1) If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you know that that I’ve been venting quite a lot of vitriol at Burnett, Probst, and the Survivor casting process.
I’ll admit that some of this is due to personal frustration – SEG and CBS aren’t casting the type of players I prefer, and they’ve steadfastly ignored my own attempts to ping on their radar – and when my invective was getting particularly bitter over the last couple of weeks, I worried that I was letting my own disappointments cloud my judgment. So I took some time to reflect on a fair and honest question which many of you have asked me: Why, you inquired, am I so angry about a TV show?
The answer may surprise you.
Before I dive in, let me say this: the process of finding my answer has been a cathartic one. I am no longer seething with impotent rage nor seeking to pillory the producers for their crimes. I have discovered, in the end, that my outrage isn’t fueled by what Survivor says about the people who create it, cast it, and play it – but what it says about us.
My journey to clarity begins, strangely enough, in London during the 1600’s…
2) While I was doing research for a film project well over a decade ago, I learned that the word “bedlam” is derived from Bethlem Royal Hospital, which was the first institution in Europe to focus exclusively on mental illnesses.
As you might imagine – given that bedlam means chaos and confusion – the level of empathy and understanding the medical staff had for the patients was morally and ethically reprehensible. Indeed, what occurred within the walls of Bedlam led to significant reform in the 1800’s.
The most notorious facet of Bedlam’s befouled history – and what struck me so profoundly that it still troubles me to this day – is that the Governors of the hospital allowed public visitors, people with no connection to the patients, to come and witness their insanity. It was a circus, a carnival, a zoo, with “lunatics” as the main, and only, attraction. People from all walks of life paid, and paid well, to watch others suffer.
If you agree that lining up to watch mentally troubled people struggle with their maladies is inhumane and cruel – and I truly hope you do – then I have a hard question to ask you:
Are you looking forward to Brandon’s meltdown on Wednesday night’s episode?
3) If you watched the “Next Week on Survivor” preview last Wednesday, or you’ve seen any of the commercials on CBS over the last few days, you know that Brandon – fracturing under the pressures of the game – loses his composure and takes out his emotionally turbulent frustration on the camp and everyone in it.
It’s hard to tell if Brandon is truly being overwhelmed by his psyche or if he’s playing to the cameras – I would guess that both are true – but one conclusion is inevitable: the producers feel that Brandon’s eruption is drama worth promoting, that this is an event worth televising. Sadly, I think many, if not most, viewers agree with them.
At risk of sounding self-congratulatory, here’s something I said during the Caramoan pre-season roundtable discussion of the Favorites tribe: “Truth be told, I think it’s staggeringly irresponsible for CBS and Mark Burnett to send Brandon back out there; if Erik’s narrative arc is a redemptive one, Brandon’s is exploitative: He’s part of the Caramoan cast not because he’s good at the game, and not because he’s a particularly likable character, but because the odds are astronomically high that he’s going to have a meltdown on national television.”
To be clear, I share this not to pat myself on the back for an accurate prediction – I don’t care about the random confluence of speculative analysis and actual occurrence – but to point out how inevitable this incident and episode were. Unless Brandon had the same sort of magic carpet ride to the Final 5 as he did in South Pacific, he was going to find himself with his back against the wall, at which point he would feel compelled to do two things: one, go on the offensive, and two, make it memorable. We’ve seen this mentality manifest a few times already, from his verbal assault on Dawn and Cochran after Francesca’s ouster, to his public and private declarations of revenge (including, but hardly limited to, burning down the camp and peeing in the rice), to this latest outburst.
In my life, I do my best to differentiate between actions and intent; I don’t demonize behavior – what any of us does has been done before and will be done again – but I do question motives. So when it comes to this Brandon mess, I find myself focusing not on his assault on the tribe, but why it happened in the first place. What I see – and the conclusions I reach – are what I feel made me mad before I took the time to really think things through.
Here it is in a nutshell: Brandon losing his mind is EXACTLY what Burnett, Probst, and CBS wanted to happen.
4) Rumor has it that Brandon failed his pre-season psychological evaluation, and I’ve heard that castaways are denied access to the medications they take for mental disorders while they’re playing the game.
I don’t know if either of these troubling accusations are true, but if they are, then everyone involved is at best complicit in the emotional deterioration of a damaged individual. At worst, they’re knowingly putting a ticking time bomb in the middle the Favorites camp.
Let’s assume, though, that the producers et al aren’t this negligent and inhumane; certainly, the doctors and lawyers SEG have on retainer would tell them not to be so staggeringly stupid. Even if the evaluators were cautiously optimistic that Brandon was ready for a month and a half of deprivation and pressure, though, given how Brandon reacted to the stress of the game the first time around – before and after he was voted out, as well as when he returned to his real life – the decision to bring him back was obviously unwise, wasn’t it? They had to know that he wouldn’t react well when forces aligned against him, didn’t they?
