Jeff Probst thinks only “evil,” “immoral” people are fun to watch on TV

Survivor host and executive producer Jeff Probst thinks that nice doesn’t work on the CBS reality show, because the most entertaining characters are “evil” and “immoral” people such as Parvati Shallow (!), Russell Hantz, and Boston Rob Mariano. In an interview with Xfinity’s Gordon Holmes, he said, in part (read the whole interview),

“…I do think it’s indicative of what works on Survivor. Nice people? That’s who you want in your life. That’s who you want to play cards with, have drinks with, be the best man in your wedding. Villains are who you want to watch on TV. That’s just it. Parvati, Russell, ‘Boston’ Rob, people like that who are manipulative and diabolical, those are the people you want to watch. That’s why when you have a nice person win everybody goes, ‘Eh.’ ‘Boston’ Rob wins and people say, ‘Love it!’ or ‘Hate it!’ He evokes that.

Here’s what it is for me, my favorite shows are ‘Weeds,’ ‘The Shield,’ ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Dexter.’ All the main characters are evil people who are often breaking the law and certainly are immoral. They’re certainly the most fun to watch. I’m not interested in watching, I don’t know, ‘The Cosby Show.’ That’s not fun.

Maybe that’s why Simon Cowell is such a huge star and I’m not. Because ultimately I’m really just a nice guy. (laughs)”

I certainly see what Probst is saying here, and on one level, I agree with him (though not on his analysis of some of scripted show characters; he’s watching a different Mad Men than I am). We are attracted to and want to watch villains, and they often make very good TV. For his first season, at least, Russell Hantz was obnoxious but also great entertainment, and as much as I disliked him, I realize that the season would have been very different without him. They’re part of most shows, especially competitions, either because they exist or because the editors think they need them to exist.

And the last possibility is my real problem with Probst’s argument. I worry that his decisions as a producer come from a place of not thinking a show like The Cosby Show is entertaining. It was. So is Modern Family. You don’t necessarily need villains to make entertaining television, although it’s challenging to think of a reality show that doesn’t use villain characters, which may just negate my whole argument.

But while I am fine with villains, I just don’t want Survivor‘s producers to think they have to have a Russell–or, worse, someone more insane than Russell–every season to make the show watchable.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.