When Mark Burnett announced that the contestants in the latest round of Survivor were going to be divided by race, pundits everywhere groaned, but my first thought was, "Hey, cool, a reason to watch Survivor again." I watched the first two seasons of Survivor then quit, in part because of pre-TiVo scheduling conflicts, and in part because the second season was nowhere near as engrossing as the first. I still remember the chill that ran up my spine the first time an "alliance" was proposed and put into effect; and I remember the boredom that set in when the next set of contestants started rotely playing by the rules the first set established. So I checked out, though now and then I'd read about what's going on in Survivor-land, and wish I'd stayed on board.

Which brings us to the racial powder keg that was supposed to be Cook Islands. For all the flaws in last year's reality series Black. White., at least it was trying to honestly explore the question of what racial identity means in America today, without reducing it to a bunch of dumb jokes. And for the first two episodes of this year's Survivor, it was fascinating to watch how each tribe–or at least the blacks, the Asians and the Hispanics–took on the added burden of trying to overcome racial stereotypes. Because, make no mistake, those stereotypes have always been there: in Survivor and other reality shows. Even if no one on the shows want to acknowledge it. At least now, when the Survivor camera lingers on a Hispanic dude taking a nap while his tribemates work, his tribemates are Hispanic too.

Or at least they were. After only two episodes, the tribes have been reshuffled, and the great social experiment is mostly over. No, we're not going to get to watch the black tribe continue to reveal unexpected gender dynamics. (In the first episode, the guys made all the decisions, but the gals wielded the real power.) But judging by the new alliances that have emerged after integration, we may still get to watch the Asians and Caucasians systematically vote out the blacks and Hispanics (who are each a man down in the early going). That is, unless the tribe saddled with the nutty Vietnamese hippie Cao Boi and the officious, Alan Alda-voiced Caucasian J.P. decides to break ranks and knock them out early.

Still, even though I'll stick with Survivor through the end of the season, I confess to being bummed that the "shocking" twist got unkinked so soon. I know that dividing contestants by race defies the "color-blindness" that's supposed to be the model of our enlightened society. But c'mon. Reality shows–even the best of them–have always engaged in tokenism. It's better to have five contestants who are black–each a little different from the other–than to have only one or two, broadly conforming to some casting agent's idea of what "black" is. If the cost of that is that minorities are isolated into mini-societies rather than presented as faces in the crowd, then it's worth it.

Or at least it was. We'll never know what we might've learned about race in America in 2006 had the game-runners had the guts to stick it out.

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