Rick Devens was a prinicipal character through much of this episode; he was a 6-to-1 underdog, everyone's #1 target, Dead Man Walking, and so on. He started the episode seemingly duped by a fake idol from Ron, somehow managed to scale a tree and retrieve a real idol in the middle of the night, then put on a fireworks show at Tribal Council, exposing Ron's fake idol ruse, and saving himself by playing his actual idol. (Then Ron was voted out, by people not named Rick Devens.)
Yet Rick's performance this season has really divided Survivor fans. Part of this is simple regression to the mean: Whenever someone gets too popular (for too long), a backlash almost always follows, and their overall approval rating ends up trending more towards the middle.
Deeply involved in that, however, is a catch-22 in the show's editing: If a character is entertaining, there's a strong incentive to showcase that contestant more often, because the editors are trying to present an enjoyable TV product. But when that happens, fans begin to tire of always seeing that character, and complain that others are relatively hidden. And heaven forfend the fun character manages to escape some trouble, because then they receive an even bigger role in the edit, because everyone loves to see an underdog succeed. Except, of course, the Survivor fans who seethe at the character's continued overexposure. Especially if they make a strategic error: "OMG! Why are they showing *this* guy? (It's often a guy.) He's not even the best player! This had better not be because he wins! Argh!"
In truth, there is no winning here. Player is fun to watch, they get shown more, fans get tired of seeing that character, repeat. It's happened before with many big characters: Boston Rob Mariano, Rupert Boneham, Russell Hantz, John Cochran, and so on. Even last season's mega-popular player, Christian Hubicki, one of the most universally-liked players in Survivor history, started to face the first hints of fan resentment as his time on the show was extended by idol plays and an immunity win.
So it's not surprising that Rick is now a divisive character. That's not to say there aren't legitimate reasons to not be completely enamored with the Rick Devens Show. He's a larger-than-life guy, and his gameplay has, at times, been less than perfect. He was voted out once. He responded too emotionally when Wardog offered him an olive branch in the early post-merge. His aggressive, over-the-top, dramatic flourishes at Tribal Council may not be everyone's cup of tea. His "confessional delivered in Breaking News style" joke is funny once, but might get grating with repetition. Even with great content, too much can start to wear thin after a while. It's natural.
Another significant portion of the fan hostility to Rick rests on the (probably misplaced) perception that the producers must be helping him. After all, he was literally given a free (half-) idol, right there in his bag, after he returned to the game at the merge. Later, when Rick needed an immunity win to stay in the game, lo and behold, David Wright found an IC advantage on the Edge, sent it to him, and it worked! Then, when nobody had even mentioned looking for idols after Kelley's idol left the game with her, suddenly Rick finds one, right when he announces he needs it.
This is not, however, evidence that production actually *is* playing favorites and helping Rick. It's most likely just coincidence. For example: When Burton and Lill returned from being Outcasts in Pearl Islands, they were given full-fledged single-use immunity (idols did not yet exist). So not only was help expected, but Rick's half-idol was less powerful. Similarly, challenge advantages (as Malcolm and Wendell have amply demonstrated with theirs) don't always work. Six of the nine participants in the "Paddle Out" challenge were unable to place even one ball, whereas Rick, even with his advantage, still had to place four in order to win. He was also the first to complete that task, his two closest competitors had only reached three. He might well have won without an advantage, and there's no reason to expect the advantage would have paid off.
What the hullabaloo does show is this: Survivor learned absolutely nothing from a highly vocal fan backlash when Ben Driebergen — like Rick, a colorful character who had been fairly popular among fans until he found himself on the ropes — used a string of miraculous "Ben bomb" idol plays to reach the finals and win in Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers.
There's an obvious way to defuse the semi-annual complaint that producers are helping Contestant X by giving them idols: Just show people looking, but not finding them. If every time someone announces "I really need that idol" they find one, it's easy to see how an audience might suspect foul play there. All that was needed here was footage of just one person (Lauren would make logical sense, since she knew Kelley had left holding an idol) fruitlessly looking last week. They didn't. Maybe even show Rick himself looking last week! These things almost certainly happened, but because unsuccessful idol hunts are rarely shown, it probably didn't occur to anyone to include such footage. Instead we get to this episode, the audience sees that an idol is needed ... and one appears. Just as with Ben.
The frustrating thing is, the past two seasons (i.e. since Ben's endgame run), fruitless idol hunts have been shown. Angelina and Alison in the first episode, and later the Davids as a group, both hunted in vain in David vs. Goliath. Unsuccessful searches were also visible in Ghost Island (the poor Malolos, usually). It seemed that maybe the show had figured out this problem, and responded. Clearly that is not the case, at least not any more.
