Sunday, May 23, 2010

Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains

What follows is a lengthy rant about the unsatisfying conclusion to the twentieth season of Survivor. It'll probably make the most sense if you watched it, but I'm going to include some footnotes for the uninitiated. If you aren't watching Survivor, you're seriously missing out.

"There's a flaw in the game of Survivor," said Russell Hantz in the Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains reunion show this weekend. He's right, though his proposed solution of giving America a percentage of the vote is nonsense. The problem with Survivor - and I say this as a vocal, devout fan of the game - is the decline over the past two seasons in sensible jury votes1.

Russell is a divisive character. I used to hate him, too, back in the early days of Survivor: Samoa2. I can understand why people get mad at him — but anger is irrational and what I can't figure out is the inability to let go of your anger and admit that he is hands-down the best Survivor to ever play the game. It's one thing when you're a television audience — we're an irrational lot and still we've awarded Russell the $100,000 audience vote twice consecutively — but it's another thing when you're playing the game and another thing still when you're a veteran.

In two consecutive games, Russell whipped the competition and landed squarely in the Final Three only to lose the vote from a bitter jury. Obviously, playing to the jury is crucial to any Survivor's strategy. But the point is that they're never going to want to vote for anybody. It's up to the jury to decide who is most deserving of the million-dollar prize. Not who they feel made them look less like a bunch of fools.

But in the past two seasons, this is exactly what happened. And so Sandra Diaz-Twine was crowned the first two-time winner of the game, despite being an unlikable failure from day one to day 39. Here is a 'Sole Survivor' who discussed at Final Tribal that her single mission the entire game was to get Russell voted off. And she couldn't do it. Ever.

Russell played this entire game with a target tattooed on his increasingly-skinny back and out-maneuvered the competition every single time.

Let's examine the incident with Tyson Apostol, who changed his vote at the last minute despite a rock-solid Plan Voodoo3 of Boston Rob Mariano's devising and ended up getting the boot himself. This has been heralded as a dumb move on Tyson's part (and it is), even getting him nominated for the cruelly lame "Dumbest Move in Survivor History" fan vote at the end of the season. But has everyone forgotten that this was entirely Russell's doing? He had an idol and everyone knew it; Boston Rob had a (nearly) fool-proof plan to split the votes three-three for Russell and ally Parvati Shallow4, eliminating whichever one of them played Russell's idol.

What did Russell do? He selected Tyson, pulled him aside and got in his head, telling him he was voting for Parvati and Tyson might as well do the same. Tyson made a dumb move, but it was the result of Russell's manipulation. This is an incredible thing that Russell does every single time he's in a bind — using only his wits, he manages to manipulate the competition into acting against their better interests. This is a founding tenet of Survivor strategy5.

Russell did the same thing to Danielle DiLorenzo much later in the season. He tried to play her and Parvati off each other, which failed — their alliance was too strong and Russell immediately got caught in the lie. Rather than back down, he blazed ahead with full confidence right into Tribal Council, where he berated Danielle until she broke down in tears and confessed to an unbreakable alliance with Parvati. Russell then called an audible, mouthing "Danielle" at Jerri Manthey, the swing vote that sent Danielle packing.

These are the actions of a born Survivor player. Russell is so good at the game that he made even the Heroes vs. Villains cast of veteran all-stars look like the amateur schlubs of Foa Foa and Galu with which he swept the beach in Season 19. Russell didn't lose the jury vote because he played 'dishonestly'. He lost the jury vote because he bruised the fragile egos of 9 veteran reality TV stars.

Russell doesn't play to assuage the jury — he admits it, and I can admit it, too. His strategy is to convince them that he is the most deserving of the Sole Survivor not through kind words at Final Tribal but through absolute domination through 39 days of game play. Russell's undoing in Survivor: Samoa was that he counted on a jury of amateurs to observe his professional game. His loss in Heroes vs. Villains, it turns out, is the same harsh lesson folded upon itself.

I've written previously about the four types of Survivor contestant6. Russell is the quintessential Challenged Self: a man who swore on his first of 78 consecutive days of Survivor that he was the best and would prove it. Prove it he did, and soundly.

The silver lining to Russell's backhanding by the Samoa jury was the knowledge that he would immediately have a one-off shot at revenge. The Heroes vs. Villains season billed itself as one of revenge and redemption. These are returning champions and almost-champions looking to prove what they failed to prove the first (or second) time around. As the seasons were filmed back-to-back, Russell had this one fleeting chance to play again and use his revolutionary cutthroat strategy, unleashing it on an(other) unknowing tribe of castaways.

