The Game vs. The Players – A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup


The Game vs. The Players

A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup

In our weekly glimpse into the world of Survivor: Samoa, Top Chef, and Project Runway, it’s important to distinguish between the game and the players of that game. Every episode of all three shows is essentially about the way the producers construct the game (the challenges, the conditions, the time limits, even the casting itself), and the players are forced to interpret and operate within that game as they see fit. So when you find yourself frustrated with a fairly boring season of Project Runway, or impatient with a season of Top Chef, or find Survivor’s villains too much to handle, you need to ask yourself if this it the result of the game or the people who are playing it.

In all three episodes of these three shows this week, we saw situations where the game took control of the players, and where their sewing, their cooking and their scheming felt so clearly defined by the game that I was simultaneously interested and bored. It’s the ultimate test of any group of reality contestants, though, to be forced into a situation the producers have designed: do they strike out on a unique course, indicating that they’re a real rebel, or whether they fall right in with the expectations put in front of them.

It’s a process which makes me doubt Runway, trust Top Chef, and change my mind about a few Survivor players.

Last week, Survivor was entirely focused on Russell, the big bad villain who dumps out canteens, burns people’s socks, and makes up a story about being a Katrina victim. He is reprehensible, don’t get me wrong, but this week shifted the focus less to the villainy his actions represent and more to what they mean for the game itself. When he searches for a hidden immunity idol without having any clues, and then actually manages to find it, you realize that his threat is less to human decency and more to the game itself. He’s there to beat the game, in his own mind, thinking he can beat the rules and play a more manipulative game than anyone else.

However, what this week’s episode confirms is that he still relies on the archetypes of the game in order for his plan to work. He does all of these manipulative things, but he needs to be able to rely on the “Vote out the old woman” mentality that every tribe in Survivor history struggling to win challenges has ended up at. It’s not an entirely logical strategy, as they were competitive in this challenge until one of their tribe members got themselves kicked out, so physical prowess wasn’t their problem. But, down a member with Mike’s medical departure and facing the idea of losing more challenges, they immediately rush to get rid of Betsy (which they do, despite some talk of getting rid of Ben instead) as opposed to stepping back and considering what is happening around them. Russell’s strategy doesn’t work if they play the game differently than others, his evil plans all driven to force them to play the game like normal so that he can coast along as a physical presence.

Really, in his head, Ben is in fact the true outlaw in this game, making a blatant kicking trip on Russell (the Galu one) and getting himself kicked out of the challenge after Probst decided things were getting too intense and put out a blanket final warning. He wants to be the person who refuses to play by the game’s rules, and decides to act out by not holding back when attacking Yasmin, and by chopping wood in the middle of the night. The show makes Russell out to be a game-changer on our end, but his ploys are downright graceful compared to the crudeness of Ben’s actions. Right now, the “game” means that both stick around, but it will not take long before Ben’s acting out starts to take the players out of that game mentality, and eventually the game will change to one of trust and Russell has played too many cards too soon for a single immunity idol to save him. They’re both pretending to be outlaws, but while the show treats Russell as the real villain it’s Ben who has more contempt of the game if not the execution to really be able to pull it off.

And yet, amazingly, they are certainly not the most insane people in this episode. I’m convinced Russell knew what he was doing when he sent Yasmin to Foa Foa, feeling that she would unleash a wrath on them like no one expected. One usually goes in trying to make some friends for the eventual merge, or trying to observe dynamics, but she refuses to play that game. She starts by telling them all that she’s going to help them since she doesn’t want to keep beating them as if taking candy from a baby, and then continues by pulling aside Ben in order to chastise him about cheap shots and why girls don’t play boys in football. It’s absolutely insane, playing the game like nobody else would play it, and when she gets the immunity clue (which we know is worthless, at least at Foa Foa), any chance of working with someone is completely gone. I can’t believe she managed to stay quiet at Tribal Council, and it was just a total example of the player taking over the game for really no reason.

Over on Top Chef, meanwhile, we saw a rare occasion where the chefs were told not only what to cook but how to cook it, a situation where the game forces chefs to engage with the concept of deconstruction. For Michael Voltaggio, it’s like Christmas Morning come early, as he loves the process of deconstruction, and Bryan is similarly pleased since he did some deconstruction earlier in the season. It’s a challenge, though, that gives each individual chef their own challenge, forced to work outside of their comfort zone with foods they might not normally eat or might not even know about. Mike is clueless about what Eggs Florentine is, and Ash has only ever had Shepherd’s Pie that he made himself so serving it to returning judge Toby Young (“It is an English dish, and Toby Young is very, very British”) is particularly nerve-wracking. To deconstruct what you cook normally is one thing, but to do it with something you’re not familiar with is an entirely different experience.

But for Top Chef, this level of control from the game really works to bring out the best in the chefs, as it really separates the weak from the strong. Ron, eventually eliminated, struggles for two reasons: not only does he not know what deconstruction is (something that perhaps explains why his food has been so boring throughout the competition), but he didn’t even seem to have a real concept of what a Paella was outside of the fact that he makes them, and they’re amazing. Deconstruction isn’t so much about technique as it is about knowing what makes a dish distinct, and then recreating that through different forms. Jen, a seafood chef, struggled with meat lasagna but kept things simple and focused on simple flavours and recreating things like texture. Ron was just substituting ingredients, creating a sad plate of food that no one was jumping up and down about. Kevin, once again showing his ability to bring out flavours, managed to change perceptions of Mole (having just made it a few challenges ago) and continues to be a chef to beat.

