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"Survivor" and the Overriding Importance of Mediocrity

By Dustin Rowles | TV Reviews | May 9, 2013 | Comments ()


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I don't know how many of you are left, but I'm still one of the few who has stuck with "Survivor" through all 26 seasons of the show. I've quit every single other reality show I've ever watched (including the only other ones I watched for more than three seasons, "Top Chef' and "The Amazing Race"), but I can't quit "Survivor." Unlike any other reality show, there's something genuine and real about it, and though each season has the same general set-up, only on a different island and with different players (although, it's become more of the same players more and more, of late), there is something about the unpredictability of human nature that makes it so compelling to me.

How does a guy like Coach or Phillip, who are clearly a mentally imbalanced and delusional, wield so much power? How did Russell Hantz -- by any account, a terrible human being -- make it so far in the game, and how did his nephew, Brandon, get invited back for a second season, despite some clear issues with psychosis? But that's how it goes with "Survivor": There always seems to be someone to root for, and someone to hate, at least until the end, when the most likable figures are often cast out because they are threats.

That is more and more true, of late. Physical ability and likability have become liabilities, and while it used to be that the stronger players would at least survive until the merge, the weaker physical players have begun shedding the stronger players earlier and earlier in the season, often to their own detriment.

Insecurity and paranoia seem to drive the game play more than anything else in recent seasons, and the better players have had to become even better to survive. Malcolm, for instance, played a hell of a game this season, and the fact that he did everything right was his undoing: He was too much of a threat. There weren't enough immunity idols to save him.

So as we entered last night's episode, there were only six remaining, and most of the six were players that played under the radar most of the season. Brenda and Eddie, for instance, didn't even come into focus until recently, while Eric has been a non-factor for most of the season, a guy that would swing his vote anyway he was asked, almost by any player. Sheri has been completely useless all year long, which is pretty much the only reason she's still around. Cochran is there because he's weak, but he's too smart to survive until the end. Intelligence is death on "Survivor." I don't like that in the game, but it does make it interesting. The game rewards mediocrity. People will say that this is what's wrong with "Survivor," but if you're not interested in the outcome (and I'm not; in fact, I skipped last year's finale), it's also what makes it so interesting from a sociological standpoint: Strength, intelligence, and popularity are weeded out. Hell, even attractiveness works against you (earlier this season, an alliance was targeted because they were young and beautiful). Where else in the world do we see this?

[Spoilers for last night's episode ahead]

That brings us to Dawn, partnered with Cochran her last time on "Survivor," which cost her dearly. This year, she's playing her own game, buddying up with several people, but mostly staying under the radar, positioning herself as a hanger-on of the more dangerous people.

Last night, however, she pulled a move that I saw as maybe the coldest, most ruthless, and meanest move in "Survivor" history. She orchestrated a blindside of Brenda, who has been nothing but sweet, kind, and generous to Dawn all season long. When Dawn LOST HER TEETH, broke down into sobs and threatened to leave the show, it was Brenda who saved her. Then last night, Brenda won the family challenge, and it was Brenda's generosity that was her undoing. Asked to select anyone to go with her for a BBQ with a loved one, Brenda chose Dawn, but then Jeff flipped it, giving Brenda the option of either taking Dawn and her loved ones to the BBQ, or allowing all the other tribe members to go.

Brenda took the selfless option. It would cost her. Why? Because Brenda's generosity, her likability, became her liability, and the snakes who she treated so very generously turned on her. Brenda was obviously surprised, but more than that, she was heartbroken. In the post-game confessional, she was sobbing, and I don't blame her. It was a cruel move. Great strategy? Maybe. But it's here, where a million dollars is within reach, that the players become Danny Boyle characters: Greed takes priority over humanity. Thirty-five days on an island with little food, no contact with anyone outside of the other players, and a healthy dose of paranoia, fear, and a desire to win $1 million turns these people into awful human beings.

What will it mean for the finale? I don't know. In all likelihood, Dawn's bold move will make her a threat, and she will be next to go, or Cochran will be voted out because he's a great strategic player. I don't care. At this point, I want Eddie to win, if only because he hasn't done anything awful to anyone yet.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • kirbyjay

    They don't reward mediocrity. It's Outwit, Outplay, Outlast. Boston Rob, Parvati, Yul, Ethan, Tom, Amber, Kim, JT....

