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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Survivor: Ranking My New Addiction

Last April (or March, or May, who can remember?) I started watching Survivor: Worlds Apart on a lark and found myself intrigued. I had never watched an entire episode of Survivor before and only had a vague, simple understanding of the show. It's, of course, a true story about 20 strangers picked to live on an island and have their lives taped to see what happens when you stop being polite and start getting REAL! I may be confusing my reality TV, but I got the gist. I enjoyed the show, but was a little lost when it came to all the lingo and "game play" talk. What does it mean to split votes? What is the significance of alliances and why are these people talking as if they aren't starving? Basically, I was watching a show that assumed the rules, both written and unwritten were understood by the audience. I thought I'd understand better if I went back to season 1 and watch it from the beginning, a time when Survivor, and even the concept of competition reality shows, was new to everyone. I already knew who won that season because if you were alive in 2000 there were 2 things that were impossible to ignore in the media: Gore v. Bush and Richard Hatch's naked butt. I loved the first season anyway, and wanted to continue watching but after falling in love with Borneo the production of the newest season seemed season too slick and manufactured, unlike the gritty documentary feel of the first season. Essentially, Survivor seemed to emulate the fast paced, boom-chicka soundtracked, fast camera angled reality shows of the genre that Survivor helped to create.

 So, I came to the Reddit/Survivor page to have longtime, hardcore fans convince me to stick with it. They did, and, I did, and now it's my new addiction. Over the course of Season 30: Worlds Apart I watched seasons 12-16 on Hulu in the intervening days between episodes. I took a break during the summer because I was starting to lose all sense of reality, but once Season 31: Cambodia, Second Chances I fell right back into wanting more of the show during the week, between episode airings. With more episodes to conquer I immersed myself, yet again, in the episodes available on Hulu, right where I'd left off in the Gabon season. The added bonus to watching old episodes for the first time was that I was getting to know players that were now returning for Cambodia, only with that kind of surreal notion that they are actually younger and less wise than the version I was getting to know through the current season. Now, having just finished Tocantins and deeply entrenched in Second Chances I wanted to return to Reddit to fulfill my need to discuss the show, something my friends and family will appreciate, as they are likely getting sick of me telling them about what Joe and Wentworth did last night, or about the inspiring bromance between JT and Fishbach, or the tears I shed when Taj got to see her husband. And, Coach. My friends didn't quite understand why I was so amused by a soccer coach/Maestro/world adventurer.

So, now to commemorate my 10th season (including the current season) of Survivor I want to rank my favorite seasons so far, in order of my least to most favorite. While, not unlike beer, my favorite season may be the one I'm enjoying at that moment, I'll do my best to be objective.

10. Cook Islands-While looking at any of these seasons in retrospect differs from how I was feeling at the time, as I truly enjoyed watching every season, in its own right, I can't say that I really connected with this season that much, compared to the others. The racially divided tribes aspect was an interesting idea at first, but quickly lost it's significance in the game. I had a hard time thinking of any of the players that I really connected with, other than perhaps Penner, but he was loathed by everyone else, it seemed, and I got tired of feeling sorry for him. Other than watching Ozzie's impressive physicality, this was a relatively dull bunch. Even the likable Yul Kwon wasn't that interesting of a character, despite playing a well orchestrated game. A bonus reason to put Cook Island at the bottom of my list is that Adam and Candice were the two most insufferably unlikable players I've seen thus far. I wanted to punch Adam in the face every time he flashed that cocky, douche bag grin. For me to hate the core members of the most interesting plot within the show is reason enough to rank this one last.

9. Fiji-Like Cook Island, I didn't really connect with any of the story lines or players this season, as much as some of the others. The relationship between Earl and Yau-Man, and maybe just Yau-Man, himself, gives it the edge over Cook Islands, for me. Also, Dreamz was an intriguing character, as the ultimate fish out of water, socially, that found a surprisingly strong correlation between being on the island and having spent part of his life without a home. Dreamz, more than almost anyone else who I've seen play the game, thus far, understood what it is like to survive in a harsh world. Still, the season over all was uneven and had lots of dragging moments, without many big moves to make things interesting.

8. Gabon-This was the first season I watched after taking a long break from past seasons on Hulu. There were many interesting and compelling people to watch in Randy, Ken, Chrystal, and Bob. The initial relationship between Ace and Sugar was a little disturbing to watch, as he came across like a Bond villain, just stringing his puppet along. Where this season fell off, for me was in the mean spirit of some of the players, like Corinne and Randy, and even Marcus. I tend to watch the players’ "Ponderosa" videos after each of their eliminations, and the way that they treated Chrystal after getting voted off was disheartening and sad. While it may be unfair to judge a season based on these "bonus" videos and not solely on the show proper, when I watch them intermingled with the episodes, it's hard to separate them out. Plus, by the end it was a pretty forgone conclusion that Bob would win and Susie's presence was superfluous throughout the whole game.

