Survivor Samoa Finale: There’s Something About Russell
December 20th, 2009
When Survivor started its nineteenth season, there was a man named Russell. Pot-bellied and stubborn, Russell emerged as if pre-fabricated to play the role of villain in Mark Burnett’s game. He came in with no desire to make friends, and started emptying out canteens and burning socks. It was the most aggressive villain edit the show had ever seen, which meant one of two things to me: either Russell was going to be leaving very quickly (hence the show maximizing his villainy time) or else there was more to Russell’s game than this villainy would seem to indicate.
Russell proved inherently divisive in those early weeks: some people hated him, and felt as if he was ruining the season with his heartless ways. But something changed in the game that made Russell seem less villainous. His tribe, Foa Foa, started getting clobbered in challenges, which meant that Russell’s victims were becoming victims of the game itself. And so Russell didn’t have to be a villain anymore, just watching as his tribe lost every challenge and revelling in his ability to manipulate his tribe into voting how he wanted them to vote. And suddenly instead of someone who was operating against the game (burning socks, disrupting daily life), Russell was simply a puppetmaster enjoying as the rest of his tribe stopped thinking for themselves.
And then the game became Russell’s, to the point where behaviour that before felt obnoxious (like finding the immunity idol without a clue) suddenly became genius, and where his manipulations went from an unnecessary force in the game to a brilliant strategic advantage that took the four remaining Foa Foa members from a severe disadvantage to standing as four members of the final five heading into the show’s finale. And somewhere along the way, the game went from being Russell’s to ruin to being Russell’s to win, and in many ways this finale has come down less to who wins and more to whether or not that person is Russell.
That’s the joy of Survivor, really: if you had told me that at the beginning of the season, I never would have believed you.
Inanity, Intrigue and Inigo Montoya
November 20th, 2009
In the promos for the season finale of Season Six of Project Runway, Lifetime uses dramatic music and a deep-voiced announcer to try to build suspense for the big reveal. However, in their language, they have something wrong: they create anticipation for the reveal of who is “the next big name in fashion,” and my immediate response is “who cares?”
See, what works about Project Runway is that it transfers the aesthetics of the fashion industry into terms that are unrelated to the fashion industry. I know nothing about fashion, but I know a lot about what Nina Garcia likes to see in fashion, or what the series values in terms of creativity. It’s created an audience that, even if they have no knowledge of the fashion industry, have gained knowledge of what Project Runway considers fashion. As such, rather than caring about what these young designers do in the context of the fashion industry, we care about how they situate themselves within the show’s cast of characters from seasons past. For a viewer like me, Bryant Park is the setting of the finale of Project Runway, not a global fashion event, which is why Lifetime language is demonstrative of the season’s failures: I don’t care if they’re a big name in fashion, I want them to be a big name for Project Runway.
And I can confirm that Irina, Althea and Carol Hannah will not be names to remember, a fact which has more to do with the way the show treated them than it does with their individual personalities and talent. And while we’ll never know if this season would have been more interesting if it were in New York, and if the production company hadn’t changed, what we do know is that Season Six failed to provide both the next big name in fashion and a single memorable name for this franchise.
[A few more thoughts on Project Runway, and then some thoughts on both Top Chef and Survivor, with spoilers after the jump…]
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.
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.
Trust in Reality TV: A Four-Letter Word?
A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup
[Since I find blogging about shows like Top Chef, Project Runway and Survivor: Samoa individually somewhat inconvenient, but often nonetheless have things to say about them, I figure we’d lump the three mid-week reality shows together in what we shall now refer to as Cultural Learnings’ Reality Roundup. Enjoy!]
Trust is perhaps the central tenet of reality television.
I don’t mean so much within the game itself, although clearly in a game like Survivor (whose 19th season, Survivor: Samoa, started this week) there is an element of trust between individual players. Rather, I speak of the trust relationship between the show and the viewer. Viewers hope that they can trust the judges on Top Chef and Project Runway to make the right decisions, and they hope they can trust the losing Survivor tribe to vote out the person who is making the new season nigh on unwatchable.
It is a highly tenuous sense of trust, of course: half of the dramatic value of reality television is having that trust violated, and the growing frustration as villains or talentless individuals remain while others go home instead. And, of course, that trust is forever complicated by the existence of editors, learning that the trust you want to experience is being manipulated at every turn.
So, what I find fascinating about this week’s trio of reality shows is that in each instance we are reminded of this trust relationship, and that the “worst Survivor villain of all time” is in fact perhaps the most trustworthy reality character (from a viewer/series perspective) the show has ever seen.
“I Trust You but I Trust Me More”
May 17th, 2009
In my time writing here at Cultural Learnings, I’ve blogged through five seasons of Survivor, although there’s a pattern: I might start out with a few posts on specific episodes, or really commit myself to getting to it on a weekly basis, but without fail it falls off my critical radar. I don’t stop watching the show: although episodes are often spoiled for me, I still quite consistently dig into the week’s episode to see what the show will serve up next. It isn’t that I expect there to be something different, but rather there’s a combination of nostalgia (for a show that is highly familiar for me) and curiosity (to see the ways the show is trying to stay fresh in an environment where most other reality shows of the same era have perished).