Another part of the hostility to Rick is that he already returned from the Edge of Extinction once. This is shown as evidence (along with Rick's six times not voting for the person booted) that he's not playing a good game. He's certainly made strategic mis-steps since returning, but it's not really Rick's fault that the twist is dumb and unpopular, and rarely works out well for the post-merge returnee. Rick returned to an environment where Kama was still strong, where the Lesus who voted him out were also still tight, and thus he had few options available to maneuver. He and David did connect with Julie and Ron temporarily, but then those two flipped back to their Kama numbers, and they were left high and dry. It's not surprising that the game has unfolded in such a way that Rick's only real path to the end is stringing together immunity wins and/or idol finds. Part of the reason nobody wants to work with him is: He has a great story as the guy who came back from the Edge. Plus the jurors all like him, because they're on the Edge, just like he was! Aurora said it best: They love him, but he's got to go.
True, Rick did celebrate a bit too much after the votes with Ron's name starting popping up at Tribal (votes he probably didn't know were coming). He was a bit too enthusiastic in skewering poor Julie as someone who "loves to tell lies," especially when we, as the audience, knew that she had expressed her extreme discomfort with the fake advantage tactic to Ron. (Rick didn't know this.) These are missteps and over-reaches, and he'll probably have to answer for them. Again, he's not a perfect player.
But let's not cancel Rick just yet. If we can marvel at Joe Anglim's challenge prowess in isolation, we should also take a moment to acknowledge Rick's atypical strong suit, one that's extremely useful in winning Survivor, although perhaps not this early in the game: Manipulating the jury. Let's appreciate the absolute masterpiece Rick pulled off at Tribal Council this week (presented below, with pictures):
We begin with Probst's traditional call for idols. "...now would be the time to do so." Ron nods to Rick that he should play that fake advantage menu. Votes are coming, wink wink.
Rick acts extremely hopeful, and hops up to hand over the advantage menu: "I want to see if I can order individual immunity ... or not." He looks over at the jury.
Then Probst relays the sad news (which Rick clearly must have suspected), "Unfortunately this advantage expired on Day 9."
As he walks back to his seat, Rick loudly calls out Ron (and Julie), complaining "I was already going home, and you just wanted to make me look stupid?" Ron and Julie exchange uncomfortable looks.
Rick then adds "So my kids think I'm an idiot?" This is the line that gets a huge reaction from the jury:
Even Wardog is shook. Fake idols have a downside. Who knew?
And ... cue the miraculous comeback.
Standing in the middle of the set, looking directly at the jury, Rick swings his arms out and proclaims: "Except ... you've proven time and time again that you're untrustworthy and disloyal." (Both of which Ron admitted to in confessional and to Lloyd at the loved one reward, for what it's worth.)
Rick then digs into his bag and pulls out the actual idol. Which he plays for himself.
Just look at the joy on the faces of the jurors at this dramatic reversal of fortune:
(Well, maybe Wardog is still a little shook. Or, as Ryan Kaiser speculated, secretly dead.)
This is classic Hero's Journey stuff. Just as all hope is lost, the hero transforms (pulls out a real idol) and strikes the winning blow against the villain. No wonder it went over so well.
(Well, okay, Rick saved himself, and then the deus ex machina of Victoria's plan to pile votes on Ron — via Gavin and Lauren — was what actually struck down the villain ... which would seem like unnecessary quibbling if Rick hadn't been quite so vociferous in celebrating Ron's downfall.)
Sure, strategically, this was probably both too much and too soon. Rick's post-vote-reveal theatrics were the Survivor version of a bat flip (even so: let the players play with emotion!), but his performance before that was the bigger problem for his game. Rick is now an even bigger threat because the other five players left all saw how the jury hung on Rick's every word, and celebrated with him. So now they're doubly, triply, quadruply sure they don't want Devens sitting next to them when they face the jury.
But wow, the man can craft a damn fine story.
Rick probably now has too big of a target to reach the end. Just as happened to his alliance partner/ mentor, David Wright, in Millennials vs. Gen X. That's fine.
But Rick is generally likable, has great comic timing, thinks on his feet spectacularly well, and knows the show. If Jeff Probst ever steps down as host, at least give that guy an interview as his replacement.
Then people can continue loving or hating him as they see fit.
Fake idols, R.I.P. (2007-2019?)
On the one hand, yes, Rick crossed the line a tad in his aggressively calling out Ron and Julie for their "lies" about the expired advantage menu. On the other hand, he's addressing something that's becoming more and more clear: People *really* feel betrayed when someone gives them a fake idol, especially when they play it at Tribal Council.
Their complaints make sense: Someone unwittingly playing a fake idol goes from having a renewed sense of hope, to having that dashed away at the last second, while simultaneously looking foolish, with additional embarrassment when it's done in front of the jury.
So: Have we just witnessed the death of the fake idol? It all seemed so fun when it was Yau-Man's coconut, or Ozzy's f***ing stick! Even alleged challenges-only player Joe Anglim (remember him?) constructed a beautiful, highly detailed one, once upon a time.
