Is it just us, or is Survivor: San Juan del Sur going south?
It's not just us: Andy Dehnart of Reality Blurred this week addressed a topic people are starting to mutter about openly: "There's something off about this season of Survivor." Andy offered several possible reasons why the season seems not to be clicking. To be sure, this season still has considerable depths to plumb to reach One World levels of awfulness. It's been adequate so far. But a lot of its inadequacies thus far seem to be entirely self-inflicted, so at the risk of piling on too early, suffice it to say we agree with Andy's thesis, and here offer a few observations of our own.
It's all about the losing
Andy touched on this, but Exile Island and its attendant duels, or "hero challenges," or whatever Probst wants to call them, are major, tone-establishing downers. Combined with Probst's insatiable need to wring every possible tear out of every loved one at every opportunity, the opening half of the show is all about suffering. And not organic suffering, as might come from watching 18 people struggling against the elements to survive, but plastic, artificial suffering, wholly manufactured and manipulated by production.
Every show now opens with a loved one vs. loved one Exile Island duel, a move that pre-season Probst seemed convinced was the greatest idea, ever. We'll allow that his intentions were good -- everyone was expecting the much-loathed Redemption Island, and this thankfully avoids that, while theoretically locking in and guaranteeing some of the more dramatic duels from Blood vs. Water, in which loved ones battled each other. (Never mind that he switched it up just to surprise the contestants, not because he recognizes the pointless awfulness of Redemption Island.) And in theory, it seemed like a good move. In practice, however, it's painful to watch. First, duels are far less exciting to watch than regular, tribe-vs-tribe challenges. There are simply a lot more chances for surprises and twist endings when more than two people are involved in the action. Second, while the winner gets a reward, they're immediately punished by having to exile their loved one, AND send someone from their own tribe there with them. Third, this week, the winner didn't even get the reward, again thanks to the heavy hand of Probst. The same hand that lingers on the shoulder of the "winner," as the Probst asks, incessantly, "How does this make you FEEL?" It makes me sad, Probst! What did you think? It's depressing! Get away from me, you lachrymal vampire! The same hand that continually interrupted this week's immunity challenge, to make sure the audience understood how deeply pained everyone was to watch their loved one win/lose/get whacked in the face. Again, the answer has been and always will be: "It hurts."
And that's the problem with this season. There is no winning, only losing. In the original Blood vs. Water season, the inherent conflict between playing an individual game like Survivor, and having to play it against one's loved one generated a series of interesting, unexpected discoveries, all occuring naturally, as the contestants explored the possibilities of the new format. All of a sudden, Gervase's post-challenge celebrations had repercussions for his niece on the other tribe, or Tyson's girlfriend was booted as a strategic ploy, to try to get him to swap out for her at a duel, which would weaken the other tribe. Not to mention that just-booted players arriving at their first duel took it upon themselves to blow up the internal politics of the tribe that voted them out, in front of their loved ones. In contrast, here, production has front-loaded as much loved-one-on-loved-one action as possible into the season, with Probst furiously mashing away on as many emotional buttons as he can. And despite all that, it's not really working. Sure, loved ones battle loved ones, but losing isn't really all that bad, and winning certainly isn't all that good. It all blends down into an unremarkable slurry of non-victory, with a heavy emphasis on loss. Despite Probst's constant hand-on-the-shoulder moments.
Too many non-players/ too few active players
It's difficult to discern whether this is necessarily a problem with the casting, or with the editing. We suspect it's a little bit of both. We worried pre-season that, while having Blood vs. Water format with all newbies was good in theory, in practice, it might result in a lot of pairs where one person was a strong Survivor player, while their partner was a mere tagalong with minimal understanding of or aptitude for the game. And in the worst-case scenario, the actual players get taken out early, and the tagalongs - people who normally wouldn't make the cut for the show - are left to stumble through the rest of the season. It's still early, but we're now worried that this could in fact be happening before our very eyes. There is, by our count, a grand total of two strategists left on this season: Jeremy on Hunahpu, and Josh on Coyopa. (To be fair, Hunahpu hasn't had to attend Tribal Council, so someone like Reed or Jon or maybe even Julie could still step forward. Also, Coyopa's Dale did manage to save himself last week, but he disappeared entirely from the game talk this week.) Contrast that to the cascade of competing strategic moves that took place at Cagayan's merge: Sarah trying to play both sides, Tony and LJ playing idols for each other, Tasha calling an audible at Tribal to switch to her alliance's safer boot target (Jefra) and trump idols, all rendered pointless by Kass flipping. And that leaves out Spencer! It seems unlikely we'll see something that exciting this season.
Sure, the women started off with a 10-8 numbers disadvantage (thanks to the pre-game medevacs), and after two episodes it's now down to 10-6. So it's partly bad luck that the season now has Jeff Probst's dream ratios, but it's still a major problem that this season lacks any major female characters, especially now that Val is gone. We did very briefly also have the Twinnies, but even there, something was amiss. Nadiya and Natalie were over-the-top personalities on Amazing Race. In the hands of Survivor's editors? Almost-mute bystanders, as the game progresses around them. Natalie got some screen time this week, but only to cry about Nadiya's departure (and to pass the kiss of death over to Val, by telling Jeremy she's tough). Excluding those three, quick: Name three female characters. There's Baylor, who has thus far followed Josh's lead, but is at least playing. There's Julie, who is John Rocker's Girlfriend (who beat him in a duel). And... that's it. Kelley and Jaclyn have had maybe two confessionals between them... even though their (second!) matchup decided this week's immunity challenge. Did Jaclyn really have nothing to say whatsoever about losing the IC, potentially endangering herself? Missy does speak occasionally, but only to remind the audience she's Baylor's mom.
