TV Time: What’s Lisa watching? Some random thoughts on a season of Survivor.

And that’s a wrap on another season of Survivor!

I first watched Survivor way back when, season 1, when it was something new and really different. I stuck with it for a season or two, then moved on to other things. A few years ago, it occurred to me that it might be a fun show to watch with my preteen boy — I figured he’d like the challenges, the physical hardship around food and shelter, and the strategizing among players to — as the saying goes — outwit, outplay, and outlast.

We first tuned in together for Survivor: One World back in 2012, which was season 24 of the show. And here we are, five years later, and we’re still watching! Season 35 just aired its finale this week, and while we thought the season had a pretty lackluster start, by the end we were glued to the TV. There may have been some jumping up and down at  certain points. Maybe even a hug or two. The kiddo and I will never tell

I’m not going to write a recap of the season — you can find plenty of those out there all over the internet. I just thought I’d share some thoughts and reactions… which probably won’t mean much to people who don’t watch the show, but here goes anyway.

I’m not into the “themed” seasons very much. The Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers gimmick is just that — a gimmick. It’s a way to divide people into tribes, but had no real bearing on people’s game play or strategies. So the Heroes included a marine vet and a firefighter, the healers had a urologist (whom everyone refered to as the Sex Doctor) and… well, I honestly couldn’t tell you. There was a lifeguard or two — were they healers? heroes? hustlers? No clue. The team distinctions are pretty blurry, and later in the game when the players talk about needing to take out the remaining members of the Healer tribe, my mind was blank — who are they talking about again? Unless the show constantly shows subtitles identifying people by tribe, it’s just confusing.

The cast of season 35

Personalities matter. For the first half of the season or so, my son and I consistently felt that there weren’t enough stand-out personalities to make things interesting. The interactions among tribe members were rather bland, and no one seemed to really have a great grasp on strategy or gameplay. It wasn’t until mid-season that some players started really coming out of their shells and becoming people to cheer for. I feel like Survivor tries too hard to fit “types” — we need a nerdy guy, so insert Ryan. We need an assertive, brainy woman — insert Chrissy. We need a surfer bro — insert Devon. We need an unpredictable tough guy — insert Joe. I’m not saying that’s all there is to these people, but just that casting likes to play up certain stories, and based on the edited show, that tends to be what we get.

My favorites tend not to last. Two big blows for me in terms of enjoyment watching the game were the eliminations of Lauren and Joe. Lauren, a fisherman according to the show, is a tough, laconic woman who isn’t flashy, but who slowly started showing more and more smarts and ability. I liked her gameplay approach, her practicality, and her down-to earth-ness. Joe is just a hoot, a parole officer whose gameplay seems modeled on winner Tony from a few seasons back. Joe is funny and out there and not afraid to be a little crazy. He sure was fun to watch, and when he got voted off, the show lost a lot of its entertainment value.

There are too many puzzle challenges. The puzzles have bugged me for a while now. No matter the challenge’s physical components — swimming, running, balancing, shoving big heavy objects through small spaces — too many of these end with a puzzle, and it’s always the puzzle that decides the outcome. It doesn’t end up mattering how far behind someone is on the physical part — they can always catch up on the puzzle. The problem here is that by the back half of the season when the competitions are individual rather than team-based, one person skilled at puzzle-solving can dominate every challenge. That certainly happened this season. Chrissy was the only one left in the final 8 or so who had an eye for puzzles, and there was just no real shot for anyone else. It becomes a foregone conclusion before the challenge even starts: There’s a puzzle at the end, so Chrissy will win. And she did.

Here’s a suggestion for the Survivor powers-that-be: Only include puzzles in challenges prior to the merge, when the challenges are all team efforts. That way, it’s up to the team to assign puzzle solvers, and the win is more dependent on teamwork and strategy that on one person’s particular talents. I mean, come on — for this one, not a single person other than Chrissy had the slightest clue, and it was ridiculous.