7. Worlds Apart-Unlike many other fans whom I have read that disliked the whole "Blue Collar vs. White Collar vs. No Collar" concept, I found it pretty compelling and enjoyed watching and thinking about how each players' jobs and normal lives influences their play in the game. Which character in any season you identify with probably says a lot about you, but I think this is especially true of Worlds Apart, since those personalities were separated out so distinctly. Interestingly enough, as we all saw, there were still a wide variety of personalities within each tribe, where someone as free spirited as Shirin was considered "white collar" while Hali was a "no collar" because of her current status as a student, despite her future as a lawyer. Still, like Gabon, I found the grating personalities of some of the players off-putting and the way some of the players took things too personally. Seasons that are dominated by angry, immature people don't really connect to me as much.

6. China-I really loved the backdrop of China and the beauty the scenery, as it added to the overall watching experience. This was also the first time I really noticed major moves that affected the game in big ways, and began to appreciate how strategy and social skill worked in the outcome of the game and the enjoyment of Survivor, overall. While James seems to push against my dislike for "mean" players, it never seemed personal and I found him to be a lot of fun to watch, with sole and kindness that betrayed his rough exterior. He and Denise were two extremely enjoyable players to watch, the latter being the anti-Susie-from-Gabon. A player who seemed out of place in the later rounds of the game. But, unlike Susie, I completely loved how she had come out of the shadows and took on a major role as a highly affective player. Watching how Todd bobbed and weaved his strategy through the game was the first time I'd really seen such an effective game play outside of the first season.

5. Panama-This was the second season that I finished watching all the way through, due to Hulu not carrying seasons 2-11. I don't particularly remember a lot about the game play, but this season gave us so many likable and memorable players, like Cirie, Terry Deitz, Aras and Austin. And, while I've only watched 10 seasons, based on the number of people on the internet that feel the same way I do, there has likely never been another player quite like Shane Powers. At first, I thought this guy must be crazy, but as the season progressed and his self-awareness endeared itself to his fellow survivors, he endeared himself to me. I loved the relationship he had with Cirie and the love he showed for his son was touching. Shane Powers made this season one of my favorites, and one that I continued to place on a pedestal in subsequent seasons.

4. Fans vs. Favorites-Two moments really stand out in my mind when I think about Fans vs. Favorites. Number one, the Black Widow Brigade's "stir the pot" moment was both hilarious and empowering. I loved seeing these women take control of the game and put the dudes in their place. Parvati, after coming across in Cook Island as a bit of a high school mean girl, aligning herself with the cool kids, Candice and Douche-Bag-Adam, struck me during this season as a more mature, more strategic player, who ran that game from the beginning. The next moment that sticks out was the way the BWB blindsided poor, naive Erik after convincing him to give up his immunity. It was a brilliant, bold move that placed the final etches on the plaque that would hang over Parvati's door.

3. Cambodia/Second Chances-My initial thoughts on bringing back old players were not positive. I'd read about how many people loved the seasons featuring returning survivors from previous seasons, and wondered why. Isn't part of Survivor’s appeal the fascination with watching people discover how to survive in the wild? After 9 1/2 seasons and two of them featuring returnees, I have to say that the old players generally make for better players and by extension these seasons are pretty great. It's certainly too early to say for sure whether or not Cambodia will go down as a great season, or not, but as of this writing I've seen one of the greatest blindsides I've seen in any of the previous seasons. I think these seasons work because they are all there to play and play hard. There isn't the obligatory waffling that goes on when you have all new players, or people who are unsure whether or not they can make it. Even the super-fans that make their way onto the show are usually way over-eager to prove their game smarts, when they are not returning players. Returning players are usually relaxed and better understand the nature of the game. Gone is the pettiness (comparatively), the personal attacks (at least outside the game context), and the annoyingly irrelevant concept of honor or trustworthiness within a game that is all about deception and manipulation. It is understood in these games that the truly "honorable" thing to do in the game of Survivor is to be dishonorable. Otherwise, you disrespect the game.

