Bet you didn’t think there was anyone still watching Survivor, did you? I can understand, since that’s the way I feel about Two and a Half Men, but somehow it keeps winning Emmys and shit. Well, the Berrys remain tirelessly devoted to the original reality show, but after twenty or so seasons, you start to get critical of a game that loses more spontaneity and shock value with each passing outing.
Last season, Survivor debuted its newest conceit: All-Stars. No, not an entire season of our old favorites and classic villains, but just some Very Special Guests. The castaways would still be composed mainly of fresh meat, but each tribe would also contain one past player. Redemption Island came out running, with Rob “Boston Rob” Mariano on one tribe and Russell Hantz on the other. The whole thing was fresh and new and really pretty interesting! Russell’s tribe immediately saw that he needed to be exterminated before he could gain control; Rob’s tribe became essentially a personality cult in which the topic of voting their god out was hardly even discussed. One poor asshole got sent to Redemption Island right off the bat, basically for appearing to have a mind of his own, which couldn’t be allowed to fly in Rob’s tribe. That poor asshole, Matt, won something like 7 duels in a row, only to find his way back into the game and be immediately ousted by Rob! Furthermore, to temper the head-smacking improbability that an entire group of people would squander the chance at a million dollars because they were too scared to defy Rob, Rob treated us to tongue-in-cheek commentary in his confessionals that turned this season into a comic tour de force by a true all-star player. Example: after suggesting the newly merged tribe be named Murlonio, because that meant “strength from the sea” or some such touchy-feely tripe, Rob stared into the camera and told us that Murlonio was the name of the ringleader of his wife’s gang of stuffed animals. Winner winner chicken dinner, indeed.
Then we came to the current season, Survivor: South Pacific (they’re obviously running out of unique islands). Again, some impressive past players were trotted out: Coach/The Dragonslayer and Ozzy. It seemed like the same story all over again. Coach wound up on the (intelligent) suspicious tribe, where poor pariah Christine announced right off the bat that Coach was a threat who needed to be eliminated ASAP (she’d get the tables turned on her for that one, and quick). Ozzy joined a decidedly younger-looking tribe who jived well with his hippie-dippy, let’s-just-enjoy-the-experience worldview and saw no reason not to ride his coattails right into second place.
The season is almost at an end, and in (almost full) hindsight, I’d compare it to that feeling where you’re about to sneeze, and then you don’t. You screw your face up and you get the tissue ready and everybody backs away… and then nothing. You go on about your life. This show has been almost sneezing every week since its premiere, and it never pulls the trigger.
Now, there’s been some good stuff here. You’ve got the former nutbag Coach, who seems genuinely transformed into an intelligent, composed, and even quite savvy player! Then there’s Ozzy, a bona fide force in challenges. You’ve got Brandon Hantz, whose stated occupation is “Russell Hantz’s nephew”; he first hides his identity, which seems promising. He then reveals it, unable to bear the burden of the deception, which seems foreboding. It is. Brandon proceeds to break down at every possible juncture, proving himself to be a religious zealot with obvious demons (he orchestrated the elimination of lingerie football player Michaela for being some sort of modern Jezebel, by which I mean a woman, and one who was not remotely interested in him at that) and an emotional basketcase incapable of either coherent thought or certainly strategy. Along with Brandon, the other new standout is John, who goes by his last name Cochran (seriously, that’s his name). This kid is a huge nerd, the literal redheaded stepchild of his tribe, and thus immediately recognizable for not being one of the interminable line of indistinguishable “attractive” young people that star on this show (I’m looking at you Whitney, and that brown-haired guy you always hung out with on the island.) Oh, Cochran’s also a HUGE Survivor fan, and constantly makes both savvy and funny references to the show’s fabled past. It is great. You’ve also got Sophie and Albert (or as his tribe calls him, Prince Albert), who seem like two people who – SHOCK! – actually want to play the game and make daring moves and strategize and plot. Then there’s sweet mother-of-six Dawn, who seems like the token weepy mom type, but turns out to be her tribe’s most powerful female in challenges and genuinely likable; she’s someone who can play this game with that “integrity” they’re all always talking about, but do it right.
