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.
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.