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"Survivor" and the Overriding Importance of Mediocrity

By Dustin Rowles | TV | May 9, 2013 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | May 9, 2013 |

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.