Which brings me to the but. There were all these great seeds sown in the season, BUT… Survivor still has some major issues. (As does any show, particularly any show in its twenty-second season, so no offense meant, but there it is.) Since it segues nicely, let’s begin with “integrity.” I air-quote this word not because I don’t know what it means, but because no one in the game ever quite seems to. Or rather, they don’t understand what a “game” is. In the spirit of open-mindedness, I can try to see how the game of Survivor can be a microcosm of reality; if we can compartmentalize portions of life in order to exonerate those portions from morality, well, that’s a slippery slope. HOWEVER… while that line of thought may hold up at, say, the Nurembourg Trials, this is a CBS game show. No one is getting killed or even physically harmed. No one is being done any serious psychological damage. There is nothing to be lost financially by playing the game. All that is at stake are the fragile feelings of its players… oh, and a million dollars. And yet, especially in recent seasons, more and more contestants seem overconcerned with the principles of integrity, loyalty, and honor (Coach’s tribe’s motto, for what it’s worth.) Yes, I suppose there is something to be said for playing the game this way, and it’s certainly refreshing to see new strategies, but for the love of Probst how boooooring. Let us not forget this is also a TV show, and a solid alliance of 6 steadily picking off everyone else over the course of a couple months does not must-see-TV make. And, may I just point out, there is no wayto play the entire game this way. Yes, the 6-strong Upolu tribe, against all odds, stayed true to their word to this point. But now that they’re down to 5, what happens? The good stuff, that’s what. So stop praying for guidance, survivors (God probably doesn’t watch the show; if so, He needs to reprioritize), and get down and dirty already.
The infuriating method of play touches all parts of the game, even the ones specifically designed to infuse some drama to temper the damned loyalty of its players. There’s the Hidden Immunity Idol, added a few seasons back. This was initially an awesome idea, because just as they were laying someone’s head on the chopping block and the metaphorical axe was on the downswing, that person would reveal they had a Hidden Idol and were protected; without consulting one another, the tribemates would devolve into chaos, and something unexpected might happen for once. Now, though, it is not only considered untrustworthy to go looking for the Idol (damned survivalists! Wait, what is this show called?), but the lucky treasure-hunters regularly share the knowledge of their finding with their tribemates! This is always stated as a way to engender trust and loyalty, which never makes sense to me. If the Hidden Idol becomes a calculated and common-knowledge item, then its purpose is rendered useless.
So then they added Redemption Island. This played on the original twist wherein the ousted players became the jury: all your actions have a consequence. Just like you can’t just cut throats left and right and hope to win, you can’t vote out every strong player and hope to clear the field for yourself. It’s an okay twist, as Survivor goes, but I doubt it will last long. While Ozzy sacrificing himself to the vote on the chance he could win a duel and re-enter the game was the pinnacle of the conceit, mostly it’s just another challenge to have to watch every week. All the players have Redemption figured out already, so they take it into account when voting. But mostly it has just caused more ass-kissing. After brutally discarding of Cochran last week, his former tribe cheered him on at the duel as if their motivation were genuine affection and not a genuine desire to be rid of his opponent Ozzy. Also, since Cochran would become a jury member, everyone wanted to butter him up for a winning vote. Pandering is not entertaining.
Now that we’re in the home stretch, the writing is on the wall. Coach has effectively indoctrinated his tribe with the tenets of “honor, loyalty, integrity,” to a degree where not once has his name even been discussed for elimination. The promising Sophie and Albert increasingly seem like willing players who simply lack the necessary guts to pull the trigger. Rick only had his first on-screen line last week. And Brandon is in the midst of an emotional breakdown. Ozzy is on Redemption Island, but lacks the strategy to make it to the end; even if Coach drags him along, I doubt the nouveau-Marley type can convince a jury that he played better than the new and improved Dragonslayer. Coach has played a clever game, encouraging rather than overtly manipulating, keeping his mouth shut when necessary, letting people come to him instead of scrambling, turning in middling challenge performances, and now sitting in a position where no one will be wise enough to get rid of him (since they haven’t yet), and certainly not another player could hold a candle to him in terms of deserving the win. He is this season’s Rob Mariano, with less cheek.
Less than being a compelling season of Survivor gameplay, South Pacific has been a compelling tour de force by one talented player. Less than spelling redemption for ousted players within the game, the Redemption Island seasons have showcased the redemption stories of ousted players from the game at large. What once was an interesting social experiment has become a one-man show with a rotating basis of stars. With this in mind, I guess the best we can hope for is the inevitable season when they bring Cochran back for a second shot.