Curse or Blessing?: Predictability in Reality TV – A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup


Curse or Blessing? Predictability in Reality TV

November 6th, 2009

It’s been a while since I’ve stopped in with a Reality Roundup, which is symptomatic of the fact that my opinions about these three shows haven’t really changed. Survivor has been dominated by a single team to the point of proving downright uninteresting, Top Chef is still being dominated by the same four chefs, and Project Runway is something I didn’t even bother watching for a few weeks, choosing to read recaps instead. This hasn’t been a great season for any of the three shows on the level of really surprising me: in fact, they’ve all to different degrees become predictable (whether in which team will win, which chefs will dominate, and whether the show will be boring, respectively).

All three shows, however, feel ready to confront that sense of predictability in this week’s episodes, as Survivor rushes into a merge and Top Chef present a “volatile” Reunion special in an effort to shake things up a bit. And while Top Chef’s reunion show is predictably dramatic, Survivor’s merge episode is perhaps one of its best ever, unpredictable to the point of having no idea who is going home in the end.

And yet this leaves Project Runway, which has been predictably boring but almost entirely unpredictable in terms of the lack of consistent judging. As such, while the uncertainty of Survivor’s finale is downright exciting, the uncertainty surrounding who will be going to Bryant Park is actually problematic, and the end result dissatisfying if not necessarily wrong.

I’m going to start with Runway, which was actually one of the season’s most interesting episodes. The challenge was at least vaguely interesting (especially since I was at the Getty in April and was totally in all of those locations and remember Carol Hannah’s bed particularly…which sounds dirty), we got an enjoyable amount of Tim Gunn, and we’re finally leaving Los Angeles. However, the problem with the episode came to its ending, when five rather boring and uninteresting garments were sent down the runway and the judges were forced to make a decision. In that moment, the show got caught up in a difficult position: the three most consistent designers on that stage were Carol Hannah, Althea and Irina, but Althea’s outfit was a complete and total mess and the judges clearly liked Gordana’s dress better even with its ugly zipper. I really had no idea what decision they were going to make because of how poor all of the outfits were, none of which seemed to be separating any one designer from the others, and that sort of unpredictability on a show where I have about as much (if not more) evidence of their talent as the judges is kind of concerning.

It reflects a season long struggle with the judges, though, and it makes their final decision fallacious if not entirely wrong. I don’t disagree with the judges that Gordana lacked a clear vision, making a lot of fairly uninteresting but well-made dresses that in any other season would have had her sent home weeks ago (and while I could say the same about almost all of the designers, she and Christopher would be the first to go even in that scenario). However, the decision the judges make is that this challenge was ultimately pointless, and that Althea’s strong overall track record is more interesting to see at Bryant Park than Gordana’s boring aesthetic. However, as we’ve been pointing out all season, the judges haven’t been the least bit consistent, and when Nina suggests that she hasn’t seen anything from Gordana my immediate response is that it’s because she’s rarely ever been there. The lack of consistency in the judging, as Nina and Michael have been missing for most of the season, meant that the judges’ use of their overall impression from the entire season was in fact a fallacy: other than Heidi, who I’m now convinced has always been the panel’s loose cannon, no one could have truly constructed such an impression, so to use it as their reasoning is false.

But not, of course, wrong: I think the three who were through were the three who deserved to be there (out of this group, if not on their won merits), as Christopher has been on borrowed time and in poor taste all season and Gordana really did never show anything beyond competence throughout the competition. But I don’t feel as if any of the three finalists really earned their spot in Fashion Week with the judges so much as they were deemed the least offensive of the crop, and that’s a horrible thing to say about Project Runway. I just have no faith in the judges doing the right thing, making them unpredictable to a fault and becoming the only thing that’s had me the least bit engaged with the show all season.

Meanwhile, I’ve been engaged by the good chefs on Top Chef this season, but I’m still waiting for them to get to the Kevin/Voltaggios/Jennifer finale. I was going to write last week about how Jennifer’s fatigued state is something that she is capable of bouncing back from with the right type of challenge, but never got around to it, so let me just say that I’m not writing her off for having an off day in both the quickfire and the elimination challenge last week. But we have to wait to see how that goes down, for quite some time in fact: after November 18th’s episode, the show won’t be back until December 2nd. And it’s a delay that will feel particularly frustrating when you consider that this week we got only an All-Stars special.

As someone who just watched the first five seasons this summer, this is both engaging (since I know these chefs really well) and pointless (since the moments they’re reliving I just lived somewhat recently). Fabio stirring up tensions with Marcel and everyone else was predictably dramatic but also frustrating, since Marcel’s personality has always bugged me. The one moment in the episode that I was really intrigued to see, which was Carla choking out Casey for ruining her chances at winning Season Five, didn’t come to be as Carla seems to think that it’s entirely okay that Casey was such a pushy know-it-all. Yes, it was ultimately Carla’s decision to follow Casey’s advice, so I don’t blame her for forgiving her, but I have never particularly liked Casey and her attitude here wasn’t overly helpful to that. That being said, though, I thought little things like seeing Marcel freak out during the Judges’ commentary with the Season Five finale sous chefs (which is why we never saw it during the finale, I presume) was kind of fun, and the various groups did cook some impressive food (the most impressive being Marcel and Ilan’s salt-poached thai snapper, which seemed to taste as good as it looked crazy). So while it was predictable in the drama it stirred up, it was still definitely fun to revisit.

