I’ve Been In This Town So Long: The Serial Subtexts of Survivor’s “Heroes vs. Villains”

“Slay Everyone, Trust No One”

February 11th, 2010

Every season of Survivor is effectively the same as the one before: the players might change, but more often than not they bring nothing new to the game that hasn’t been seen in some form before. For every “twist” the producers have tried to throw into the game, it all ends up being the same in the end, which isn’t really a problem since the game is at its most compelling when it finds itself in familiar territory. Because we know what’s happened before, and because we have no idea whether the players involved know what’s happened before, we get to watch them walk in the shoes of the players who came before, either triumphing where they failed or tripping up where others succeeded.

What’s interesting about “Heroes vs. Villains,” the twentieth season of the show, is that it simultaneously reduces the game to a simple battle between good and evil while creating a game structure that is without question the most complex the show has ever seen, layered with subtexts (previous alliances, previous rivalries, personal experiences, etc.) that stretch back far into our memory of the show’s early seasons in a more overt way than ever before. By bringing the tribal competition to the surface, along with the binary that often emerges between those the audience loves to hate and those the audience wants to see go to the end, the show is creating the ultimate mind game: they are forcing characters with more emotional and gameplay baggage than ever before into a game which threatens to rigidly define them, ignoring the various subtexts in such a way that they can’t help but surface the first time anyone dares mention the word alliance or whispers about how successful some players have been in the past.

The result is Survivor at its most confident, pushing all the right buttons and getting some all-time great moments, some substantial comedy mixed with some engaging drama, and enough introspection to quite literally sink any other reality show that wasn’t build for just that sort of psychological inquisition.

It’s kind of disappointing that the eventual elimination had none of the spark of the remainder of the episode, and that the preview for next week seems so blatantly misleading. At this point, I don’t particularly care about who goes home (here Sugar, who was too annoying and too emotionally distraught for no reason to last on a tribe of people who take the game more seriously) or about whether or not someone gets injured. What makes this premise so great, and what delivered so well here, were those small moments where you saw the players trying to fit into their chosen moulds of Hero or Villain, all while trying to prove they’re better, prove they’re still as good as they were, or simply prove something to themselves.

And so the Reward Challenge was a definite classic, in that each face-off between two members of each tribe was a battle in and of itself, but there were subtexts all over the place. For Colby, this was a chance to prove that despite being a decade older he could still tough it out, while for Coach it was a chance to prove he wasn’t just a joke character the first time out; when Colby was dragged to Coach’s mat, the former was dejected while the latter had another tall tale to spin. Meanwhile, Sandra (who was the first to raise her hand believing herself to be on the wrong tribe as they first gathered together) was out to prove she was a villain, unhooking Sugar’s bra mid-scuffle; Sugar, to prove she wasn’t just a pushover, writhes out of Sandra’s grip and runs to the mat topless, flipping Sandra the bird in the process. Combine with Stephenie shrugging off (almost literally) a dislocated shoulder once it’s put back into place, and you have a challenge that is playing with self-actualization, fantasy rivalries (Coach/Colby) and pairings (Colby/Tom), and the new narratives and battles that will continue on this season.

However, while I really enjoyed that challenge and felt it offered a great introduction to the two teams (especially since the Villains lived up to their title by injuring two competitors), the really fun stuff was the camp life minutia. As always, the editors are behind the scenes manipulating these narratives, but this time around that manipulation is so inherent in the game itself (with the Heroes and Villains) labels that it’s just marvellous to watch. What we see of the Heroes is smooth sailing on the surface, successfully grabbing chickens and making a shelter that everyone seems happy with. However, then you start to see things fall apart: Rupert struggles to make a fire and seems “out of it” in ways which go beyond his broken toe, while the various pairings (Amanda/Cirie, Tom/Stephenie) start to go off while the free agents (Colby, Candace) begin to notice. They’re heroes, yes, but they also play the game, and there’s hubris there that the show demonstrates by showing the Heroes in a very serious light.

By comparison, the early villain scenes are everyone hanging out by the fire at night reliving their moments of triumph in a way which feels relaxed, almost friendly. Sure, Russell is off strategizing, and Boston Rob is having a hell of a time with people who have no interest in actually doing any work around camp, but while the Heroes stand around and celebrate their victory the Heroes are just as celebratory about how they performed in that challenge. And what we see from the Villains is enormously charming, like the extended sequence of a lovestruck Coach being smitten with Jerri, and both male and female members of the tribe turning the beach into an elementary school playground in the process. And then you have the “Coach climbs a tree” portion of the episode, entirely irrelevant other than to demonstrate that the Villains are having quite a bit of fun. In fact, the Villains seemed to have all the fun, and the way the episode edited their material they might as well have been the Underdogs going into that Immunity Challenge.

And when that challenge went as it did, with the Villains falling behind terribly before racing back at the end of the challenge when Cirie and Amanda’s puzzle construction skills paled in comparison with Sandra and Rob, you realize that the game has no intention of living up to its obnoxious soundtrack cues earlier in the episode, where the Villains basically waltz in to the Survivor remix of the Imperial March. Instead, rather than the Heroes and Villains labels being for our benefit, they’re to screw with some minds, forcing the two sides to live up to expectations while balancing those expectations with their own personal motivations for winning this game. When the Heroes lost, you realize that their label is irrelevant: they’re just like any other tribe once they have to go to tribal council, and Russell’s one great observation in an episode where he pretended to make plenty of them was that the role of villain shifts once someone is forced to climb those stairs to meet their fate.

