“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 24th, 2010
Survivor has done episodes like this one before: by sending both teams to tribal council, it means that a single hour becomes packed with wall-to-wall strategy, which is usually when the game is at its best. And, accordingly, “Banana Etiquette” delivers shockers from both the Heroes and the Villains, cramming together one of the most ridiculous tribal councils in Survivor history with one of the most low-key of the season.
The difference, though, is that the presence of two tribal councils means that the editing of the episode played a largely role than usual in terms of guiding the audience to particular conclusions. While the “Villains” drama was just a wondrous stage comedy from the word go, and would have been entertaining regardless, the final “shocker” with the “Heroes” was entirely based on keeping the audience out of the loop in regards to their thinking. It was only surprising in that we had been given absolutely no intention of where things were going.
By comparisons, not even the “Villains” knew how their tribal council was going to end, and that’s the kind of drama that Survivor can’t manufacture.
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.
“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.
“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.