In contrast, the men have Josh the Broadway actor/mastermind, John Rocker the Neandertal, heroic Jon with the ailing dad, glasses-smashing Twinnie-slayer Dale, amiable yokel Keith, Jeremy the firefighter/mastermind, and Drew the airhead model. Why this disparity? We have no idea. Maybe the men entirely dominate the post-merge, and the editors don't want us to get too attached to contestants who disappear quickly. Could casting's traditional quota requiring half the female contestants to be young, pretty women (which usually translates as women who look great in bikinis, but bring little else to the screen) have mysteriously backfired? Or maybe, could it (also) be that Survivor just can't be bothered to develop women as characters? Were it not for Nadiya's (oops, Natalie's) crying-in-camp scene this week, would this season even pass the Bechdel test?
Too much John Rocker
The initial read here would be that this guy has not been the epic disaster everyone was expecting. As soon as news of his casting leaked, howls of (well-earned) scorn erupted from Survivor's online fans, because giving such an objectionable person a platform made the show look weak and desperate. Why would a show, coming off one its best seasons ever, knowingly cast a person who in real life was notorious for espousing every hateful view certain members of the Big Brother 15 cast had been (justifiably) criticized for the previous summer? Furthermore, it seemed as if CBS was specifically endorsing such behavior, since the ugliness on BB15 could plausibly be considered "unexpected," whereas this was 100% intentional. But setting that aside, John Rocker was cast to do two things: Be a huge physical asset in challenges, and be an outspoken jackass, with the former asset precluding his tribe from punishing him for the latter liabilty. What's the problem? It's that he's done neither, and in that sense, he has been a massive mistake, after all.
In camp, Rocker has been welcoming and well-behaved. He's also trying to play a straight-up game: sticking with an alliance, keeping true to his word. Basically, the opposite of any recent Survivor villain. You might even say he's been boring. While doing all this, he has also been accidentally successful: due to a fluke of medevacs, he landed immediately in a male-majority alliance, so he hasn't really had to play. This episode, everything went wrong: he lost a duel, picked the wrong urn, but he still ended up with access to an idol clue that led him directly to Coyopa's hidden idol. So now the show is left with a giant, hulking dud, sitting comfortably in his tribe's majority alliance, with additional protection, making no moves, keeping his mouth shut, and when he does try to do anything, failing. Worse yet, the edit seems to be hinting at an upcoming martyr moment: Because John (highly ineffectively) tried to "protect" Val this week, Jeremy and Hunahpu's apparent anger at her ouster will be viewed as unjustified, making John Rocker, the rageoholic, gay-bashing xenophobe who was lazily, cravenly cast to be a villain, is now... the victim. Not only that, the show has had to expend so much editorial effort in showing off their lumbering stunt casting star, they've had precious little time to spend on the rest of the cast. Rocker has had such a gigantic presence in the first two episodes, his gravitational pull has sucked much of the life-giving atmosphere from the rest of the show. Great job all around, CBS.
Lazy, melodrama-focused editing
We've already complained about gender inequity and celebrity black holes with respect to editing, but there's still one more problem: The editors don't seem to care much about making the boot a surprise. In the first episode, the gender arithmetic giving Coyopa's men a majority was fairly obvious, and apart from Josh's throwaway vote for Baylor, there was little mystery that Nadiya would end up short of the votes she needed to stick around over Dale. But at least the editors made a middling attempt to portray Dale as plausibly in danger, so it wasn't out of the question. Not so this episode, in which Val and Baylor ended up in a tie vote, but Baylor didn't have a single confessional after the opening scene, and while her name came up in boot discussions, it was only as the other person in the vote split. A vote split designed to flush an idol that the audience knew didn't exist. True, Rocker told Val about the split, so it could have been a 5-3 Baylor loss, had Josh not figured out something was up, and switched his vote to Val, forcing an actual tie. But the absolute absence of editing groundwork showing Baylor as actually in trouble left little doubt who would end up going home. The only other plausible boot target was Jon (for possibly losing the flint), and he was on the other tribe.
Instead of strategy or suspense, the editors this season seem to be going all in on melodrama (with most of the mustache twirling thus far, ironically, coming from Probst instead of Rocker). Someone tears up thinking of their loved one? We'll make room for that! Are the dudes at Hunahpu lifting again? Let's show it! Dale, is it hard watching your daughter beat your team? Let's dwell on that for a while! Someone spends five minutes looking for an idol that's skillfully concealed beneath a leaf? Let's show the entire search! But whoa, now we have to create a decoy boot? There's no time! To be fair, with this group, it may that there's just not much strategy talk to be had. But even so, editors: Please try.
San Juan del Sur Episode 2 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Val Collins