The accused: Survivor: Samoa, “This Game Ain’t Over (Season 19, Episode 14)
The crime: Presenting a conclusion that flies in the face of everything the audience saw that season and maybe even the series’ values as a whole
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
Welcome back to #TVFail folks! Today’s entry is going to be different than anything else I have done before in this feature. This could be a great thing. It could be a disaster. It is really up in the air at this point, but just go with me.
Discussing reality television is not something I typically do here on TV Surveillance and that is the case for a few reasons. One, I do not watch a whole lot of reality television. I do not have anything against the form and its various sub-genres, but there is really only so much time in the day for me. Two, reality television does not typically lend itself to the kind of episode-by-episode analysis I do here on the blog. I have written about Survivor and Jersey Shore on occasion, but generally in a column or longer-form piece context. Talking about individual episodes of reality programming lends itself more to the recap, which is not really what I like to do. Nothing wrong with that kind of writing or that kind of discussion, this just is not the place for it. Check the other 40,000 places on the internet that do that kind of thing.
However, my typical writing interests and tendencies got me thinking more about reality television and how it is related to television criticism. If we tend to look at reality television as worthy of the recap and the water-cooler discussion but not necessarily the detailed, theme-centered review, is it actually possible to put an individual episode of a reality series in the success/fail context? On the most basic of levels, the answer is of course we can. A single episode can be boring, include awful actions or just generally waste your time more than the series usually does. There are at least a dozen episodes of Big Brother each summer that absolutely fit this identifier. And great episodes of a reality series include the big, splashy moments that you want to share on YouTube or Joel McHale mocks on The Soup.
There are certain moments in reality television history that many of us will never forget – Stephen slapping Irene on The Real World Seattle and the first final tribal on Survivor immediately come to mind for me – but how do we contextualize those moments within the episode, season or series (which almost always has brand-new cast-members, locations and more in other seasons)? Does Stephen slapping Irene immediately make Seattle the best season of The Real World? Can any other season of Survivor really touch the first solely based on Richard’s cunning performance and some of the exciting insanity that the jury members brought to the table in the final episode?
Moreover, the “unscripted” nature of reality television convolutes these questions even further. With a scripted series, we at least attempt to identify what the intent of the series was in that episode and then evaluate it accordingly. Reality television doesn’t give us that opportunity.* Presumably, the cast-members are acting and reacting how they see fit and removing the barrier of a script between the people on our screens and us at home creates complex issues and responses, particularly in regards to outcomes and morality. If a vote doesn’t go the way I and maybe almost everyone else watching at home thinks it should go, we can loudly jeer the people responsible for that vote. But is that episode a failure, and is the series at any fault, especially if said vote follows the typical rhythms and structure that the series always upholds and presents? There is supposedly no predetermination of victory for one contestant, no matter what we might personally believe or hope.
Furthermore, Stephen slapping Irene might be the first reality television moment I think of, but what about how I actually feel about the moment? If I think Stephen is a bastard, how does that shape my impressions of success for that episode or The Real World Seattle or The Real World as a whole? What if I think Irene deserved it? In that regard, basing a failure/success judgment becomes entirely about personal values more than anything else and while reality television’s ability to pull that kind of response from us is one of its best traits, it also shadows any attempts to declare some kind of quasi-objective “success!” or “failure!” designation.
*Or at least not in the same way. You could definitely argue that A.) Reality television is definitely manufactured or staged in some way and that B.) The way those manufactured or staged events are then edited, scored, etc. into an individual episode to tell a specific story is not unlike Vince Gilligan crafting the latest episode of Breaking Bad. There is definitely something intriguing and curious about reality programming editing, even related to our attempts to declare things a failure. If someone we think deserved to win a competition didn’t win and it appears as though the judges and/or the jury is discussing or voting based upon things we didn’t see all of or at all, that raises all sorts of problems. We implicitly trust and distrust reality programming editing and only raise a fuss when the outcomes don’t work out for our personal loyalties, but perhaps we should care more about the editing on a consistent basis.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try to figure this out. To examine these issues further, I wanted to pick an episode (and really an entire season) of a reality series that embodies many of the big problems/questions I just raised with outcomes and morality. I honed in on Survivor and my mind immediately went to one person: Russell Hantz. Russell is arguably the most controversial Survivor player of all-time. Some think he is one of the best players ever, others look at him as overrated and most of us pretty much think he is a petulant, twisted little man. Mr. Hantz is a lightning rod for attention and one of the figures that makes reality programing so compelling and I think he also makes a great discussion point for my big questions today.
