Jimmy Johnson vs. Survivor: Notoreity and Narrative in Nicaragua

“Young At Heart”

September 15th, 2010

The biggest challenge for a reality series like Survivor is finding a way to make things interesting in the beginning. The show so heavily relies on characters and their interaction with one another that those early moments are almost always less interesting simply because they are not yet characters: at best the castaways are caricatures, limited to their first impressions (which are encouraged and extrapolated by the producers within the opening “No one is allowed to talk” journey to the first locale).

However, with Survivor: Nicaragua there is no room for subtlety in terms of getting to know the contestants: the contestants are divided based on their ages, a key component in first impressions within the series, and two of the contestants are simply unable to remain anonymous for any length of time. What emerges, then, is a focus on the importance of honesty and perception within this game, key themes that emerge within every season of Survivor.

This time around, though, the producers decided to introduce them as early as possible, mostly in order to ensure that these two notable contestants can be successfully integrated into the series’ narrative in future weeks.

I’m generally with those who feel that Jimmy Johnson’s casting goes against the spirit of Survivor (Linda Holmes wrote about this back when the cast was announced), but it isn’t necessarily incongruous with the game itself. All it does, really, is bring the types of questions that his tribemates would normally ask at the end of the game into play earlier than one would expect. Yes, initially there is that moment of celebrity as we get a montage of people talking about how it’s Jimmy Johnson, and incredulous that it is actually Jimmy Johnson, and bringing up random connections to Jimmy Johnson (like having been a Miami Dolphins cheerleader, for example). However, after that point the questions become about the game: would anybody honestly give Jimmy Johnson a million dollars? And, as Marty pointed out as they started to make first impressions, should Jimmy Johnson be here at all?

That these questions immediately take over from the “OMG Jimmy Johnson” story demonstrates why this isn’t truly going to kill the show dead: yes, the presence of a legitimate celebrity means that the dynamics of the game will change, but no more so than the presence of Jenny, an amputee. In both instances, a defining characteristic makes them a known entity early in the game: just as you believe you know Jimmy Johnson from watching him coach, you feel that you know Jenny based entirely on her prosthetic leg. You can start filling in the story of her life, imagining the hardships of living with that disability, and before you know it you think you know everything you need to know about her. She makes the attempt to hide the leg from everyone so that she could reveal it only after proving that she wasn’t in some way handicapped by it, but she is handicapped in terms of remaining anonymous in a game where notoriety is rarely a commodity.

It was interesting to see Jimmy try to work this in his favour, arguing that he knows that no one will give him a million dollars and instead he should be seen as an asset to help one of his teammates (who, like himself, are all over 40). It showed that even Jimmy himself is aware that his celebrity is something to be used as a piece of strateg but could also prove to be a substantial liability. He’s a smart guy: note how, when they lose the immunity challenge, he says that they should vote off the weakest player who is either himself or Wendy, acknowledging his own weaknesses while also offering up a social outcast with no real connections to her fellow teammates. Jimmy doesn’t seem like he’s scrambling at all: while Wendy’s alliance-mate immediately second guesses herself for forming an alliance too early, and the younger tribe has similar issues where too many connections are made early on, Jimmy opens himself up to be everyone’s friend and can operate within that role with quite a lot of freedom.

Every Survivor season has its gimmicks, and this one is no exception. The decision to divide the tribes by age is an interesting experiment that is at least less awkward that the attempts at dividing by race, but it is still unlikely to really invigorate the season. Similarly, the Medallion of Power doesn’t feel like it will make challenges substantially more interesting, instead just giving them an excuse to continue reusing old challenges ideas without needing to make any substantial changes. This is largely the Survivor pattern, and how we could read Johnson’s arrival or Kelly’s disability on the surface: these are simply ways to convince us that an old formula is new again, something that (as Holmes points out) isn’t really necessary since the basic structure of Survivor remains incredibly sound.

That being said, I think that the premiere successfully integrates the external elements of the story into a Survivor-friendly narrative: very quickly, the castaways consider how Jimmy and Kelly fit into this game rather than how they fit into the rest of the world, and both Kelly and Jimmy are conscious of the role they play and seem to be knowledgeable enough about the game to understand what kind of disadvantages they may face. And thus, by the end of the episode Survivor was comfortably back to its boring premiere self, eliminating a contestant who never bothered to show her true personality (choosing instead to offer esoteric answers to personal questions that made her seem far more weird than any actual answer) and starting a journey that (if history holds) will only grow more interesting as it continues in the weeks ahead.