In some ways, Project Runway did something similar this week, providing a clearer directive than they have been of late. As I noted in last week’s roundup, the show has been too vague as of late, so seeing them offer up film genres which forced the designers to marry their own aesthetic with a particular “character” was something that I thought would really improve my opinion of the season. I’ve been down on the season thus far largely because the cast does nothing for me, but here what started out as a potential-filled challenge turned into another mess. The game was not only providing more direction than usual, but they were also contradicting expectations of the game. It’s been a rule on Project Runway from the very beginning that “Costumey” is a four-letter world, so to ask the designers to actually create costumes (even bringing in a costume designer to judge the challenge) is like asking them to ignore everything they’ve seen on the show before.

Somehow, in offering the designers less freedom, the show manages to remain just as vague as ever. The judges loved Nicolas’ gimmicky Ice Queen costume for being over the top and risky, and for feeling like it came right off of a movie set. However, they felt Gordana’s dress was basically too good: it looked too much like a dress from the 1920s, and she didn’t bring to it any sort of complex story or make all sorts of weird alterations to it. In other words, it was a well-made costume in a challenge about making costumes. Why it was in the bottom with Ra’Mon’s two-hour science fiction mess and Louise’s “1940s actress who goes to a costume party where people dress up like it’s the 1920s” (I swear I’m not making that up, honest), precisely? Gordana went through the same thing last week, where she took the challenge as “make a beautiful dress out of newspaper,” and the judges interpreted as “Make something lacking subtlety and that screams ‘This is made of newspaper!'” I’m sure skeptics could call it an issue of the language barrier, or that Gordana’s style of simply constructed clothes just hasn’t fit two challenges asking for more complicated and bold ideas, but I think it’s also because they’re not being clear about what they want and allowing her interpretations to be perfectly fine until they decide they like a white dress with feathers on it better.

For me, I would have given the win to Epperson for working with the challenge the most successfully, at least to my eye. While Chris made up a ridiculously juvenile Vampire story for his dress (couldn’t he have just said Victorian?), and did make something visually impressive, Epperson had a realistic Western-inspired character and a dress that perfectly reflected that particular image right down to the holster. It was clever, it was stylish, and it took what everyone felt was the most difficult of the genres and delivered something impressed and unexpected. However, they go with Nicolas for similar reasons to why they chose Irina last week: it was “risky” and “avant garde” only by the judges’s (again, all replacements with Michael and Nina out of commission) narrow definition of what the challenge was supposed to be, and what could have been a chance to really test the ability for the designers to stick to a clear brief turned into yet another ill-defined challenge, the game once again letting us down and leaving the players as ill-defined messes.

Next week, of course, the balance will be reshifted: the Survivor players will probably shift strategies, Runway will return the focus to the players with a team challenge, and Top Chef changes locations. In the end, I’d say the game ends up having the most control, but everyone now and then someone surprises you – we’ll see if that happens as these seasons continue.

Cultural Observations

  • Survivor
    • Russell really does deserve some credit for finding the Immunity Idol and managing to keep it hidden – it was impressive to watch. What was interesting though was him choosing to show it to someone despite coming in with a game plan that said he wouldn’t – this shows that he is adapting his strategy on the fly, and it isn’t just a raze and pillage strategy after all.
    • Mike trying to indicate that he proved himself a physical presence when he was being medically removed from the game because his heart wasn’t able to handle the physicality of the challenge was a sad bit of irony.
  • Top Chef
    • Interesting to see Ashley becoming this season’s Carla, as she starts out rocky but all of a sudden starts working wonders. I don’t know how long it will last, but seeing her get her legs under her makes things a bit more interesting even if the Voltaggios/Jen/Kevin are still in the driver’s seat.
    • Speaking of Jen, her reaction to Padma announcing her name was amazing – she really thought she had nothing going for her, but I think she forgets the difference between her sense of personal satisfaction and the crap some other chefs were willing to put out there.
    • Thought Toby Young was in fine behaviour: still a tool, but a judge-level tool as opposed to a total tool.
  • Project Runway
    • We got the “OMG, Logan is so cute” discussion from Models of the Runway in Week 1, I think, but it was more interesting (read: relevant, the precise opposite of the term I’d use for Models) to see Carol Hannah bring it up here. She’s quite congenial, and I found it charming to see the producers trying to portray them as a budding romance as she complains about being distracted by the hot straight designer while seated next to him.
    • I really think Louise should have gone home over Ra’Mon, to be honest with you – yes, Ra’Mon’s dress was a failure and I think he had serious execution problems all along, but Louise was completely out of her league with anything close to productivity, and she’s just going to keep ending up in the bottom now that the bottom feeders have been picked off. Or, as she said, perhaps being in the bottom will give her some constructive criticism to work with and she rises to the occasion – I’d be happy to be surprised for a change.

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Filed under Project Runway, Survivor, Top Chef

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