distinguish a selfish act from a selfless act?
Crime and Punishment doesn’t answer these questions, and neither does Netflix’s Surviving Paradise. But it’s fun to think about the questions, isn’t it?
In Surviving Paradise, 12 contestants are competing for a $100k cash prize by living in a gorgeous luxury villa in Greece. Or, at least, that’s what they think they’re doing when they sign up for this show! (Once again, I have to wonder, what exactly do these contracts say — or not say — such that there are so many Netflix reality TV shows where contestants seem to have no idea what the actual show entails! Hello Too Hot to Handle seasons one through one million.)
What actually happens is this: After a few hours of drinking and debauchery in the magnificent, opulent villa, all the lights go out. Literally! I love unnecessary drama. And that’s when the contestants learn how this show will really work: All 12 contestants now have to go live in the forest, with just the bare minimum to survive. There will be opportunities to get back into the villa — but those rules aren’t going to be elucidated just yet because that’d be way too straightforward! Like in Netflix’s The Circle, the contestants don’t know exactly how this game works, and neither do we.
I’ll be honest, the first few episodes of Surviving Paradise felt like a slog to me, because of one main issue: The contestants didn’t choose to be in the less-than-ideal situation in which they found themselves. In all of my favorite competition-based reality TV shows, the contestants endure the difficult circumstances because they want to be there. And while the circumstances at the camp in Surviving Paradise aren’t as bad as those in Survivor, in most ways, they’re still…very bad. All they have to eat is rice and beans; they sleep on cots; and of course, all this is happening in the middle of nowhere. (The only thing that Survivor contestants get that’s arguably better than those on Surviving Paradise is access to water in which they can bathe. In every other way, I’d say these guys are easier off!)
All in all, it’s not fun to watch people struggle through something they never chose to do, and clearly, never would choose to do. This made the first few episodes tenuous at best, nearly unwatchable at worst. So much of the joy of Survivor is watching people do things that are hard for them, because they believe they can handle it. They believe they can rise to the challenge; that’s why they auditioned to be on the show in the first place. In Surviving Paradise, conversely, these folks auditioned to live in luxury, so watching them in camp is just…kinda sad.
That said, the one thing that kept me hooked was the rivalry between nonbinary contestant Tabitha Sloane — the one openly queer contestant on the show — and Lellies Santiago. Both were trying to do what my favorite contestants on Survivor do: control the game without looking like they’re controlling the game (it’s giving Parvati Shallow; it’s giving Karla Cruz Godoy before she got the boot because people caught onto her). Without giving too much away, what compelled me about the dynamic between Lellies and Tabitha was that they both seemed so able to see through each other. From day one, they seemed to know they were playing a very similar game, and they knew no one else knew it. They’ve both got high emotional intelligence, and that’s really the only currency in a game like this with no physical challenges or individual immunity.
If you can make it through the first few episodes, I do think it’s worth it. The game picks up when the players are increasingly able to control their own fates, because with that power comes accountability. And with accountability comes backstabbing and crumbling alliances. And let’s face it, that’s what makes these kinds of shows so good! I love seeing who decides to tow the line and remain loyal, who decides to put themselves first, and which of those strategies, ultimately, secures the win. It’s different every time; that’s what makes it so endlessly watchable.
As the show progresses, the contestants begin to view camp as an unkillable evil — something they can’t destroy, but they can (if they play their cards right) avoid. Phrases like “I’ve got to get back to the villa” become normal sentences you find yourself agreeing with. All the contestants (and the audience) know is that in order to win the cash prize, you must be in the villa when the game ends. You don’t know when the game ends; you just know where you need to be. Of course, this becomes increasingly high-stakes with every passing day, because one can only assume this game won’t go on forever.
The real drama of the show comes in the last couple episodes, when everything is dialed up (i.e. people in the camp are hungrier, smellier, and more fatigued, while people in the villa are more well-fed, well-rested, and showered). By now, the players know each other, and we know them, too. We’ve seen certain players decide to give food rewards to others over themselves. We’ve seen certain players go to camp to allow others to go to the villa. We’ve seen certain players say whatever they have to say to whoever will listen to get themselves into the villa. In other words, within the world of the game, the players have created an infrastructure of perceived selfishness and selflessness. As the cash prize — the reason these folks signed up for this game in the first place! — comes into increasingly clear view, some players make truly shocking choices, some extremely selfish and some extremely selfless.
It’s almost as delicious as a timeless Russian novel. Almost.