    Most of the winners played all three aspects of the game, the physical, the social and the strategic. They manage to win some challenges, manipulate other players without alienating most of them, and they aren't lazy because the slugs at camp are gone quickly.

    You ought to know Dustin, that the Coaches and Russells and Phillips make it to the end because the smart person knows that they will win if seated next to these weirdos. Do you really think Philip or Russell would ever win? They don't have the power because the smart player lets them "assume" power and deflect the bullseyes.

    That said, Brenda's exit was heartbreaking to me. To turn on her right after she let them have the reward was mean, but it was also strategic. She's very good in challenges so there was a chance she would make it to the final three and win because of her sacrifice. It was actually an incredibly strategic plan, but still mean as hell

  • Jerce

    I'm sorry:

    Did you say 26th season?
    ...
    This steaming turd tureen of a show has been on the air for TWENTY-SIX YEARS?!

    That means there are GROWN-ASS PEOPLE for whom this aromatic shitstew of a show has ALWAYS BEEN ON TELEVISION.
    ...
    I'm sorry...I think I've broken a blood vessel.

  • Lauren_Lauren

    They do more than one season a year, so it hasn't actually been that long . . . maybe 12 years? It's still too long.

  • pfeiffer87

    I watch it every season, Russell Hantz's season was one of my favourite, especially when he pulled out the idol and everyone was like 'oh shiiiiiiit': Russel - does not count, Russel does not count, Russel - does not count, Russel does not count........ drum roll..... Kelly. LOVE IT. Also I was so upset last night, I don't usually get upset but Brenda sobbing had me tearing up, I now hate Dawn.

  • Alex Kuhn

    I don't think Eddie will win, but seeing him make it t the final three wouldn't surprise me and would make me happy. He's been at the bottom of alliances for so long, at this point he's basically like "Fuck it! I'm not gonna win, but I basically got a free vacation!"

    I will watch Survivor every season that they put it on television. Every time a new season airs I tell myself I don't want to watch anymore, but somehow I let myself watch the first episode and I'm hooked.

  • troublesometots

    Dawn had the thinnest thread of hope to win and last night she cut that thread in a way that should make her the most reasonable person to take with you to the finals. She's betrayed almost the entire jury and I believe will be stunned to go back and watch this season only to see that she has, without her own knowledge or intention, become the villain of the season.

    I'm not sure if I agree with you about the game only rewarding mediocrity. I don't think Boston Rob was a mediocre player. But there is definitely a case to be made that "floater" is an excellent strategy to make it to the final 3. I'm not sure how great the floater strategy plays out in getting votes.

    Regardless Dawn's descent from weeping sweet-mom to backstabbing villain makes for fascinating TV.

  • logan

    As much as I hate to agree with you Rowles I am with you on Survivor. It's one of the oldest reality shows yet still one of the best. What people dont understand about Survivor is that its not about being the BEST player it's about getting to the end and getting the votes. So you do whatever you have to to get to the end and then hope people dont hate you. People who say mediocre players win it dont understand Survivor. If your great at challenges you become a target, if you are too popular you become a target. So attributes that make people winners in real life make you a loser on Survivor because the jury votes for the person they like the most or hate the least not the "best" player.

  • googergieger

    Wait a sec, I thought Survivor was the reality t.v. show about trying to be a successful show on NBC.

  • Lauren_Lauren

    No, that sounds like MILF Island.

  • e jerry powell

    and its spinoff/alternate-season filler, DILF Island.

  • Slash

    How is people being stupid and assholish unpredictable? And do you really need a "reality" show to tell you that incompetent and/or lazy people are threatened by the competent and hard-working? A month in almost any job should teach you that. Or an observation of politics.

    This show (like most "reality" shows) sounds goddam depressing. If I wanted entertainment that showed terrible people profiting from being terrible, I'd just watch the news all the time. 3 women held captive in a house in Cleveland for a decade is just the latest confirmation for me about human nature. I don't need it played out for me in a contrived competition to know how fucking horrible people are.

    At least the dancing and singing shows are people being (somewhat) creative instead of destructive.

  • e jerry powell

    Dancing and singing shows are, at least by their very definition, about providing specific entertainment, even though the quality of that entertainment may vary wildly. Burnett just added a prize as an end goal to what Bunim/Murray created back in 1991: an unscripted soap opera in a fishbowl.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I don't watch Survivor...but I feel the whole "worst of humanity" is a little out there for this. No one's going to die. They signed up to try to win a million dollars - so anyone being kind or cruel is pretty much only to that end.