Meanwhile, Survivor: Samoa has finally started, albeit with a decision that actually in some ways makes the game less interesting. I really liked what we saw of Erik, as he was a master at manipulation and more importantly a master at communicating that manipulation in entertaining ways to us as an audience. I have to respect someone who ends up leaving the game because he was simply too cocky in presenting his strategy to the outnumbered Foa Foa tribe, and someone who never apologized about how hard he was playing this game. With Erik gone, things become inherently less interesting because Galu still has the numbers, and because with Erik gone Galu’s leadership is both less interesting (although John showed some intriguing shades in this one) and more likely to just chop off Foa Foa before turning on themselves, creating more predictability in the show’s future.

But this episode was simply a masterstroke of what the merge does to this game, something that in other instances just has not happened the same way. The episode had a number of montages where you saw people scheming, telling everyone about the scheme, and then the scheme basically disintegrating out from under them when it reaches certain people. The merge makes everyone paranoid, but what was interesting here is that it didn’t make everyone equally paranoid: while Russell tried to use the immunity idol promise (which we have, of course, seen used before) to bring people like Laura into the mix, at this point Galu’s numbers game is too strong for people to be that concerned with something like that. This episode was Russell losing all of his power, as the idol in his pocket proved worthless as a bargaining tool and then he threw away its one value (to save himself) by failing to trust that Natalie had effectively convinced the Galu girls about getting rid of Erik at this stage in the competition and wasting it at Tribal Council only to have no votes come his way. His experience shows how the unpredictability of the merge can screw over an individual game plan, and it’s amazing how Russell started as such a villain but seemed so gosh darn human here.

And it just shook up everything else at the same time as we saw the shifts within strategy have even Galu not sure what to do. We start with the plan to get rid of both Russell’s idol and Jaison, before it’s John who decides that this is a good time to weaken the female alliance of Galu in case they decide to do something like vote off Erik. As a result, Monica is the intended target, but then Erik’s cheerleading of that plan turns it into his, and puts his head on the chopping block with Foa Foa and then the girls. The moment where John latches himself onto Kelly and grabs her off into the woods to try to convince her that they’re not going through with this was literal panic mode, which is something we almost never get to see. That all of them but Shambo eventually got on the same page demonstrates that this game works in mysterious ways, and that John managed to both get rid of Russell’s idol (who was convinced that everything was just a plot to convince him he was safe before eliminating him) and Erik (a legitimate threat to his strategy) while never even planning any of it himself.

I’ll miss Erik’s witty banter (his suggesting that Shambo can vote for Probst for all he cares was worth a chuckle), but the sheer insanity of this episode was worth his departure – really intrigued to see where things go from here, especially once Foa Foa is gone and we see some more shakeups. It’ll never quite be this unpredictable in the future (a Survivor curse, where the show gets interesting in the middle only to peter off again), but it’s finally a bit of momentum for a season that was never bad but never quite clicked either.

Cultural Observations

  • Project Runway
    • I loved the small moment where Christopher said he expected that Nicolas would be there with him at the end, as it was proof that his delusions extend beyond self-delusion.
    • The preview for next week shows just how interesting this season has been: rather than there being drama about the actual outfits, it’s about Carol Hannah catching a contagious disease.
    • I’m not going to go in search of them myself, since I want the finale to be as interesting as possible (aka not very interesting), but the fashion shows for this season were a whole lot earlier in the year so there’s probably pictures of the collections (that would likely be identifiable by designer although don’t quote me on that) floating around.
  • Top Chef
    • It’s not coincidence that it was Dale who was the one person who legitimately botched their dish: I was perplexed that he ever became a finalist, and was kind of like “Huh?” when he showed up.
    • Note that the two winners we were missing (Stephanie and Hosea) are the two whose wins are somewhat less interesting and in some cases controversial. Considering that Runway just completely ignored a final challenge and went based on overall impressions, Top Chef has always been resistant to doing the same and it showed with Richard/Stefan went down at the hands of lesser contenders (if not “unworthy” ones).
  • Survivor
    • Loved Shambo’s “Who’s Erik?” when she heard about the plan – either she doesn’t know anyone’s names or else she was just so perplexed that she believed there must be another Erik on Foa Foa she doesn’t know. Either way, it was hilarious.
    • It’s always impressive when an episode of Survivor can have a legitimately terrible challenge (it was T-Ball!) and still manage to be entertaining. They’re usually my favourite part of the show, so it’ll be interesting to see what goes on from this point on. Are they, as Andy Denhart argues at Reality Blurred, saving the good challenges for the All-Stars season coming in the new year?

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Filed under Project Runway, Survivor, Top Chef

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