I’m most disappointing that Sugar went home because this was actually a chance for the first vote to being strategic, since there were plenty of threats that could bring the Heroes to make some real gameplay. Amanda, Cirie, Tom and Stephenie all clearly have targets on their back, but at the end of the day the same ol’ tired first week decisions based on “Who’s the weakest” and “Who’s the most annoying” won out. It’s disappointing that with all the subtexts, all the hidden alliances and all the overt alliances, all the talk of people who’ve won the game (two on each tribe), it comes down to the same old narratives from before, but that’s the battle we’re fighting now: these players know how the game is supposed to go, but with the way the tribes are organized they’re perhaps too aware of how it’s supposed to go, and might get blindsided when they realize who different this game could potentially be (until the merge, of course, where the subtexts become less important than the accumulated rivalries/friendships/experiences in the context of this game itself).

At this point, I’m rooting for the people who seem to be going into this with the right attitude, and to be honest with you most of those people are on the Villains tribe. I’ve always liked Boston Rob, and his attitude to the whole game right now is just perfect: he’s here to play, he’s here to win, and he’s going about it by just working as hard as he can – anyone who wasn’t a fan after he pushed his reluctant tribe to try to make fire without flint needs to get past his villain title and see a great player. Similarly, I like what Sandra has to prove here, and she isn’t a villain who schemes but rather a villain who is willing to make the tough decisions. And while I found Coach insufferable in his own season, I quite liked him here: his flirtations with Jerri showed the vulnerable side that occasionally emerged in Tocantins, and he seems like he’s been humbled by the people around him in a way that make him far easier to swallow.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like the Heroes: Stephenie’s badass, Tom’s going into this with some simple but effective strategic ideas, Colby remains as personable as he ever was, I’ll never complain about Amanda Kimmel returning (both as a player and as, well, Amanda Kimmel), and J.T. looking to use his affable reputation in his favour could be an interesting strategic twist down the road. But the episode is very much designed to upend any real “love” for the heroes, as the producers were able to turn the tables: the villains were at their most docile and laidback, while the heroes were all work, little play, and a lot of hypotheticals leading to a safe but boring decision at tribal council.

Survivor has been going on so long that we’re not seeing anything new, and it’s not as if the show hasn’t done All-Star seasons before. However, it’s been six years since the show did a legitimate All-Star season with an entire cast of former players, and some of these people are playing for the third time, and have gained infamous reputations based on their gameplay. There’s more history in this for the players than there has ever been before, but what this premiere showed us above all else was that the game is still king: these people could have played this game for nineteen seasons, but they will never be entirely prepared for what the game will do to them, and how the editors can upend any narrative (even one as pervasive as Heroes vs. Narratives) with some selective clips from each side.

I don’t know if the season will be able to maintain this high quality, as perhaps the novelty could start to fade once things get even more familiar as the teams merge, and one alliance dominates, and things go as you’d expect from there. But more than ever before, the show is starting with these dozens of subtexts, and there was plenty to fill a two-hour premiere to the point where I feel like the unique pairings of players, the personal goals and aspirations, and the trip through the most memorable challenges of seasons past (with increased difficulty) are going to be enough to make for some unusually compelling hour-long episodes, especially in the earlygoings.

As someone who’s watched the majority of every season (I missed one finale, I believe), this all feels wonderfully familiar and spectacularly novel all at once, which is exactly what they’re going for.

Cultural Observations

  • Of the two most questionable selections, Danielle and Candace, the latter certainly showed a bit more tact: she got to talk more, got to take part in some strategy, and generally seemed to be going into this game with the right attitude. We only saw Danielle talking with Russell, which is a terrible move, but perhaps we’ll see more once the Villains lose an immunity challenge.
  • Speaking of Russell, he seems really out of place here: the tribe isn’t going to be as gullible as his last one, and while everyone else seems to be holding back and making subtle alliances (like Rob and Sandra connecting) Russell is trying to create them where they probably won’t exist. His cockiness feels really at odds with the group dynamic, so I’ll be curious to see how that goes down.
  • The idea of bringing back previous challenges is quite ingenious since, if they hadn’t told me, I probably wouldn’t have realized that those were challenges they’d done before. It’s also particularly nice in that there’s new difficulties (like the four-layer puzzle) to test just how “All-Star” they are – I hate all-star seasons that don’t actually go above and beyond to test the credentials of those involved.
  • Tribal Council was the one time the Heroes seemed to be really laidback (since they all knew they were ditching Sugar), so my favourite moment of the episode was easily James’ sheer elation at ribbing Amanda about her previous Tribal Council troubles (which he’s quick to do since it’s probably the one thing more embarrassing than his own exit with two idols in hand). Moments like that are just a lot of fun, and to see them openly joking about it makes for a nice environment as a viewer who, well, jokes about those kinds of things.
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3 Comments

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3 responses to “I’ve Been In This Town So Long: The Serial Subtexts of Survivor’s “Heroes vs. Villains”

  1. Related thought, which I have on my blog — other seasons of Survivor highlight (on the chyron, and among the tribe) the backgrounds of the competitors in terms of home town and occupation — how will people with these varying types of pasts get along?

    This season, the only background that matters is “what have you done on Survivor before?”. That Rob Mariano worked in construction or Rupert is an Indiana youth counselor or that Stephenie co-owns a bar in Philadelphia is irrelevant to the gameplay and the television show. And that’s fascinating.

    • I wonder if, as we get later in the competition, we might get more of “where are they now?” style edits – right now, the show is relying on the stories within the show, but at a certain point they could easily turn that around (probably when we get to the “Letters from Home” episode) and dig into how they’ve changed since the last time they’ve played the game in ways beyond how they’re playing the game.

      Unless, of course, they turn that into “Letters from other previous contestants from your seasons” – that’d get weird (although that’s unavoidable for Rob).

      • Well, there’s a further meta point I’d love to see mentioned at some point — that Rupert, beyond this being his third season on American Survivor, was also the “rent a magical native to help you around camp” reward for an episode of the Israeli edition.

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