  • koko temur

    i have a friend who i constantly give shit for loving two and a half men, and yet just like dustin, i cant quit on survivor. The formula, casting, location - all can get stale and yet even the returning players deliver great surprises. Look at cochran journey from his last season. Malcom too steped up his game. Erik didnt do a thing this season, but that by itself is interesting in comparison to his last performance. And Malcoms move with 2 idols? one of the best in history.

    But i do disagree with you on cochran. Its his to loose. Your claim is also somewhat a paradox - if he is that smart - he wont be voted off. If he was to be voted off that means he wasnt that smart to begin with.

  • bleujayone

    "I will speak for you all. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. Mediocrities everywhere... I absolve you... I absolve you... I absolve you... I absolve you... I absolve you all!"

    -Mark Burnett

  • e jerry powell

    That explains how so many lame-os get cast on The Voice -- they need the roadkill.

  • Christopher Bird

    You're really giving Brenda far too much credit for her play here. She didn't give up the reward out of selflessness - she did it because the show put her in an impossible position (piss off one player or piss off four) and she had to take the least worst option, knowing that it would make her an endgame threat because everybody (except Dawn) would be thankful for it.

    "Give up something for yourself so the whole tribe gets something" is a Survivor staple when someone wins a reward; it happens at least two or three times per season (and in fact already happened once this season during the auction when Andrea gave up her food reward so the tribe could get a fresh supply of rice and beans).

    Finally, as for Brenda's ouster and her tearful "I was straight with you guys" exit, let us all remember that she spent a good part of the show trying to convince Dawn to backstab Cochran. She was playing the game just as much as anyone else. Her problem was not that she was selfless; her problem was that Cochran was better at convincing Dawn than she was.

  • Caity

    Cochran will win, he'll take scherri and erik with him. Just my prediction and I've been actively avoiding the rumoured spoiler with the final 3.
    He can't take Eddie, as Eddie will get jury votes for not pissing anyone off, and he can't take dawn, cos some of the jury don't realise how much she has been doing behind the scenes. Though Cochran has been the strategic genius in the second half of the game.

  • Luke Anthony Matthews

    I'm sorry to disagree but Cochran/Dawn/Andrea's dealing of the Corrine and Malcolm defecting issue was handled brilliantly by them...the truth is Malcom's timing was off, and he paid the price for it, especially by choosing to tell Dawn his plan when he knew Dawn was Corrines undoing. Also, I can't be the only one who suspected producer meddling on those idols, surely?

  • Sherry

    Yes, my darling Malcolm made his move a vote too early. I was terribly frustrated watching that go down. And last night was pretty telegraphed--never, ever win the family love challenge, it is a lose-lose if you do!--it was still upsetting for all the reasons stated above and here. I can't explain my dislike of Dawn enough. She is an emotional player and emotionally manipulative and every time she cries, I want to punch my tv. I don't know if you watch the Ponderosa videos but let's just say that I don't think she's getting any votes from that jury if she makes it to final three. I think it's Cochrane's to lose. At the same time, I am perversely rooting for Eddie--whom I don't even like--just because.

  • Luke Anthony Matthews

    I'm fairly confident Cochran will win this season, Dawn has burned far too many bridges for votes.

  • Wow. I watched the first (UK) season of this show years and years ago and then swiftly forgot about it. If I could bottle and sell whatever it was in my brain that facilitated the forgetting then I'd make millions off trauma sufferers, because, until this post, not one stray thought connected to the show has ever bubbled up in my brain, and now, remembering it, it feels like my memory of watching it is somebody else's. Remarkable.

  • NynjaSquirrel

    The only one of these types of shows I've ever seen, enjoyed and stuck with was the BBC's 'Castaway' - the year long project to see just how people would cope/survive in one of the crappiest locations imaginable. No crystal blue waters and bikinis there... just horizontal rain, wind that stripped off lip gloss, and sheep.

  • e jerry powell

    Now THAT is what Survivor should be.

  • Maguita NYC

    Have not watched Survivor in years. Especially after obvious typecasting had become a recurring bad joke. A losing formula for long-time fans.

    That being said, my all-time favorites are Ethan Zohn, and that brilliant evil manipulative in-your-face hot bitch Parvati Shallow.

    The Black Widow Brigade Alliance forever!!

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