As Probst himself admitted in his interview with Chuck Klosterman, the producers know EVERYTHING about a player before the game begins. He has also said in interviews that they cast for conflict, because antagonistic drama makes for good television. They not only want players to be at each other’s throats; they feel they NEED it.
So let’s look at the scenario the producers crafted: they took someone they knew was mentally unstable, put him in a highly stressful environment, and then added in confrontational catalysts (if Phillip didn’t get the job done, Shamar would). Is there ANY way that the bomb doesn’t go off over the course of 39 days? The answer, obviously, is no.
Like the Governors of Bedlam, who earned a small fortune from those who paid to see the inmates, the producers of Survivor put Brandon on Fans vs. Favorites 2 so that we could witness his inevitable meltdown. Insanity as entertainment. Money for madness.
Yet here we are, looking forward to Wednesday night.
We should be appalled – but instead, we applaud.
So what does that say about us?
The process of thinking about, planning, and writing the above essay has me racing my deadline, which leaves me with far less time than I’d like to talk about the troubling significance of other questionable casting choices, never mind the actual gameplay that took place last week. I’ll do my best, then, to introduce a few ideas – which, if you want a more detailed exploration, I’ll write about in future columns – and then wrap up with a few thoughts about the current castaways. I understand if you’re disappointed that this isn’t a typical Baker’s Dozen, but before you tear me apart in the comments section, please know this: If I hadn’t written the first part of this column, I might never have written about Survivor again.
5) While the casting of Brandon is the most overt example of exploitation, Phillip’s presence on Survivor: Caramoan is equally appalling:
The Specialist and his eccentricities are being televised for a second time because there are viewers who find it amusing, and because the producers are eager to cater to that segment of the their audience. I find it rather telling that fans of the show complain that Phillip is a camera hog, when what should really trouble us is that he’s got a camera to hog in the first place. We shouldn’t hope for his elimination so that the other Favorites get more screen time; we should wonder why Burnett and Probst extended him the invitation to return at all.
6) One of the concepts one learns about in grad school – at least in a Humanities program like English Literature – is “The Voice of the Other.”
The quick summation is this: Those in power choose who shapes public discourse. Unsurprisingly, white men have, until recently, been the prevailing voices in America, leaving other populations (women, African-Americans, LGBT) marginalized, seeking and striving to be heard.
So what does that have to do with Survivor?
Sadly, quite a lot.
Three African-Americans were selected for this season: Phillip (who is being edited, once again, as an object of ridicule), Francesca (who was there for only one reason: to antagonize Phillip), and Shamar (who, given that his claim to fame was confronting 30 cops in New York, wasn’t picked for his diplomatic skills). Despite taking a fair bit of criticism for being racially insensitive, Survivor continues to cast unflattering African-American “characters” rather than players. Obviously, this is a topic which demands a more extensive examination – and I imagine scholars far more intelligent than I have already looked at it – but I broach the topic right now for this reason: Burnett and Probst aren’t just asking us to be amused by insanity, they’re also inviting us to be entertained by insidious stereotypes.
As fellow RHAP blogger Sarah Freeman has pointed out in her column, the same goes for the depiction of female players, who are pigeonholed into predictable – and alarmingly reductive – roles (mother, bitch, temptress). One need look no further than Probst’s own public declaration that there aren’t enough great female Survivor players to understand that his opinions about “The Voice of the Other” is deeply entrenched. The problem isn’t how women play the game; the problem is how they’re selected and how they’re edited – which is all about how they’re perceived by producers.
7) It’s also worth mentioning that two seasons ago, Survivor cast a little person for the first time.
On the surface, this was an admirable decision – indeed, Leif embraced the opportunity to represent his community – but when you look at Leif as a player, it’s clear that he was picked not because he was a contender, but because he was promotable stunt casting. It was obvious from the outset that Leif wasn’t equipped to play the game, and his depiction on the show was largely reduced to his exuberant celebration at challenges. In retrospect, this is all rather despicable, don’t you think?
8) Speaking of Leif, there is another group that the Survivor brain-trust parades around for our enjoyment: Unintelligent players.
In his interview with Klosterman, Probst made a comment that there were two players in a recent season whose IQ’s were so low that it was having a negative impact on the game. While Probst did not name names, the general consensus among Survivor SuperFans was that he was referring to One World, and that the players in question were Leif and one of the women (Kat, Alicia, and Christina were the leading candidates). If these unnamed players had, as Probst said, IQ’s so low he worried how they would function in life, why were they cast in the first place? What other agendas did they serve, what other quotas did they fill?
I think if we were to get Probst’s complete and honest answer, he’d admit that they want to cast people who are “mockably dumb” but whose lack of intelligence wouldn’t make the season boring. And that’s a rather reprehensible outlook on human nature, isn’t it? That he knows that we want this and that he’s eager to provide it?