2. Tocantins-The idea that playing the game the right way is to be dishonorable and sneaky was front and center in Tocantins. Coach, the completely delusional, hyper-spiritual "Maestro" kept asserting that the game should award the player with the most honor, and lying deems you unworthy to win Survivor. That is like saying that everyone in a game of Texas Hold-Em should just lay all their cards out on the table and accept the cards they are dealt with honesty. You should not attempt to deceive the players about what you are holding, as if it should completely depend on luck of the draw and nothing else. If that were how you played poker, you would not have a game, you would have the lottery. The very nature of Survivor is about deception and manipulation in the same way that tennis is about hitting a ball over a net. What I loved about this season is that every player in Tocantins seemed to understand this, except for Coach. The lovable Taj, the lovable JT, the lovable Sierra, the lovable Stephen, the lovable Debbie. These were all great players who, while at times being emotionally swept away in the game, knew deep down that it was a game, and it wasn't to be taken as a personal slight if they were voted off. Instead, they focused their energies on playing the game the way it should be played: to win. That means making big moves, alliances, lying, manipulation, and even backstabbing. I have no doubt that had Stephen won immunity in the final challenge he would have brought Erin instead of JT to the final vote. As well he should have. It would have been the right strategic move. As JT correctly observed in the Tocantins reunion episode, he wasn't in the same spot as Stephen. He had the votes needed to beat Erin or Stephen and even could have earned more votes by appearing to take the high road by choosing his friend, instead of the girl that betrayed her alliance. But, how many of the jury would have voted for Erin, regardless, after JT and Stephen voted off Taj, who was as beloved as almost everyone? The argument could be made that the correct strategic move for JT was to bring Stephen. Fishbach had no such luxury. One of my favorite quotes of the season was when he was asked if he deserved to be sitting at the final vote, despite having hidden in the shadows, instead of running the strategy (a premise with which I vehemently disagreed, by the way. I never understood why the other survivors saw JT as the strategic leader, when in my mind it was always Stephen), Stephen responded that hiding in the shadows is a valid strategy. A wonderfully, strategically played season with heart, a bit of kookiness and players who knew how to keep perspective. Despite my dislike of Coach as a player, every season needs that outlier, and he certainly made for a fascinating character to watch. Even Coach’s presence helped make Tocantins my favorite season since watching Borneo. Which brings me to...

1. Borneo-When the forward pass was used for the first time in a football game it was decried as cheating. Likewise the stolen base in baseball was seen as low and dishonest. When it became apparent that Richard, Sue, Kelly, and Rudy had packed together to eliminate the rest of the players, they cried foul. Gretchen and Gervase mocked their "strategy" by wearing sitting duck and target T-shirts that seemed to imply their fate was based on nothing more than an unfair advantage, while the rest of them had been voting on...what? Who they liked? Who was a better "survivor?" The alphabet? It seems so quaint and naive, now. That there was ever a time when it was just a bunch of strangers battling the elements together and voting off the individual who didn't have the grit or skills to make it in the wild on limited food, seems strange and other worldly after watching 9 seasons of strategy and the "unskilled" making it to the later rounds, not based on their physical attributes or contributions to camp, but because they could manipulate people, or fly under the radar. When seen through the lens of later seasons, Borneo wouldn't really be anything other than mediocre, perhaps. If you don't understand the significance of what Citizen Kane brought to film, then it just seems like a typically old, black-and-white movie. It must be acknowledged that much of we take for granted in modern filmmaking owes itself to the Orson Wells classic. The first season of Survivor could have made or broken, not just the Survivor series, but also the entire reality competition show genre. While I could have gladly done without The Bachelor, or American Idol, or most of the shows in this category, for that matter (with The Joe Schmo Show being a hilariously awesome exception), if Richard Hatch had not turned a social experiment into a game of strategy and social manipulation, there may not have ever been a Naked and Afraid! For better or worse. Borneo is the alpha, the New Hope, the George Washington of one of the most successful shows of the past 15 years that launched a new era in television. It's also probably why we don't have to suffer through summers of reruns and instead get to spend the summer watching American Ninja Warriors. So, thank you Survivor: Borneo. Thank you Sue for delivering a speech that became the ultimate metaphor for how this game was to be played henceforth. Thank you Richard Hatch for orchestrating the structure of the game. It’s not often that the players of a game get to determine how it’s played.

And, thank you Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst. Without you I might actually have to get the work done that I am actually paid for in my real life, instead of spending hours on a Saturday writing a more than 3000 word diatribe. I have now begun to see life through a Survivor filter. How I deal with my coworkers, my students, and even my own family are all subject to the scrutiny of a Survivor scenario. This may seem like I’ve gone off the rails, and you may now feel sorry for anyone who has to come into contact with me, let me assure you that this way of seeing the world really only extends to the stretches of time when I am on a Survivor binge. I will eventually burn out and need to take a break, as I did before. And, soon enough I will burn through all 31 season, at which time Survivor become like any other show I DVR and watch when I get a chance. For those who may think that thinking of real life from the perspective of Survivor is a dangerous way to see the world, you’re probably right. But, just for fun, let me entertain the idea anyway. In life we have to deal with many different personalities, often in close surroundings with tasks that we should accomplish. Thankfully, we have our homes to go to at the end of the night with people whom we choose to live. Survivor is just an extreme version of our lives that marries the two worlds in which we already live and survive. Survivor can actually teach us how to better coexist with our loved ones and coworkers. To live in the real world takes patience, cooperation, alliances, and compromise. Ultimately, we also have to think of ourselves and our families and if that means cutting someone out of our lives, moving jobs, or simply moving away, we must do what is best and learn how to deal with what is in our control, and not worry about that which is not. That is really all a survivor can do and all that we can do in the real world. We have to vote people off of our island, sometimes. But, hopefully, we don’t have to do it often and in the meantime we discover how we can make life in our own little tribe as comfortable as possible for the short time we have here.

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