In Russell’s first season on Survivor, he was the stand-out cast-member from the beginning. Part of that stems from the production’s desire to slam him down our throats and some of it has to do with the fact that most of the Samoa cast was full of dead weight. But we shouldn’t take too much away from Russell because he came to play and clearly came to entertain as well. As his tribe slumped out of the gate by losing three of the first four immunity challenges, Russell unveiled a masterful three-pronged plan. Step one: Gain sympathy by fabricating a story about barely surviving Hurricane Katrina. Step two: Make his teammates’ lives worse and subvert them at every turn until they were psychologically damaged. He emptied their canteens. He burned their socks. Step three: Hoard immunity idols. Most surprisingly, he accomplished this final goal without the help of any major clues, the dude just went out and dug for them. Crazy.
As Samoa moved along, it was very clear* that Russell was the smartest and most cunning player in the game. Though his Foa Foa tribe at a numbers disadvantage once the merge came, Russell helped manufacture seven straight Galu member eliminations, all the while avoiding his own demise because of all the damn idols he just kept finding. He was orchestrating one substantial move after another and perhaps most importantly of all, Russell was doing it mostly in the open. Galu members saw the writing on the wall and kept coming for him and somehow, Hantz persevered time and time again. There were four Foa Foa members remaining when the tribes merged. Three of them, including Russell, made it to the finals.
In said finals, Russell was joined by Mick, the “feckless” wannabe leader and Natalie, the pretty young thing who appeared just to be along for the ride. But as the jury began their questioning and ranting, it quickly became clear that Russell’s brash, “I dare you to stop me” tactics didn’t fly the jury, especially because he was almost single-handedly responsible for each of their departures from the game. Voting out eight Galu members in nine votes is damn impressive, but it’s all very, very dangerous.
Numerous times during the final tribal council, ousted players praised Natalie’s ability to play “the social game” while criticized Russell’s nearly-unbelievable power. Natalie had accomplished very little in regards to the traditional pillars of Survivor success. She was part of the Foa Foa tribe that won exactly one immunity challenge. She won zero individual challenges and was part of two team/group reward challenge wins. By my count, there were 22 challenges that season and Natalie was part of a win just three times. Winning challenges isn’t everything, obviously. But based on what we saw on-screen in 14 episodes, Natalie made zero major strategic moves either. She agreed to stay close to Russell, that’s pretty much it.
Russell didn’t have much more success in the competitions, but he did grab an individual immunity win when it mattered most (in the final four) and of course made all sorts of noise with the idols and clearly pulled major strings in the strategy department. If we were to theoretically break Survivor down sabremetrics style, I think we could all agree that Russell had more success in all the Survivor metrics that matter (competitions, idols, strategy, impact on votes [definitely one of the biggest IoV figures in the game’s history]). His WAR in Samoa was definitely the highest.
But in the end, it didn’t matter. Natalie not only won Survivor Samoa, she won running away, 7-2. Russell was named the fan favorite player, but failed to garner the respect or admiration of his peers, basically because he was an asshole while telling them straight to their face that he was an asshole. I can only imagine how they reacted once they found out much later that he burned their socks. The jury ultimately decided that choosing to ride the coat-tails of one of the competition’s biggest bullies was a smarter and easier-to-swallow choice than being that bully. Natalie was a good person, Russell wasn’t. It was as simple as that.
