The Survivor format leaves me cold. Bring together a bunch of people I don’t care about and subject them to physical jeopardy to see which of them makes it to the big bucks, and I’m outta there. And even though this is also the format for Fox’s Boot Camp—a show in which a handful of everyday folks compete in military-style basic training—I’ve watched it with interest because one of the top experiences of my life was going through (and getting through) boot camp. Fox’s version is run by real Marine drill instructors (DIs) like I had when I went through the Navy’s Officer and a Gentleman routine about 25 years ago. And the show is filmed on a real, unnamed military base (but I think I recognize it from an aviation survival school I attended later on).
So how accurate is it? Well, there are some things that are definitely wrong. For one thing, the uniforms and gear the recruits get right away are way too cool. Instead of camouflage utilities and matching garrison hats, we spent the first 10 days in unbelievably hot, buttoned-up-to-the-throat-at-all-times World War II-era fatigues called “poopy suits” and ludicrous silver GI helmets called “chrome domes” that were always flying off, leaving us perennially in danger of being gigged for being out of uniform. And Fox’s recruits frequently look too clean. We went those first 10 days without a shower. We smelled so bad that the windows instantly fogged up in any room we entered, and the chaplain cut his first meeting with us short because he couldn’t take it anymore.
Some of Boot Camp’s flubs do make for better TV. The recruits talk to each other at chow and even do some table-hopping; that doesn’t happen for many weeks in real basic training, but then, forcing the TV recruits to sit in silence at meals would be a bit dull. For much of basic training, despite your unprecedented calorie needs, eating is genuinely unpleasant—you must “lock your body up” (i.e. sit at attention, and in some programs eat “a square meal,” meaning that all silverware movements twixt plate and mouth have to form right angles) and not let your eyes wander from your own tray. You must eat everything on your plate, even stuff you hate, and going back for seconds involves so many rules and regulations that it’s not worth it. And we weren’t allowed sweets for five weeks.
Many of the challenges the TV recruits face are much cooler than you get in real basic—and hence easier to get motivated for (and more fun to watch). The first show featured an over-land-and-water point-to-point exercise involving Zodiac boats. I’m sure it was challenging, but it was several months before we got that far away from our barracks or got any toys. In the real world, most initial military training is shoe-shining, bed-making, and having to memorize/reproduce on command military trivia like the general orders of a sentry. Sure, you get to fire a rifle, but you spend far more time memorizing the names of all its parts and cleaning it.
There are many aspects of the show that are quite accurate. Although the occupations of the classmates—including plumber, pig farmer, balloon sculptor, actress, sales analyst, art teacher, woman cop, personal trainer—might seem like a focus-group-driven ratings device, I was always amazed at how varied are the lives of those eventually pulled to the all-volunteer military. One of my best friends in the Navy had been a Trappist monk.
A major goal of basic training is to make you stop thinking the way you used to, and the DIs accomplish this by frustrating your old associations at every turn. During the show’s in-processing, a DI tells a recruit to look like he’s happy to be there, and when the guy smiles, the DI snaps, “Nobody told you to smile.” That’s the epitome of the DI mind-fuck. I don’t care how mentally agile you are, you can’t get ahead of that power curve. I also noticed right away the accurate touch that the recruits are not using “I” or “you” —although there should have been some on-camera indication of just how many push-ups are required to master that rule.
One recruit complains in an interview cameo that he has no free time. This tells me that the actual experience the recruits are having must be pretty realistic. One of the most stressful parts of basic is the constant feeling that the chunks of information and physical demands are just coming too fast. If only you had a chance to catch your breath, if only you could go down to the obstacle course by yourself and practice a little bit! But no—it’s always, “OK, people, right after lunch we’re going to run the obstacle course. Be sure to eat something colorful so that it’ll look purty when it comes back up on my sand.”
At one point, one DI says to the camera that the whole point of the training is to build a team. But he is obviously thinking about his day job because on the show, the whole point is to eliminate everybody else. If making it in the military were simply a matter of being athletic and smart, the Pentagon would simply use individual testing, not boot camp, to select people. The folks who end up doing well in the service are plenty fit and plenty smart, but they also are capable of seeing themselves as part of a large organization whose goals they can internalize. I can tell you right now that recruit Meyer, the buff surfer who cuts corners whenever he can and plays his classmates off each other, is not military material. In the old, old days, the DIs would encourage the rest of the class to throw him a “blanket party”—that is, cover him up with one so he couldn’t see all those people he’s been ignoring while they beat him badly. In my day, they would have just given him so much extra attention—when his bed wasn’t made right, not just stripping it like everybody else’s but throwing his whole bed frame down the stairwell, ordering him to sprint around at top speed while the rest of the class marched, etc.—that he would either see the light or quit. On TV, he’ll probably win.
[Update, April 11: In another sign that the show is fairly realistic, Meyer was voted off last night.]