This season has, for the most part, lacked major drama: other than Coach, one of the most ridiculous players in quite some time, the characters have been fairly under the radar. Outside of the one exception, people have been pretty pleasant to watch, and early season discussion of an Exile Island alliance seemed like it was going to be a potential dealmaker later in the season. Things got more interesting when the Jalapao Three began to work their way into an unlikely position of power in the season’s back half, but it happened so effortlessly that I was more baffled by Timbira’s lack of intelligence than I was entertained by the turn of events.
Survivor, as a show, is all about big moments or little quirks: either there’s a big personality that makes every moment they’re around like a powder keg waiting to explode, which Coach provided to an extent, or it’s just challenges and tribal council, and posturing for those in between. This makes a finale like this one, which cuts down a lot of the meat in the middle and gets right to the point until the final tribal council. Luckily for Mark Burnett and company, in the vein of some previous finales, there’s plenty of drama to rush through to keep things interesting: while the Jalapao Three have managed to stay strong thus far, it wasn’t based on thier own strategic genius, and with the only remaining Timbira member less incompotent than her predecessors it becomes clear that Three’s Company.
And with that comes the unraveling, which always makes for an engaging finale if not, perhaps, the clean ending the Jalapao Three imagined for themselves.
“You’re Going to Want That Tooth”
March 12th, 2009
One of the concerns with any season of Survivor is that you won’t get a story to follow – the editors will work hard to create one, but you’re looking for that alliance, or rivalry, or relationship, or something else that will make this season of Survivor different than the others. Of course, the fact that the producers are so clearly trying to find these every single season means that every season kind of becomes pretty much the same.
As far as stories go, the “Secret” alliance of Taj, Stephen, Brendan and Sierra is a great one on the surface – it justifies the new two-person Exile Island twist, it has the potential to be quite explosive, and more importantly it actually worked: this week’s episode opens with Taj getting the second immunity idol, completing the circle of life of sorts. The problem now is that their plan lacks foresight: instead of being a sudden twist or turn in the game, which are always more exciting, we get to watch it slowly disintegrate, an alliance that is hard to keep secret when it gives them an extra boost of what can easily go from confidence to cockiness.
The producers, meanwhile, are probably pretty happy with this: it means that instead of waiting for the merge for this alliance to explode, there’s every chance it could all explode at any moment, whether it’s one of the other tribe members getting suspicious or the alliance itself falling apart at the seams. Either way, it’s something that I am really curious to see play out, as we start to see parts of it here.
“The Strongest Man Alive”
March 5th, 2009
There has very rarely been a scenario wherein two tribes on Survivor have been such polar opposites. Going into tonight’s episode, Timbira has been a highly dysfunctional wreck of a tribe, where Coach is convinced that he is not actually part of their failure and where all the beans in the world can’t keep them from cutting off their stronger players. Jalapao, meanwhile, has been able to for weeks put together a very strong tribe that cheers on one another like they’ve been together for months, not just under two weeks.
But what this episode clearly indicates is that the social elements of the game are not the be all end all, and that while Jalapao’s attitude has been very different they were not so fundamentally stronger, or without their own drama, than we would have thought. As a result, for once, there’s actually some suspense about who wins immunity challenges, since both tribes have a very clear path to take if they lose. The result of the episode is nothing surprising, still, but it’s clear that we’re in a “wait and see” pattern in terms of those surprises.
“Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This”
February 26th, 2009
Winners find a way to win, losers find a way to lose.
Coach might be one of the most delusional and irrational players in recent memory on Survivor, but of his various cliched idioms this one is actually quite apt for the game. Of course, when he says it, he implies that it means that Timbira are going to prove themselves winners by winning the next challenge, but this wasn’t in the cards so much. I don’t say that this is an apt saying because it is true, but rather because it’s almost always wrong: at this stage in the game, the tribes are groups of individuals who are made up of winners and losers both, and whoever happens to overcome their losers wins the day.
In the end, Timbira is a tribe that is suffering through the fact that the people are delusional, acting as if they have the luxury of following individual vendettas more than they do the logical structure of the game. They’re so caught up in creating hierarchies that they’re failing to realize that at this stage it’s not about who you like, it’s about minimizing the chances of sending someone home at all. People like Coach can start playing their games once they get to the merge: as long as there are two tribes, they need to think with their heads, and at this point the game is coming down to which team has a larger grasp of reality.
That’s Jalapao right now, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
“The Poison Apple Needs to Go”
February 19th, 2009
I wrote all sorts of notes during last night’s second episode of Survivor’s eighteenth season, but I got a little sidetracked by some impromptu Rock Band once the episode was over, and I return to it now wondering to myself why I’m even bothering writing this post.
It’s going to more or less say exactly the same things as last week, to be honest: while a different team walks away with immunity, they make almost the exact same decision as the other tribe did last week, right down to the outright sweep of the final vote. The same people who were bugging me last week are, no shock, bugging me again here, and for the most part there’s still a spark missing for this season’s cast that really could have made this episode more interesting.
But in revisiting it, there are a few things that deserve mention, especially a new Exile Island twist that at first seemed quite silly but in retrospect is actually quite interesting…perhaps the first interesting thing to come out of this season.