The only exception to the trend is Jay Starrett in Millennials vs. Gen X, and he found that fake idol (made by one David Wright, remember him?) near camp, it wasn't handed to him, which probably helped defuse the feeling that it was a direct attack. Also, Jay is clearly a unicorn when it comes to not taking things personally. The extra layers of betrayal here, with Ron presenting his expired advantage as a gesture of trust-building, then reinforcing that lie at the well before Tribal, then nodding to Rick at Tribal to play it — that all has to feel significantly more like a personal attack than simply stumbling over something in camp, and inaccurately believing you've won the idol lottery.
We saw a similar thing last season in David vs. Goliath. Late in the game, Angelina Keeley "hid" a fake idol for Alison Raybould to find. (Sort of, since Alison actually saw Angelina planting it.) It received little coverage on the show, Alison never believed it was real, but even that impotent act deeply hurt Alison's feelings. Part of the pain was that Alison had been a constant target, and really did get voted out there.
Rick's general air of anger at Tribal was partially acting, but it probably seemed authentic because it was rooted in truth: Being voted out in this way feels like an extra twist of the knife, something over and above your standard backstabbing.
Ron hand-delivering the menu to Rick (as an alleged gesture of goodwill, no less) was clearly a step too far. If Ron had just waited and "hidden" (poorly) the advantage near camp while Rick was out highly visibly searching for idols, it would have accomplished Ron's main goal of letting Rick feel safe enough to stop looking. Just put it in an obvious hole and keep everyone else in camp. Nobody else knew about the advantage menu, so Ron's hands would be clean. Assuming Rick actually finds it, of course.
This less-direct approach is probably the only way fake idols can continue in Survivor. They'd probably best work when aided by a hiding system where clues direct someone to a specific location (as with Rick's idol). But woe betide any future player who tries to pawn off a fake to someone else in person. (It's probably for the best that David never got around to planting a fake advantage, as he threatened to do in the pre-game.)
(Also, we regret criticizing Ron for not fully embracing his inner villain last week, only for him to go all in this week, get voted out, and then get yelled at for his efforts. There's just no winning in this game.)
The multi-round endurance challenge that wasn't (or was it?)
There was a lot going on this episode, but despite being a well-worn repeat challenge, this week's immunity challenge seemed hacked down to a shred of its full form. Maybe it was in the editing, maybe it was in live execution. Who knows?
The truncation started right away, as for the first time in memory, the camera jumped straight from challenge arrival to "immunity is back up for grabs," with no necklace handover. Clearly an edit, and obviously done in the interest of time — after all, they had Probst dragging out every second of the loved ones interactions AND a challenge AND a reward AND a two-part idol find, plus the usual IC and Tribal to get through. This decision is fine, the forced jokes in the necklace handover always elicit a cringe or two. Nobody missed it.
Odder, though, was the challenge itself: In past iterations, the contestants move from the largest (1 inch wide) footholds down to the smallest (half-inch, quarter-inch) ones, at regular intervals. This time, though, the part shown on TV started with everyone on the third set of rungs. Had they already completed two rounds, and that just wasn't shown, because nobody was eliminated? Or did they start there?
If it's the former, this editing choice really did Ron and Rick a disservice, by implying both dropped out almost immediately. Ron seemed to be in a lot of pain, so it can't have just been a few seconds. Also, after both were out, but long before anyone else fell, Probst gave a "21 minutes" audio time stamp.
Still, it's not really clear if they just edited out Rounds 1 & 2, because when the challenge ended, and Lauren finally fell at just past the 50-minute mark, she and Gavin were still on the third set of holds. Despite going another 30 minutes, they never moved down to the even-smaller fourth pair of holds. (Even more confusingly, all previous versions only had three sets of holds.)
Oh well, just another time-compacted casualty of this season, where you're pretty sure the editors aren't showing you everything, but you also have no idea what actually happened.
- Appreciating Aurora's play: The math of the various tie vote scenarios seems a bit opaque, but Aurora had a really clever idea to make sure her expiring extra vote was wielded by the one person guaranteed to not receive votes, which meant it would be used again in case of a revote. It's not clear how the vote would fall apart in the first place (Lauren, Victoria, Aurora x2 vote Ron; Rick, Ron, Julie, and ... Gavin vote Aurora, for a 4-4 tie?), but nobody had attempted to exploit the revote rule before, and it's solid thinking for future uses of the extra vote.
- It gets harder as you get deeper: It's good to see the show staying with its recent "late-game idols should require more effort to retrieve" trend. Gone are the days when a Malcolm or an Adam can just walk along a path and plucks an idol directly from a nearby nook or cranny. (Or, you know, Ben finding one at the raft where he traditionally hung out.) Rick's second idol was close to the same difficulty factor as Angelina's having to dig up a ladder, climb it, and find the rock niche by the well that held her idol (although she did crank up the difficulty a tad herself by losing the clue/directions). This is a good development. (Note to future players: If you're finding an "idol" after Day 30 and it's just sitting there ... make sure you check the paperwork.)
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, you can do so on twitter: @truedorktimes
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