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.
“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.
“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.