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It’s been an interesting year for Survivor. We started off with possibly one of the very best installments ever with Survivor: Pearl Islands, and ended with the fairly humdrum Survivor: All Stars. This year brought us all sorts of colorful characters – Rupert, Lil, Johnny Fairplay, Burton – and reinvented some people from the past – Amber, Boston Rob, Shii-Ann. We also had our first Survivor quitter (Osten), our first Survivor wedding engagement (Amber and Rob), and our first controversial twist (Outcasts). Plus our favorite host grew increasingly snippy to delightful effect.Pearl Islands started off with a whole pirate theme that I was afraid would get really old really quickly. I mean, stranding these people with just the clothes on their backs? Who cares? Well, I should know not to doubt Mark Burnett’s machinations. Turns out the castaways were supremely uncomfortable, which led to shrill confrontations off the getgo.
We met all sorts of funky characters. There was Osten – the jacked muscleman who was scared of pelicans; Lil – the Boyscout leader whose emotional state went through the ringer; Johnny Fairplay – the guy you didn’t love to hate, you just hated him; Rupert – the hairy powerhouse with the bruised self-image from high school; Shawn – the guy who introduced Long Island to Middle America; Burton – the self-righteous hypocrite; Christa – aka the Midnight Smorgasbord for thousands of bugs and mites; Darrah – the mortician who seems to have strayed from the set of “O Brother Where Art Thou?”; Michelle – the bespectacled casual booter; and Sandra – the eventual winner (and fish chum conspirator) of the million dollars.
The season provided us with all sorts of crazy scenarios. There was the lowly Morgan tribe, which, despite its best efforts, could not win a challenge for the life of them. Dovetailing nicely with this story was the increasingly pathetic and bizarre deterioration of Osten, whose Herculean presence was quickly undermined by menacing hermit crabs and fears of drowning. When he ultimately quit the game, Jeff Probst added some zest to the saga by brusquely telling Osten to “Go home”. In a symbolic gesture, Osten’s torch was laid on its side. Take that, torch!
There was some poetic justice though for the Morgan tribe. After the Drakes threw an immunity challenge, they suddenly lost all their momentum. Going into the merge, the teams were equal. That’s around when Mark Burnett threw a wrench into the whole thing and introduced the “Outcasts”. Everyone who had previously been voted out were brought back, ultimately resulting in Lil and Burton reassimilating into tribal life. Many viewers criticized this move, but I thought it was great. What a way to shake things up. Yeah, it sort of betrays the Outwit, Outplay, Outlast mantra of the series, but the people who complain about the integrity of the show don’t seem to mind the inevitable tribal switcheroo, which seems just as meddlesome to the organic flow of survival of the fittest.
With Burton and Lil in the mix, Survivor: Pearl Islands became a free for all of scheming and chaos. Every week brought a fantastic episode: Johnny Fairplay pretending like his grandma died to win a reward, Rupert getting voted out in an astonishing blindside, and Sandra letting her best friend Christa take the heat for a fish scandal. But probably the best moment of the series occurred when the cocky and freshly ousted Burton accused Lil of betraying him at tribal council by voting for him. “I hope you can live with yourself”, he said of the frumpy troop leader, clearly forgetting how just minutes before he had tried to vote off Lil. It was this sort of backstabbing – or perceived backstabbing – that marked this season of Survivor, and by the time Sandra had won her million dollars, we felt like we had indeed watched a cast of colorful characters truly try to outwit, outplay, and outlast each other.
Survivor: All Stars provided us with colorful characters – 18 of them, in fact – but unlike Pearl Islands, there was never a sense that these people were fighting tooth and nail for the big payday. Instead, everyone coasted on alliances with Rob and Amber, somehow assuming that the Bostonian would take them all the way. The most flagrant example of this was perpetually annoying and righteous Lex who sold out his own tribe so that he could get into the good graces of Rob. It was no surprise that Rob voted Lex out as soon as he could, and when Lex threw a self-righteous tantrum, he conveniently didn’t mention how he had previously screwed over Colby, Ethan, and Jerri. Luckily wily Richard Hatch called Lex out on the reunion show, but more about that later.
The All-Stars season ultimately followed a dull pattern of people voting by party line, with people increasingly deferring to Rob. Kathy and Shii-Ann tried to turn people against Rob and Amber, but their attempts to stir things up were too little too late. Shii-Ann’s triumphant immunity win should have been the time for Rupert, Jenna, Tom, and Alicia to turn against Rob or Amber, but instead, they all turned on each other. No one was able to see the game outside of the context of Boston Rob being in the finals. Later, with Shii-Ann and Alicia gone, Rob smartly played Rupert and Tom against each other. Tom wasn’t savvy enough to figure out what was going on, but Rupert confessed that he did, and yet he still let Rob divide and conquer.
In the final four, Rupert again displayed his strategic ineptitude when he failed to present the obvious argument as to why Jenna shouldn’t vote against him: if the vote came down to pulling a rock, Jenna would have a 2 out of 3 chance that she’d be moving on to the next round. In an immunity showdown with Rob and Amber, she’d only have a 1 and 3 chance of moving on. Alas, math has never been a specialty with Survivor contestants.
The strength of Boston Rob’s gameplay – aside from his physical dominance – was that he was able to impose a high school dynamic on everyone who was around him. With his provocative mocking and swagger, Rob suddenly became the cool guy. Amber was the cheerleader girlfriend. Jenna easily took to the role of sidekick. And everyone else fell right into place. Rob Cesternino, who was so confident and dominant in his Amazon season, quickly filled the role of nerd when his strongest weapon – humor – was shot down by Boston Rob. The only one who seemed to really fight the power structure was Shii-Ann, who went down in a blaze of glory in her final Tribal Council by calling out all of the alliances and backstabbing. She’s great.
And so the routine season came to a head with a finale show that was actually quite fantastic. The jury was particularly venomous, with Lex kicking thing off with a laborious grandstanding speech that was sort of like Sue Hawk lite. Kathy trembled and cried in a typical Kathy speech. Alicia tried to revisit her finger-wagging ways by intoning that Rob and Amber had been eating feces. And Big Tom puzzled us all with a rambling string of syllables, followed by a fakeout handshake and the postscript: “Don’t be stupid, stupid.” Amazingly, this seemed to really piss Rob off. It was only TVgasm favorite Shii-Ann who called out Lex et al. by asserting that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones (for the record, we here at TVgasm predicted that she would pull such a move).
As everyone seems to know by now, Amber won the million dollars, only moments after accepting a marriage proposal from Rob. While people in Des Moines might have found it romantic, I think most people really didn’t care. The reunion show was great though with people like Richard Hatch calling out Lex for his righteousness, and Big Tom awkwardly making up with Boston Rob. Jerri got booed off stage, Rupert growled, Jena Morasca and Ethan announced they were sleeping together, Susan Hawk revealed her new look – which was shockingly similar to her old look, and Shii-Ann won a car. While the finale was incredibly fun, it was sort of sad that the three hour event completely eclipsed an otherwise bland season.
Survivor: Pearl Islands: A
Survivor: All Stars: B
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