Is Survivor broken beyond repair?
The 26th season of ‘Survivor’ demonstrates everything that’s wrong with the show, particularly emphasizing drama over game play. Is there any way to save the show, or is it time to put it out of its misery?
Let me preface this with the statement that I am a Survivor fan. I have watched every season from the beginning, I’ve seen the good and the bad, and I’ve stuck with it hoping that somehow, some way it can have a season that lives up to the best of the best. What I’ve seen over the past couple of year, though, is a downward spiral that is taking a great game dangerously into the realm of conflict reality TV (i.e. the Real Housewives franchise), putting the personality clashes among the tribe members above the actual game.
It also doesn’t help that a majority of the players are now cast — off the street, in a club, from a modeling agency — for “types” (or stereotypes) instead of being culled from viewer submissions (I personally know a couple of people who have applied several times and have never been contacted). What’s worse, the producers then reinforce the stereotype by selecting what that person wears on the island! If you’ve ever wondered why someone would wear a suit, high heels, or a sweater vest to a tropical island knowing that they’re about to play the game of Survivor, now you know (even Phillip’s awful pink underwear were selected by the producers). The show has gotten so enamored with the “conflicts” between the tribe members that they’ve forgotten about the challenges, most of the time combining a reward and immunity challenge just to give the “story” more screen time.
And yes, there is a story that is constructed from the footage — and a lot of the time what we see and what actually transpired on the island are two different things. Sometimes the tribe members are so boring that storylines will be created and dropped after a couple of episodes because there’s just not enough footage to sustain the plot the producers want to construct. And don’t even get me started on the “Next time on Survivor” previews. These “highlights” of the next episode are always showing some explosive behavior, and then when you see the episode there’s nothing remotely similar to that (the “Hurricane Na’Onka” preview is one of the best examples of that). I know we’re in the 26th season of the show and perhaps things are getting a little stale (we’re seeing more and more recycled challenges, for instance), but probably the worst thing Survivor has stooped to is relying on past cast members to play the game. Especially when they call them “Favorites.”
That term, especially this season, is pretty laughable. Who decided exactly who the “Favorites” were? They certainly didn’t ask the fans of the show to vote. It seems more like the producers just picked a few former players who made for “good TV” regardless of their game play (Phillip, Brandon) with a mix of recent players who they felt could have gone to the end but didn’t (Malcolm, Dawn) … with some people you don’t even remember being on the show (Corinne?). The only time this concept has really worked was the season Boston Rob came back and totally schooled everyone on how to play Survivor. He knew how to play the game, and he played it superbly (even if you hated him, you had to give it up that he did a great job) but instead of real game players, they keep giving air time to members of the Hantz family, not because they can play the game but because they bring conflict … and presumably ratings.
We’ve already had to endure Russell Hantz on the show three times. It’s obvious that no one even wants to play with him now because he can’t be voted out fast enough. But will that stop Jeff Probst (who basically runs the show now) from bringing him back? Probably not. This season, Probst thought it would be a great idea to bring back the obviously unstable Brandon Hantz, who basically had a nervous breakdown after his first appearance on the show … and got a verbal smackdown by his uncle on live TV for his terrible game play (a moment that was uncomfortable and unpleasant to watch). This season, Brandon has obviously been studying Uncle Russell’s superb gamesmanship (that’s sarcasm) — and possibly his uncle Willie’s Big Brother meltdown — to go from boy to man in the game. Except all it’s done is make him look even more unbalanced.
Pairing Brandon with another unbalanced player, Phillip, must have seemed to be a great idea on paper but it’s been a disaster for the show, and last week’s episode demonstrated how bad things have gotten, not only for the viewers, but for the rest of the people who are trapped on that island with them. Granted, we only get to see an edited version of the events the producers want us to see, but poor Dawn looked like she was about to have her own nervous breakdown when they got to the challenge. Because of the turmoil, they didn’t even get to play for immunity, sacrificing the game for the drama. When Brandon flipped out and dumped out the tribe’s food supply (allegedly because he knew they were going to throw the challenge), he should have been removed from the game right then and there instead of forcing the tribe to publicly vote him out at the challenge-turned-Tribal Council (which kind of ruined the integrity of the secret voting that comes with Tribal Council). At that point, I would have preferred the tribe — the stable ones — to simply say to the producers that they were all quitting unless both Brandon and Phillip were removed, because Phillip was obviously as much to blame for the turmoil at camp as Brandon was.
Regardless of who was at fault, the whole episode was unpleasant and the reliance on this type of drama to keep viewers entertained has taken Survivor to a new low. It probably doesn’t help that to keep costs down, the show films back-to-back seasons which doesn’t give anyone much time to recuperate or cast new people who really want to play the game (a similar criticism that The Amazing Race faces). Let’s face it, Survivor is not the ratings bigwig it used to be. It does well enough, but it is showing its age. I believe that CBS needs to look at giving these shows a rest. Big Brother failed miserably when they tried to add a winter season (granted, one rushed into production to fill vacancies left by the writers’ strike), and all of the reality shows that air twice during a regular TV season have suffered due to the overkill. These shows aren’t “events” anymore. Why not let Survivor and The Amazing Race air once during a season; The Amazing Race could air in Survivor‘s time slot in the fall and Survivor comes on in February. Is the network afraid viewers will lose interest if the shows are off the air for a year? It doesn’t seem to have hurt American Idol (or any of the scripted shows on cable … how long has it been since the season two finale of Game of Thrones?).
As it stands now, Survivor is limping to its death, collapsing under the weight of producer mandated stories that have corrupted not only the game play, but the real social experiment that the early seasons were. That’s partly because everyone knows how to play Survivor now, but keeping the focus on the challenges could ultimately keep the players focused on strategy that doesn’t involve seeing who can be the most mentally unstable person in the game. Start going through those submissions from real people who want to play and pick the best people for the game, not the most dramatic. I’d rather see two tribes of strategic, strong players battling it out instead of a bunch of pretty faces who would rather sit around and pick off the one or two strong players who want to be there, leaving us with a bunch of people who can only be interesting after the final edit (and most of the time, not even that helps). And stop bringing back former players every season! This should be an exception, not a rule. And, seriously, if they ever bring back Russell and Brandon together — as they would both like to do and are actively campaigning for the chance — they will have finally lost this faithful viewer.