An Open Letter to Survivor

This morning Jud "Fabio" Birza will collect a check for $1 million, thanks to his ability to "outwit, outplay, outlast" twenty people in the Nicaraguan rainforest. I'm happy for Fabio; as the season unfolded he became my pick to win--not because I thought he had the goods to pull it off, but because he was the least onerous of twenty seemingly irredeemably onerous people.

I knew we were in trouble this season on Survivor when "the young tribe" (contestants under forty--please don't make teams by age ever again) openly fretted that the woman with a prosthetic leg ("Kelly B") would win sympathy votes from the jury and so (a) made her life horrible at camp and (b) conspired to get rid of her early. I don't think a sympathy vote was going to be a problem with this crew of misanthropes.

The "old tribe" (I can't believe I've reached the point where I would be on the "old tribe") wasn't any better, with alpha males conspiring to take down a person, Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson, who (a) should have been their hero, (b) could have gotten them all the way to the end and (c) would have refused the money had he gotten there. I think "the love of the game" was present in most of the contestants this season, but I also think "love" in this case is a misnomer: I saw no real love, of neighbor or enemy or anything, only obsession.

In a season where a neurotic woman (Holly Hoffman) steals a teammate's shoes and doesn't get voted off for it but instead becomes the beloved preachy matriarch; in a season where the "hero" (Jane Bright) hoarded food and pouted and would not shut up about North Carolina; in a season where a guy (Dan Lembo) who repeatedly proved himself useless in competitions and in camplife made it to the final five; in a season where the winner (Fabio) didn't make any enemies despite peeing in the pool that his fellow contestants had to keep jumping into; in a season where the villain (NaOnka Mixon) got bored and quit--in a season this annoyingly dysfunctional, we your fans are less excited by the finale and more relieved. Even hobst Jeff Probst seemed to be glad it was over; he was more eager to talk to audience member Terry Bradshaw than many of the actual contestants.

Probst announced some changes for the next season, which were as wonkish and boring as the weird ramblings of the winner when asked what he'd do with the money: a rewritten contract with the competitors, so that if they quit, the show can use its discretion to decide whether to include or exclude them from the jury (insert dramatic tribal music here); also, starting next season, eliminated players have a chance to earn their way back into the game (at which point they will most likely be immediately voted off again).

Dearest Survivor, I fear you've lost your way. In season 1, the winner was obvious from the beginning; Richard what's-his-name was clearly, undeniably outplaying, outwitting and outlasting everyone else. The losers recognized and accepted that they had been beat. The audience understood the logic of the final vote, drama included. And for all Richard's quirkinesses and controversies, he remained likeable.

We've come a long way, since now the show comes up with ways to give money to "fan faves" and the final vote is more often than not a full-on pouty protest--like the airing of grievances, the jury's own "Festivus for the rest of us!" Sorting out the heroes and the villains doesn't work for a show like Survivor; the heroes get kicked out early by the villains, who are better at capitalizing on their defeats than playing to their strengths. We're left to root for the lesser of twenty evils, and the show no longer makes sense. Up becomes down, young becomes old, winner becomes loser, and vice versa.

I suggest, dear Survivor, that you worry less about protecting and shoring up the "fan faves" and concentrate on making an exciting show. Find contestants who are interesting in and of themselves, whose egos are in check in advance. Reward teamwork more than infamy, both in airtime and in playtime. Kick a player off for being a jerk; give a player a reward for being extraordinarily kind. How about a season of players who don't care about the money? Players who want to test themselves, not prove themselves? You change things up a little bit every season; I submit that, if you concentrate less on changes to contracts and more on the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, you'll wind up with viewers anxious to learn who won, rather than an audience that's relieved to be through with you.


Anonymous said…
Well said, my friend! You summed up everything I felt about this season. I was angry that Nayonka quit and yet was allowed to be on the jury (along with Purple Kelly). How is that fair?
I know, though, that I will watch again come February - because I can't seem to stop myself!

Ellen B. from Lombard

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