Cultural Observations

  • Speaking of first impressions, poor “Fabio” is really in a bad spot: his alpha male teammates (including the pretty abhorrent Shannon) picked up on it so heavily, and the episode offered enough pieces of evidence to support it (the “How you do you tell it to move?” moment being particularly problematic), that there really is no escaping it. I didn’t even bother to learn his last name, so it’s yet another example of how first impressions can turn into lasting ones.
  • No real impressions of anyone else, to be honest – one of the unquestionably negative spinoffs of Johnson’s presence is that it took away time to spend with the rest of the castaways, but I think it was necessary for integration to be achieved, so I look forward to the weeks ahead.
  • The ratings ended up pretty strong despite the switch in evenings and despite America’s Got Talent airing its premiere, so looks like the show should be in solid shape in its new timeslot.
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8 Comments

Filed under Survivor

8 responses to “Jimmy Johnson vs. Survivor: Notoreity and Narrative in Nicaragua

  1. Pingback: Season Premiere — Survivor Nicaragua, “Young at Heart” « TV Surveillance

  2. AO

    A great analysis of Jimmy and Kelly, thanks!

    In terms of getting to know the contestants early on, unfortunately I’ve always found that to be a weakness in the show, exempting those Seasons which involved returning Contestants (especially All-Stars). I’ve found the TV Guide Channel Preview to be a great help for this, for those of us who want a better grasp of the individual contestants in the beginning.

    As far as the Medallion of Power goes, my initial impression is that I don’t much care for it. However, it is still early and it’s possible that that is a knee-jerk reaction.

    It actually does seem like a good strategy from a production standpoint. For one, it’s a little something that will increase viewers’ interest in every Episode that it’s eligible to be used, “Will or won’t they use it”? Even better for the show, the Immunity Challenges are often around the half-hour, and so may be something of a deterrent to those who are flipping between Channels, or at least an incentive to get back to CBS more quickly.

    But I see it’s main value in reducing the momentum that can come when one Tribe is winning a lot more than the other. Many viewers (ime) find it quite boring when one Tribe is dominating in the Challenges, and this seems like a good tool to try to prevent that. With the Medallion, the weaker Tribe will gain an advantage and so likely will be able to win more often than before, and so keep the numbers more balanced, and presumably the game more interesting.

  3. Eric

    Of course once the weak tribe uses the Medallion, it will transfer to the strong tribe who will not use it, figuring they can then dominate without it.

  4. thedalyn

    The problems with the first couple of episodes are the same problem most reality shows have. There are simply too many participants to actually get to know anyone of them (I always find this most problematic with Top Chef in particular, when the number of chefs takes away from the actual food). And you’re right, Jimmy Johnson just exacerbated the problem.

    I want to agree with him that no jury would ever give him a million dollars, but I also thought no jury would ever give it to Sandra twice. And, despite what grey hair says, the jury rarely responds in such a direct, predictable to effective gameplay. So, while it is clear that, like Russell, some of them are students of them game, I’m also always taken aback by how naive some of them seem about the game.

  5. anthontherun

    It’s Kelly, not Jenny.

  6. At long last I just had a chance to view the previous week’s showing of Survivor on TV. I witnessed Jimmy Johnson wind up being shipped back to Florida. Coach Jimmy obviously did not go on for an extended time. I sensed that Dan should have been sent packing he has been certainly struggling. I tend not to believe Jimmy J. became a threat this early in the game. Jimmy J. was one of the most level headed players given his background as a American football coach. The older tribe could quite possibly have kept him around for a longer time.

  7. During a discussion, Coach is apparently indicating that he did not have any indication that the guys did not like his leadership. Jimmy Johnson contemplated that he should have teamed up with the female contestants. On a happy note, Jimmy J. apparently dropped over 30 pounds of excess weight.

  8. Since Jimmy was taken out of this year’s showing of Survivor, it is now all about Na Onka. This girl will be the one person that all people are going to like to loathe. This Wednesday’s episode guarantees to become someone to always remember!!!

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