As a fan, I had and still have one major response to this result: Are you freaking kidding me? Russell was so obviously the most dominant player and no matter how morally bankrupt he is, he still made the most impressive moves throughout! Natalie had a nice smile. That’s about the best thing I could say about her. Oh, and this: She didn’t deserve to win a million dollars for that smile.
But separating myself from my personal opinion of who was the “best,” I have been asking myself if I think the result of Samoa makes the finale a waste or makes the whole season a failure. Unfortunately, I’m still trying to figure out why my answer to my own question is.* In a lot of ways, Russell’s lack of victory doesn’t nullify all the “great” things he did throughout the season. Losing in the end doesn’t take away all the times he found an idol or manipulated a large group of people for personal gain. The fan favorite vote helps ease the pain because it is presumably less biased and petty and more detached than the complainers in the jury, but as Russell said in the reunion special, not having the title of “Sole Survivor” really hurts.
*I should probably stop talking to myself like this.
Plus, Russell still made Samoa one of the better and more entertaining seasons of Survivor, something the series needed after a few dead seasons (at least in my opinion). Everything he did not only made for great game-play, but also wonderful television. I will probably never forget the shots of him burning his teammates’ socks. One could even argue that having Russell be usurped at the end of the season makes for an even more entertaining episode and season. And unlike a scripted series that presumably offers narrative and character resolution along with theme and ideological discussions, reality television basically exists to entertain us.
Moreover, a competition reality series is not unlike a sporting event: As long as the rules and structure are upheld in a basic way, there’s little we can actually complain about. When the Packers won the Super Bowl in February, you might have hated the outcome because you hate the Packers or maybe you thought there was a missed called here and there, but you couldn’t really say that the Super Bowl or the NFL was a failure. In Survivor, the jury has the right to vote the way they want and although I personally think they were too petty, short-sighted and unaware of what makes a great Survivor player, they still followed the rules. I hate the outcome, but the larger structure of Survivor wasn’t really undercut.
Nevertheless, I think there is something inherently flawed with this episode and this season that displays the larger problems that Survivor has these days. The whole game was kicked-off by Richard Hatch’s fantastic strategic game. He won, despite the fact that most people in the jury despised him. In Australia, Colby set a new template by winning a boat-load of challenges, but Tina was still awarded at the end because she pulled a lot of the strategic strings. People weren’t harping about “the social game” in the early seasons.
In recent years, it feels like many winners have come from the watered-down Tina model: Don’t make a lot of noise, attach yourself to a powerful, loud player. While I think there is definitely strategy in that mode of thinking, there is inherently less of it when you play that way versus if you play like Russell did. Tina was quiet and let Colby be the big, muscular face of their alliance, but she was still whip-smart and the season showed us that. With Natalie, that wasn’t really the case. Again, that could be a by-product of the editing process, but I think Jeff Probst’s surprised reaction to the outcome of Survivor Samoa is telling.
It feels like there are three dominant ways people play Survivor: They’re a Richard/Russell, they’re a Colby/Ozzie or they’re a Natalie. One of those things is not like the other. With that in mind, I think we could probably call this season’s outcome flawed and point out that it is indicative of some larger issues with Survivor as a whole.
But again, that could just be my opinion. Former players, announcers and fans have a certain idea of how a sport should be played too and if a current team or player steps outside that safe zone – like say the Miami Heat creating a super-team – people get up in arms. If the Heat would have won the championship, many would have been disappointed. But they couldn’t really fault the NBA or basketball as a whole. Reality competition programming is certainly less “real” than sports, but it follows many of the same principles and that is one of the primary reasons it can be so entertaining. The drama, the elation, the frustration, it’s all so…real. But it also just is. Editing or no editing, things happen the way they happen on reality television and though we can scoff or be disappointed, I’m not sure individual episodes really reach failure in the same way as a scripted programming.*
*Obviously, a reality program can be just terrible no matter what happens. See: H8R. But every episode is basically equally dreadful in that case and once the formula is set, the variation is so slim that it’s hard to differentiate between the suck.