Monday, November 16, 2009

Survivor: Samoa

Since I rediscovered it several seasons ago, I've been touting Survivor to everyone I know as one of the best shows on television. People laugh and mock; the same people that have never watched an episode, much less a full season. One of my first rules of television is that any serialized program requires you to start at the beginning and not miss an episode. With a competition/reality show like Survivor, you have the benefit of being able to start fresh every season. And there are two per year.

I offered my sister a one-sided bet at the onset of 2009's spring season: she would watch the first four episodes of the new season of Survivor and if she didn't then want to keep watching, I would pay her twenty dollars. If she did, all she had to do was keep watching so I would have someone to discuss it with. She accepted, and begrudgingly admitted four episodes in that her curiosity outweighed her desire to lie to her little brother for twenty bucks.

She's still watching now, and so am I.

I have to convince people to tune in for this. There's a stigma attached to the show. I'm a smart guy with smart friends and they tell me they don't have time for it. I explain that this is compelling, examination-of-the-human-condition television. They explain that it's staged.

Yes, it's staged. Just like any rat-in-a-maze experiment, Survivor is staged, but the reactions of the fame-whores and dollar-mongers making up the cast every year don't get scripts, and they aren't told who to vote for. There's a difference between 'staged' and 'rigged'. If the thing was rigged, there's no way my girl Amanda Kimmel would've lost in the finals twice.

Internet naysayers are again up-in-arms over the current Samoa-based season's polarizing breakout star, Russell Hantz. Hantz is a proud liar and misogynist who claimed in the first episode that as the owner of an oil company, he doesn't need the million dollar prize - he's just here to show everyone how to play the game.

And from the beginning, when he made up a story about losing his dog to Hurricane Katrina (Hantz isn't even from New Orleans) and threw his tribe mates' socks in the fire while they slept, Russell has been turning the game on its head.

What makes Survivor so compelling is the complexity of the game and the interactions between the rats volunteered to play it. The single key to the show is the idea of The Jury - every week the tribe votes someone out, and when it comes down to the final vote for the million dollar winner, the selection is made by the castaways the finalists just spent weeks getting rid of. This leads to bitterness, jealousy, manipulation, and lies upon lies upon lies.

It's a particularly nasty show, and Russell is one of the nastiest players in the show's history. I'll stay tuned just to see what his tribemates say about him in the postseason reunion special, when the kid gloves usually come on and everybody very graciously confesses that their backstabbing and brutality was in good fun. But in the meantime, Russell is proving to be an expert at all aspects of the game. He holds his own physically, though he's not so dominant as to incite fear of the Alpha Male in his tribemates. He's devious and manipulative, with four-people allied behind him, all of whom he'd double-cross in a second if he thought he'd found a better offer. On top of all this, he has found a Hidden Immunity Idol. Without a clue. Twice.

The uninitiated cannot appreciate the gravity of this feat. Not only did he do something unprecedented and near-impossible, but then he turned around and did it again. He found two needles in two different haystacks on two different farms. All he did was look.

The Hidden Immunity Idol renders null any votes cast against you at Tribal Council. It is played after the votes are cast but before they are tallied. This means that if everyone on the tribe votes for Russell to be booted and Russell then plays his idol, the person with the one vote Russell cast is out of the game. This kind of play is rarely executed with the utmost level of excitement and drama as Russell brought to the table in last week's episode. Having blown his first Idol at the previous tribal council, nobody saw it coming that Russell would've found another.

(Actually, that's not true. Monica, heretofore a blank slate at best and a whiny, knee-socked troll at worst, suggested it as a possibility and everyone laughed at her. Formally a pest and a target at Tribal Council, this was a shocking bit of foresight from her and makes me wonder if she, like Natalie, is playing a much stronger game than we might have previously though. Appearances can be - and quite often are - deceiving on Survivor.)

Anybody who's been paying attention to Survivor: Samoa received a great payoff last Thursday in what CBS was correct to hype as one of the most memorable Tribal Councils in 19 seasons of the show. As Russell's Shakespearean scheme led to the send-off of Kelly (who really didn't deserve it), his nemesis Laura whispered that "he just stirred up a whole lot of hell." This, from an alleged Christian.

Rumor has it that Russell has already been booked for Survivor 20's All-Star Season, and if that's true, no matter how much further he gets in Samoa he'll show up next year with a target tattooed on his back. The best way to lose at Survivor is to be the best at the game and Russell has proved himself. He'd better get immunity again and again, because the other players are going after him at every Tribal Council from now until the endgame.


  1. How could Russell be *Russell* in an all-star cast? He's only as effective as he is sneaky... by which I mean, of course, that he's VERY sneaky and VERY effective. But that won't work a second time around.

  2. Probably in the same way Russell has stayed "Russell" after the merge, and in every succeeding episode. He reinvents the strategy of Survivor.

    It's worth noting that in past "All Star" seasons previous winners have been targeted from the beginning. You can read all about this on wikipedia, but take for example that in the very first All Star season, the (arguably) most popular player up to that point, season two winner Tina Wesson, was voted off right away in the first episode.