“Going Down in Flames”
April 22nd, 2010
When we watch reality television, we like to write our own narratives: we like to imagine scenarios where our least favourite team on The Amazing Race gets stranded at an airport, or where the most obnoxious chef on Top Chef Masters fails to make their way into the next round. But I don’t think there has ever been a reality show which simultaneously invites and confounds such narratives as Survivor, a show which crafts such clear heroes and villains that you can’t help but be sucked in even when you know that allegiances and alliances could shift in just a matter of seconds. In reality, we shouldn’t get that sucked into Survivor: we should know that the producers are manipulating the footage, and we should know that it’s a game which depends on the fallibility of social interactions steeped in irrationality, but there is something about the series which has us crafting scenarios to enact justice, punishment and redemption with each passing season.
However, I can honestly say that I do not believe that anyone could have written what went down in tonight’s episode of Survivor. While there were plenty of scenarios that we could write ahead of time to satisfy our perspective on the season, nothing could have been so poetic as what unfolded at the latest in a series of ridiculous tribal councils this season. There’s something in the water in Samoa, as for the second straight year the first episode back from the merge has completely changed the game in ways which confirm why we keep watching this show.
We could write all of the narratives we’d like, but Survivor is ultimately going to be unpredictable, and every now and then something happens which reminds us why we’ve been watching for twenty seasons – tonight was one of those nights.
April 15th, 2010
If you caught last week’s episode of Survivor, you could have written the basic plot of this week’s episode: the preview for “Survivor History” very clearly laid out the narrative stakes, right down to the seemingly ludicrous plan that was laid out by J.T. following the reward challenge. It played us a series of clips of past decisions, focusing on the history of stupidity in the game of Survivor. Of course, it was a selective history: while they focus on Ian sacrificing himself for Katie in Palau, James getting voted out with two immunity Idols, Jason believing his obviously fake Idol to be real in Micronesia, and Erik giving his immunity to Natalie in the same season, they don’t include decisions like Colby taking Tina to the end of Australian Outback.
This is because while they want us to believe that Survivor has had some stupid moves in its past, which is a factual statement, they don’t want us to realize that Survivors do stupid things every week, and sometimes the effects are subtle, and sometimes the stupidity is not entirely clear. While they want to lump in this week’s “stupid” move in with those other mind-numbingly idiotic plays, I would very argue that what they term “Survivor History” is the result of ignorance more than stupidity, and that difference makes it a strategic misstep more than a scenario of self-destruction or anything similar.
And, frankly, I’d argue that there’s a larger and less logical mistake later in the episode, demonstrating that while the basic thesis statement of “Survivor players can be stupid” may be spot on, their use of examples could use some work.
April 8th, 2010
After the recent exit of Boston Rob Mariano, I was convinced that Survivor’s twentieth season was headed off the rails. Rob was basically single-handedly keeping the fairly over-matched Villains tribe in this game, and his exit signaled that Russell Hantz, a good Survivor player who is unfortunately convinced that he is the greatest of all time, now had control of that side of the game. And while I respected Rob, and enjoyed seeing him try to bring together a rag tag group, I don’t really want to see Russell’s ego run roughshod over the game from this point forward.
So when everyone on the Villains tribe is desperate for a merge at the start of this week’s episode, I’m right there with them: it’s not that I want them to be protected from the inevitably challenge defeats in their future due (partially) to Rob’s absence, but rather that I want the game to shift into a new form of gameplay that regains a sense of unpredictability and shuffles around alliances and the like. And so when that merge doesn’t happen, and the teams are back to competing against one another, I felt like this episode was going to be a complete chore.
Instead, it turns out that even though the merge proved to be wishful thinking, the merge nonetheless remained so on the mind of every single player that decisions, conversations, and strategies were all designed with it in mind. So while the merge will have to wait until next week, it already shook things up enough to keep me interested in this game even with Rob sitting on the sidelines.
March 22nd, 2010
I often write in my reviews of the Big Bang Theory that I feel the show needs to spend more time showing me why its central characters are still friends: Sheldon has done enough mean things, and been the recipient of enough poor treatment, that the dynamics of their friendship have more or less been reduced to “because they make a good sitcom cast on good days.”
By comparison, I rarely question the dynamics of the central five characters on How I Met Your Mother, but “Say Cheese” wants me to interrogate why these people are still friends. In the process, the episode takes both Lily and Ted to some unfortunate places, showing sides of their characters which make them seem quite unpleasant.
However, while the Big Bang Theory doesn’t have to resolve its tensions since it will simply ignore the events of one week’s episode in the next, How I Met Your Mother is all about continuity, and by the end of “Say Cheese” they find a way to turn Ted and Lily acting like jerks into a healthy investigation of what it means to be friends. That doesn’t mean it’s a particularly strong or enjoyable episode of the show, but it’s another sign that even some unfortunate premises can be improved when the core values of a show and its cast dynamics are there to keep you watching.
“Know Thy Enemy”
March 5th, 2010
I don’t intend to miss Caprica every week, really, but I’ve been busy the last few Friday nights and it’s always taken me a few days to get to the latest episode. This isn’t a show that I find myself anticipating each week, perhaps, but it is a show that really captures my attention while I’m watching it, which is ultimately more important so long as I’m not spoiled before I get the chance to watch the latest episode.
“Know Thy Enemy” isn’t quite as tonally rich as last week’s episode, but it does a few things that I think are working really well for the series, a sign of its quiet confidence rather than its confident ambition.
“It’s Getting the Best of Me”
February 18th, 2010
I don’t know if Mark Burnett and his fellow producers are really excited about the direction that Survivor’s twentieth season is heading in, or if they’re actively concerned about it. What’s interesting about the Heroes vs. Villains premise is that, in Survivor, the tribes are only rarely within the same space, so the rivalry the title implies doesn’t really materialize in most of a single episode. Sure, over time the rivalry between the two sides will grow, but in the short term the show shifts away from that narrative to the systematic deconstruction of both tribes.
On that front, I think the show should be glad that early on the titles of hero and villain are slowly shifting away from their typical classifications, as it means that more of each episode will be particularly engaging. However, the clash of various ego has gone so far this time that I don’t know if they’ll ever be able to fully reclaim that broader feud, the internal divisions growing too larger for one side to group together and pretend that they are any sort of team under any sort of pre-determined classification.
And I don’t know if Mark Burnett wanted that part of this game to go off the rails quite so quickly.
“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.