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How the latest ''Survivor'' and ''Big Brother'' episodes redeem trash TV

Lisa Schwarzbaum finds evidence of good taste amid a sea of summer scum

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How the latest ”Survivor” and ”Big Brother” episodes redeem trash TV

In the cover story of the Aug. 11 issue of Entertainment Weekly, I write about how we, as an audience, are too willing these days to accept raunch and hate as funny (”Nutty Professor II: The Klumps”) or artistic (Eminem’s ”The Marshall Mathers LP”), without taking responsibility for the deadening effect this stuff has on our own civility. And that by excusing ourselves from having to make distinctions (for fear of being uncool, because we need to ”lighten up”), we diminish the positive power of shock.

It’s a carefully reasoned essay, put very courteously, inviting thoughtful debate. But this is the Hot Topic column, where everyone’s rowdier. And everyone — including me — is obsessed with ”Survivor” and ”Big Brother.” So how, you ask, can Wednesday night’s riveting developments be applied to the argument that just because crud is king this summer doesn’t mean we have to bow down? Here are two signs of sanity.

One: Richard’s cutthroat machinations on ”Survivor” and Jordan’s provocative game playing on ”Big Brother” make for interesting television, for fun television, for ”talk about it the next day” television. But guess what: Last week’s episodes showed that their own little communities are sick to death of them. If Richard hadn’t won immunity last Wednesday, don’t you think his much-flaunted rump would have been voted off — ta ta, Fish Boy? Likewise, having already exhausted her housemates — and, apparently, irritating all of ”America” (as she so grandiosely puts it) — Jordan was given the boot. And not for lack of trying to convince all of America that she was the only one keeping things interesting around the house. Even despite ”Save the Stripper!” backing from David Letterman on ”Late Show,” even despite the argument that without her, ”BB” will be boring (Oh! The sin of boredom!), folks voted to banish the crumbum. Richard had better bust his hump to win immunity from here on out….

As for Wednesday night’s second beachhead against a sea of scum, it’s a small one, true, but telling: In the course of interviewing the latest pariah, ”news otainment” hostess Julie Chen rehashed Jordan’s emotional adventures over the past four weeks, lingering on the young woman’s anguish about telling her parents that she worked as a stripper. (Excuse me: an ”exotic dancer” — ”exotic” apparently synonymous with ”strip mall common.”) Jordan’s parents had been invited onto ”Big Brother” to comment, Julie chirped. But they declined.

Oooh. They declined? No wonder. After fellow housemate Karen whined about her unhappy marriage, her husband promptly, tackily appeared on TV reading a Hallmark poem about how she walked in shadow and sunshine (or was it that she cloaked herself in backstabbing gossip and victimhood?). Perhaps Jordan’s parents — private citizens, after all — didn’t feel like playing along.

Jaded voyeurs might read from the absence that there’s terrible family trouble ahead for our little Minnesota Missy. Or at the very least that the parents of one of America’s current headline makers are spoilsports who aren’t doing their part to further the popularity of reality TV. I’d say what we witnessed was a rare moment of dignity during a summer celebration of going too far.