Every season I consider doing recap/discussion posts for Survivor and every season I never quite get around to it, mostly because most seasons start out slow with a bunch of people you don’t really know mostly playing blind – which is amusing, but the real meat in watching a season of Survivor arises in the midgame once you know who the serious players are this time around, and who are the requisite bunch of bored housewives/wannabe actors who just wanted the experience and think that the “one in (whatever) chance at a million dollars” rhetoric is a literal chance rather than it having to do with playskill.
Which is a shame, because watching the interplay on Survivor is fascinating, not least because you basically get an omniscient watcher’s perspective on people’s attempts to discern what other people are doing/planning, and it gives the viewer a sense of superiority that’s often unwarranted. After all, at this point most people who go on Survivor are fans of the show1 and you have to know that every single one of them thought things along the lines of “well why didn’t X see that coming? It was so obvious!” Which it only is when you’ve got the overhead view, of course.
Thinking in those terms made it clear that Parvati is probably the best player in the game’s history – no offense to Sandra, who’s definitely got skills and whose second win wasn’t entirely unjustified, but the sheer number of times that Parvati accurately guessed what her opponents were doing before she could have gotten it confirmed that they were doing things was just amazing this time around, and she did it while basically being marked as a threat from the start of the game. More than once this season I saw her suss out a particularly clever move (my favorite was when she guessed that Rupert was bluffing about finding a hidden immunity idol – which Russell bought whole hog, incidentally).
And Russell’s play this season was much worse than his first time out. He basically only survived out of the early rounds due to a massive stroke of luck (IE, Tyson deciding to abandon an otherwise rock-solid plan to eliminate both Russell and Parvati for reasons that still remain incredibly dense) and then a second one which he barely had to work to achieve (JT throwing him an immunity idol on blind faith). And if in his first run Russell merely seemed blind to the necessity of social play, this time he deliberately ignored it – his rant at the reunion about how “America should decide” made that clear enough.
Of course, what Russell also illustrates is that Survivor players often fall into a pack mentality, looking for an alpha dog to lead their strategic alliance. Someone like Coach, for example, eagerly signs on to anybody who looks “strong” to him, which makes him little more than a useful tool.2 Even in this all-star season, a lot of players largely fell into pack mentality, with the villains signing into either Boston Rob’s alliance or Russell’s, and the heroes following either Tom or the dual-headed alliance of James and Amanda – and when James was too injured to continue JT stepped into the leader role largely by force of assumption. One of the reasons Sandra won, I think, is that she was clearly not just a Russell follower but instead clearly playing her own game, as her attempts to sabotage Russell were well-known to the jury, which won her a measure of independence.
So more than ever, it seems that the path to winning Survivor is a trickier and trickier balancing game: you need to be independent enough to be considered strategic, but not so strategic that you become seen as weaselly; you need to be friendly, but not ingratiating; you need to vote people off without making it personal to them; and above all you need to be smart, or at least smarter than most everybody else.3
Really, I understand that people can sometimes have antipathy towards reality TV, but Survivor is one of the ones I’ve never understood hating; it’s a fascinating peek into how people can become Machiavellian plotters, skillful or otherwise, and how various people react to perceived betrayal.
- If Canadians were eligible to go on it I would do it in a second; I can’t see how it wouldn’t be immensely fun and memorable, even considering the misery contestants have to suffer. [↩]
- Of course Coach is a really obvious example and most people don’t explicitly tell the camera they want a strong leader to follow, but the trend mostly holds. [↩]
- Exception: Todd Herzog of Survivor: China, who managed to win without playing very smartly at all, mostly by using a basic alliance strategy which, inexplicably, nobody bothered to challenge. [↩]