The e-mail came from my brother in late August, complete with a calendar invitation. It was for the season premiere of "Survivor." After not airing in 2020 because of the pandemic, the television show that had become a family tradition — against my will — would be back on the air again in September. The reality show puts a group of strangers in a remote tropical location, usually an island, where they fend for themselves with only the bare necessities for food and shelter. They compete in grueling competitions and social machinations to avoid getting voted off the island by the others, all for $1 million in prize money.
My mother and father had been zealous fans from the very night it premiered 21 years ago. They were a little smug about being "early adopters," and never missed a Wednesday night in 14 years. They could recall every season's players and their strategies, and my mother name-dropped Richard Hatch, the very first winner, and called him "Richard," as if they were on a first-name basis and we all knew who he was.
I was indignant about the show on principle. Maybe it struck a nerve — I knew I'd fare badly if I were a contestant. I was pretty sure I'd be voted off the island on the flight to the island. I'd never seen a single episode, but I lectured her. "Mother. The show trivializes and commodifies for entertainment what billions of people struggle to do every single day: survive!"
"Oh, M.J. ... " She was used to me getting on my soapbox, and she shrugged one shoulder. "Sometimes I just … enjoy things. Sometimes I don't want to have to think about it."
My mother died in the spring of 2014. When "Survivor" had its season premiere the following October, one of my brothers and I decided we'd go to my parents' house and watch it with my father. We thought it might make that particular night a little less lonely for him. Maybe we were doing it for ourselves, too, as my four siblings and I floundered through that first year of my mother's death.
We didn't expect "Survivor" night to become Survivor Night. We didn't expect it to become a thing. But as weeks went by, it became a potluck dinner and an assortment of grandchildren, in-laws and random friends crowding into the tiny TV room. My brother and I fight over the recliner that my mother used to occupy, and people call dibs on the luxury of an old folding lawn chair rather than have to sit on the floor.
That first year, whoever brought up my mother first would try not to cry. My mother would have thought it mawkish and set her jaw because her show was being interrupted. She probably would have secretly loved us coming over to the dark side — for about 20 minutes, when it'd get too cacophonous, like it always did in my family, and she'd make us leave.
My father couldn't wait for Wednesday night this fall. It wasn't just the isolation of the past year and the lost season of the show. It had started as a way of abating our grief, but it had also been a way of abating, just a bit, a long, dark Minnesota winter. I admit (through gritted teeth) I've gotten sucked into "Survivor." I've gone home outraged over foul play and backstabbing. I've gotten so irritated about certain winners that I can't even participate in the text threads among us the following day. I won't admit I enjoy it, the way my mother did. But somewhere out there, Dorothy Pehl is looking down at me, shaking her head with a smirk on her lips.
Mary Jo Pehl is a comedian, writer and actor from St. Paul.