“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.
“That Girl is Like a Virus”
February 25th, 2010
Well, that’s more pleasant, at least.
Yes, tonight’s episode of Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains featured another brutal physical challenge, and there were certainly some ugly moments on both sides of the competition. However, while last week’s episode was dominated by James’ bullying on Stephenie, this week returned the season to where it was in the beginning: even if the game itself isn’t that interested, our pre-existing relationships with the people playing it make challenges more interesting, make humorous facial expressions more recognizable, and turn a potential mediocre game into something that feels more special than it actually is.
Strategically, the game is as predictable as it was for the past few weeks, but there was enough spontaneity on the fringe to keep things fun, which is frankly what All-Star seasons need to do in the earlygoing.
“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.
“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.