Monday, December 21, 2009

Survivor: Samoa: Reactions

For all the legitimately good television I watch (Lost, House, The Office, and then some), I think I deserve a guilty pleasure show or two; Survivor has filled that role for the past ten years. Some of the past nineteen seasons have fallen flat, being totally unmemorable and lacking both character and interesting characters. The past two seasons, though, have failed to disappoint: we had the blatant psychosis of Coach last season, and the unprecedented malice of Russell this season.

At first, I thought this season would be doomed, mostly because of how evil Russell appeared at first. As the season wore on, though, Russell became less the bully and more the champion of an underdog tribe. As his tactical moves shifted from burning his own teammate's socks to finding hidden idols without the benefit of clues, though, I grew to respect Russell as one of the greatest players ever to have played the game--and I wasn't alone. Russell's epithet on CBS's promotions morphed from "evil genius" to "fan favorite".

Russell's goal and purpose for being in the game was simple: "I don't need the money. All I'm here to do is show people just how easy it is to win this game." Clearly, he had the skills to do that.

Just how great a player was Russell? His people were at a 4-8 disadvantage coming to the merge, and they ended up eliminating all 8 of the other team, suffering only a single casualty at the very end. In a game where hidden immunity idols seem to leave the game unplayed more often than they're actually used, Russell keyed on the exactly correct moment to play his and swing momentum irreversibly to his side. He made alliances with the right people at the right times, and he knew exactly when to cut off those alliances to maintain his superior strategic position.

And for all that apparent mastery of the game, Russell did not win. The one thing that Russell failed to account for in his grand strategy was the temperament of the jury, which is the greatest variable of all in Survivor. The way I see it, there are two types of juries that can emerge. The first is the bitter emotional jury, which votes against you because you had a hand in voting them out; the second is the detached intellectual jury, which votes for you because you had a hand in voting them out. The first rewards integrity, possibly at the expense of allowing a less-skilled player to win, while the second rewards game mastery, possibly at the expense of allowing a devious player to win.

What sort of jury America wants is not consistent from season to season. Sometimes we root for the honorable guy, sometimes we want the evil genius to win. We're unpredictable. And so is the jury. There is literally no way to know what sort of mentality those nine people are going to have when they cast their votes. Therefore, I argue that it's in no way Russell's fault that he didn't win the game. As Jeff Probst is so fond of saying, he went as far as he could go in the game.

Instead, the mostly undeserving (but quite pretty, once she'd put on about fifteen pounds and washed her hair) Natalie won, apparently on the strength of her "social game". But Russell played a hell of a social game too, in that his entire strategy revolved around the manipulation of people. In fact, the only person who made it to finale night who hadn't played an entirely social game was Brett, who made it to the finale on success in challenges alone. In Survivor-land, though, "social" does not exactly mean "involving other people".

No, in the odd vernacular of Survivor, "social" more closely means "having people like you". So, yes, Natalie did play a better "social game" in that fewer people hated her than hated Russell. By that same logic, then Shambo's chickens should have had a decent shot of winning too, and the Samoan fire jugglers should have been a lock.

The only reason I say that Natalie is "mostly" rather than "wholly" undeserving is that alliances are necessarily a two-way street. Natalie needed the protection of Russell to remain in the game as long as she did, but then again, Russell needed Natalie's loyalty and guaranteed vote every week in order to manipulate each tribal council.

But the thing is, while the finale might have left me and a a majority of viewers with a bad taste in the mouth, it couldn't retroactively doom the rest of the season. Credit to Russell--and casting at CBS--for making this one of the most memorable seasons yet.

(And by the way, "Heroes Versus Villains" sounds like the lamest concept yet for a season of Survivor. Good luck making that watchable.)

Currently listening: "Ambulance" (which is VERY VERY GOOD), Eisley, from Fire Kite EP

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