There's no question that Russell is great at what he does: the problem starts when he reaches the jury and everybody is too pissed off to vote for him to win. My hope — and Russell's — was that the Survivor veterans would see what he was doing and reward him for doing it so damn well. Instead Russell was so much better than the JTs and the Boston Robs of the Survivor Pantheon that the seasoned veterans were actually more upset at him than the cast of Season 19.

Obviously, playing for the jury vote is a huge part of Survivor. The facet of Russell's strategy that sets it apart from the rest of the "villains" is that his grab for jury votes is never borne of false sympathy, flattery or modesty. He tells it like it is: "I'm the best and that's why I deserve it."

The problem with Survivor — not every season, but certainly in these past two and especially in Heroes vs. Villains — is when the jury fails to recognize excellent game play and votes not for the best player but for the one who had the least to do with bruising their egos. This is apparent not solely in their refusal to give Russell a single vote but in the awarding of the million dollars to Sandra over Parvati.

Now, I can't stand Parvati, but I begrudgingly admit that she's an excellent player. I compare her to the New York Yankees: she's evil, but dammit if she's not great at the game. Though Parvati undeniably did some coattail riding off Russell in Heroes vs. Villains (look at her sharing all the idols he found and escaping votes thank to his manipulation) she also did have several big moves of her own. In addition to dominating in challenges, her idol split between Jerri and Sandra was one of the season's great blindsides that nobody saw coming. Not Russell, not Sandra or Jerri, not the Heroes, not the television audience. Russell admitted as much at the reunion show: between Parvati and Sandra, Parvati should've won. All Sandra ever did the entire season was talk about her husband in Afghanistan and fail to get rid of the two more-powerful players. The only reason she made it to the finals was because circumstance consistently brought her to the block last in her dying alliances.

Giving Sandra the million dollars was the action of a cowardly jury. In a 6-3-0 vote, Danielle, Jerri and Benjamin "Coach" Wade voted for Parvati — Danielle because Parvati's hand-holding got her as far as she did and Jerri and Coach because they held on to a modicum of respect for the game Parvati played. In that jury, I have a lingering affection for JT, Amanda Kimmel, Rupert Boneham, Colby Donaldson and maybe even Candice Woodcock and I am so disappointed in them — "heroes" all — for taking the avenue of the reality fame whore, upset because their spotlight got dimmed.

This is not the role of the jury. Making it to the jury on Survivor is an honor all its own, and with it should come a sense of duty to the game. If you get ousted by a player of Russell's caliber, you owe it to that player and you owe it to the game to show some goddamn respect. If Amanda Kimmel and Colby Donaldson and "America's Tribal Council" winner Rupert Boneham can't muster any respect for the game, how am I ever going to get anybody else to?

1.) The jury is the linchpin to the Survivor rules. Every season, with two-or-three finalists, the previous nine-to-twelve cast members "voted off the island" cast the votes for who wins the million dollar prize. This means that if you want to win, you have a Final Tribal Council during which you must convince the people you double-crossed why you deserve the money more than your fellow finalists. [back]

2.) Hantz played consecutively on the last two seasons. After stealing the show and losing the final vote in season 19 (Survivor: Samoa), he was invited back for this most recent one, the all-star Heroes vs. Villains, which was filmed in Samoa immediately after the previous season wrapped. [back]

3.) One of the devices added to the game several seasons in is the Hidden Immunity Idol, which can be discovered any number of ways (usually buried and located by following a series of clues) and may or may not be kept a secret from the other tribe members. The Idol is played at Tribal Council after votes are cast, nullifying any votes for the Survivor who played it and voting out the person with the next highest number (often this person gets the boot with only one or two votes). Russell is a mastermind at locating them, and likes to brag about it. So: when the rest of your tribe knows you have an idol, one way to get rid of you (and/or it) is to execute Plan Voodoo. The outnumbering alliance splits their votes — half for the idol-bearer and the next person they want to get rid of (usually the idol-bearer's ally). If either one of them plays the idol, the other one will get the boot. [back]

4.) Her last name is Shallow. I hate her. [back]

5.) Not only did this move get rid of Tyson, but Russell's speech in handing the idol over to Parvati was deliberately delivered to the pompous Coach, attempting to put the Dragonslayer squarely in Russell's pocket with nothing but flattery and a little talk of "honor". [back]

6.) The four types of Survivor contestant: The Walkabout, The Challenged Self, The Fame Whore and The Crazy. [back]


  1. Couldn't agree more, Todd! (Just discovered your blog--love it :) )