I understand that the question of what’s funny – and the related issue of cultural taboos – is open to a wide range of interpretations. Many of you no doubt believe at this point that I have a massive stick lodged in my colon and need to pull it out so that I can laugh along with the rest of you, but trust me when I say that I have a pretty solid sense of humor. My goal here is not to question comedy, but to point out that Survivor is exploiting pretty much every dramatic and comedic trope they can – and to ask if this is an appropriate approach to take when real people are involved.
9) Rather than bore you with sociological concepts like cultural stagnation and the influence of the colonizer on the colonized, I will instead invite you to compare the reward challenge visit of Dah during Survivor’s ninth season in Vanuatu to that of Tata in last week’s episode.
Dah was all business, teaching the members of Yasur how to live off the land and helping them improve their camp life.
Three-quarters of Tata’s visit, on the other hand, focused on his interactions with the scantily clad women of Bikal.
Dah was afforded respect and depicted with dignity. Tata, meanwhile, was a caricature whose stature and speech patterns earned him the nickname “Gollum.”
When did it become okay to mock a bushman this way?
I think it’s safe to say that something has gone horribly awry with how Survivor portrays the citizens of its host country over the past 17 seasons.
10) One of the rules I adhere to in life is that I can’t complain and criticize without offering an alternative or solution.
Given what I’ve written so far, if I heed my own rule, I certainly can’t close this column without making a few suggestions. As luck would have it, reader Erik Landry asked me (in the comments section of Glenn Holford’s thought-provoking essay, “What’s Wrong With Idols?”) what I would change about Survivor, and how I would like to see it evolve. Here’s what I wrote in response:
I’d like to see:
Survivor cast people who know what they're doing (be like Jeopardy and have a test – Survivor likes to point out that it's a game show, so embrace that truth).
Limit returning players to seasons where they play against one another – they have too much of an advantage against newbies.
Stop asking us to laugh at stupidity, mental instability, and any other exploitable group.
Go back to a F2 to permit more endgame strategizing.
Stop shaping seasons with a preferable end goal in mind and just trust the game.
In the end, what I think I really want is for Survivor to get back to its origins: take a bunch of strangers, put ‘em on an island, and let them play the game.
What Survivor has done over the years is succumb to the execrable excesses of reality television as a genre. But Survivor is better than that. In fact, I think it’s a testament to the brilliance of the game that it has withstood every effort to undermine and obfuscate its fundamental soundness as a social game. Survivor continues to thrive – to the tune of ten million viewers a week – not because of the changes the producers have made over the years, but in spite of them.
One wonders how much longer this will be the case.
For those of you waiting patiently for me to get down off my high horse, I will do so now.
But it’s likely that I will ride again soon.
11) Fortunes rising: Sherri.
Wait – what? Didn’t Sherri lose TWO members of her alliance last episode? Isn’t she now heading into a tribe swap and the merge at a significant numbers disadvantage? Isn’t she doomed to be nothing more than a pawn being pushed around by Favorite strategists?
Yep, yep, and yep – and it’s the best thing that could have happened to her.
If she’s smart – and I think she is – Sherri will no longer have any illusions that she can control the game while there are returning players around.
Sherri’s going to flip to the Favorites and convince everyone that she’s an ever-so-useful pawn – and they won’t even think of getting rid of her until F7 at the earliest.
And if the Favorites aren’t careful, this pawn could become a queen.
12) Fortunes falling: Andrea, Phillip, Corinne, and Malcolm.
Rice can be replaced. Chairs can be repaired. Shelter can be rebuilt. The most lasting damage Brandon is going to do on his way out isn’t physical; despite the tears and hugs in the promos, it won’t be emotional, either. It will be strategic.
You want to know why Phillip tells Brandon, “You need to shut up” in the most recent commercials? Because Brandon is going to out the secret agenda of Stealth-R-Us. He’s going to let Corinne know that Andrea and Phillip were targeting her, and that the other members of her alliance were all on board with the plan. And he’s going to do this at a time when the Fans can hear it all.
Once Brandon exposes the betrayal, the Favorites will have no choice: they’ll have to follow through on the plan to eliminate Corinne, because she will have no reason to be loyal to any of them. Malcolm, too, will be on the defensive for the remainder of his time in the game, and his idol will only be able to save him once. Despite not even making the merge, Brandon is going to help determine who wins the game as he salts the earth on his way out.
Remember the conversation when Andrea told Brandon that Corinne was Stealth-R-Us’ next target?
That was the moment when Andrea, Phillip, Corinne, and Malcolm lost the game.
13) Prediction time: I see no reason to overthink this: Brandon’s going home.
Probst, Burnett, CBS and SEG are all getting exactly what they wanted when they invited Brandon to return: a memorable meltdown. They think this is exceptional television –
– but I think it’s Bedlam.
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – if you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!
Andy Baker is a Survivor blogger who wants nothing more than to get a back rub from Jeff Probst the next time he's thinking about quitting his column. Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius