Family Ties

Something bizarre happened to me when I watched Survivor last week. I became encompassed by a phenomenon known to plague obtuse dramas, something notorious for making me roll my eyes like a teenager being subjected to a parental lecture about responsibility, something that ordinarily would seem incompatible with reality TV.

This season premiere of Survivor felt on the nose to me.

Now I suppose there is always an air of this quality to Survivor. Unlike a show like Big Brother, Survivor is edited after they film the season. This consequently affords the editors the opportunity to compile a coherent arc to individual episodes as well as the season. But what I saw Wednesday night was beyond the pale. The mechanics of the show became too transparent.

We all know the premise of Blood vs. Water: Veteran players are returning to the game to compete against a tribe of their loved ones. In case we have forgotten that premise, CBS has made sure to remind us every minute. Throughout the hour, we are bludgeoned with a litany of self-referential statements and cute family metaphors. No one is ever simply lagging behind in a competition; they are “getting shown up by their loved ones.” When Galang annihilates Tadhana in the puzzle portion of an immunity challenge, I have to listen to Jeff say things like “Two mothers are schooling their daughters right now.”[1]

The problem isn’t that these lines are lame (although they kind of are,) it’s that they sound blatantly expository.

But it isn’t just Jeff Probst hammering this concept; the contestants are in on in too. Laura, from Samoa, actually paraphrases an old Bill Cosby zinger. “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out,” she says in reference to her daughter. We also have Brad, who—after Gervase hilariously taunts the newbies post-challenge—takes umbrage not so much with Gervase’s bravado but the recipient of his bravado: his niece's tribe. “I don’t want to gloat over them because they are losing a loved one,” he says disapprovingly.

Now this is getting at a larger concern: Some contestants seem shackled by an altruistic deference to family. In a moment of startling honesty (read: naiveté,) Brad (“Way to go Brad!”) offhandedly remarks in front of everyone that a part of him might consider throwing certain competitions to his wife, Monica. Similarly, Rupert sacrifices his game for his wife after she is voted out Jodi-style. In the words of Gervase, “I wanted to play with Rubert. I didn’t want to play with Laura.” Unfortunately, it looks like we’re stuck with neither of them: Some of the contestants’ individual identities have been subsumed by their relationship identities.[2]

I know this intersection of Survivor and family is the point of this season, but it’s kind of infuriating right now. What I’m hoping to see is the juncture at which these familial feelings start to erode, when these people get focused in the stakes of their own game.[3] I want more people acting like Gervase. I want brazen celebrations after competitions, not crying. I want backstabs. I want Survivor.

But it’s still way too early to write this season off. I can hear Gervase now: “Don’t let that fool you! Don’t let that fool you!”

I hope you’re right, Gervase.


You Are What You Is

There is one thing in particular (besides Gervase) that gives me hope for this season: Colton. No I’m not talking about the lovely lilt of his voice when he reads Tree Mail. I’m talking about drama!

He seems contrite for the appalling way he treated people on One World, and there appears to be a hope that he could possibly redeem himself. “If he’s changed, wouldn’t that be a beautiful story?” ponders Monica. And at first glance, things look decent. He is making a concerted effort to endear himself to the rest of his tribe, telling them about how he was ostracized for being gay, how people in his own family have repudiated him.

But the cracks are already beginning to show in his façade. During the first stretch of the immunity challenge, Kat starts chastising him for not working hard enough. “Paddle strong, Colton!” she jeers. Colton eventually just freaks out and screams directly in Kat’s face, threatening to hit her with his paddle. “Oh hell, no!” replies Kat.

Oh hell, yes!


[1] I don’t want to be too rough on Jeff; he still throws some vintage shit talking into the mix: “Gervase can barely get up—and then a horrible belly flop.” 

[2] I will give kudos to John who chose to not sacrifice himself for Candice, because she probably has a “better chance” at beating Rupert on Redemption Island than he does. It is a flimsy rationale, but I like his gumption.

[3] Admittedly, I would imagine that the producers want this too. I’m sure they are crossing their fingers for some epic familial betrayal.