People who don’t look for idols have only themselves to blame. Ben was on the bottom for the last several weeks of episodes. His alliance was gone. He was seen as a huge threat by everyone else left in the game. He was the #1 target for elimination, and no one wanted to work with him. So Ben did what he needed to do to save himself — he hunted for hidden immunity idols night and day, and he found them. And everyone else kept saying, well, there’s no way he’ll find another one. But he did. And they all just sat around camp and talked about needing to get Ben out, or else just had a good night’s sleep. Meanwhile, Ben found an idol every time he needed to. That, to me, is excellent Survivor. He had no shot at an alliance or talking people into saving him, so he saved himself, time and time again. Kudos to Ben. For the others, it’s your own damned fault for not following him around or finding idols yourselves!

It’s a game; it’s not personal. I get sick of hearing about “bitter jury syndrome”, and I have no respect for players who make decisions based on emotion. And this is why I wasn’t rooting for Chrissy to win. Too many times, she pushed a play on her team because she felt personally betrayed by someone, rather than for strategic reasons. I have news for y’all — the game is about betrayal. People who don’t ever go against their alliances or switch sides don’t win. Blindsides are what move people ahead in the game, and to pull off a blindside, there’s betrayal involved. Alliances are crucial to keeping yourself safe, but knowing when to break from the crowd and make your own moves is what wins the million dollars. People who base their votes on personal likes or dislikes are not the best players. I hate hearing players saying that they need to get rid of so-and-so next because they’re too annoying or they can’t stand having them around camp anymore. That’s not strategy, and it often leads to illogical moves. And as for the bitter jury thing — people who are voted out should be able to leave their grudges at Tribal, and cast their votes based on good game play, even if that game play is what led to their own ousters.

Now THIS is a challenge. Watching people cling to poles just never gets old.

Personal history is important, but shouldn’t affect the votes. This is a tough one. When someone waits until Tribal to pull out the sob story, as touching as it may be, it always feels like a cheap play for sympathy votes to me. And sympathy votes should have nothing to do with determining the winner of Survivor. It’s a fine line, though. If someone is truly dealing with something emotional or difficult back home, and it affects their game play, then yes, it is relevant to an extent. I guess I just don’t like it when a player keeps the big news a secret all season and then drops a truth-bomb at Tribal for maximum impact. And this is yet another reason why I support Ben as this season’s winner. All along, he was upfront about his PTSD stemming from his combat service. He clearly was carrying an emotional burden with him that affected him day in and day out, including during all his days playing Survivor. Ben’s PTSD had a real impact on how he played the game and his ability to connect with his teammates. He was criticized for his social game, but I think he did a great job of overcoming his own obstacles. So in this case, the “sob story” at Tribal was real and relevant, and should (and probably did) have an impact on how the jury assessed his overall game play.

Social game is kind of a myth. Look, some people are smooth talkers, and some aren’t. What does a social game mean? Is it about forming real friendships? Is it about getting others to trust you? Is it about being able to talk people into doing what you want? Chrissy was praised for having a good social game, and maybe that’s true. But let’s pause for a moment and remember that she works in the corporate world as a financial analyst. She has to be able to think on her feet, to give presentations, to be persuasive. How does that compare to people who don’t work in that environment? Yes, she was much more articulate and polished in her speech at the final Tribal, but I don’t necessarily give her points for that. Ben is coming from a really different set of circumstances, and I think he did great… just differently.

The final 5.

Okay, by now it’s clear that I was rooting for Ben, so it’ll come as no surprise that I loved the final twist. Instead of having the person from the final four who wins the last immunity challenge have all the power in determining who makes the final three, the producers threw in a twist: The immunity winner picks one person to go to final three, and the remaining two have a fire-making challenge, with the winner moving on to the final three. Awesome. It gets frustrating as a viewer to see great players eliminated right before the finals because the other players know they’d never beat them. I like the element of chance, and that the determination of the final three doesn’t rest in one person’s hands. This is causing a lot of controversy, and I’m seeing a lot of complaints out there that the producers “rigged” the game so Ben would make it to the finals… but they announced the twist in advance, and Devon had just as much of a shot as Ben. It kept things exciting, and ultimately, I do believe that the best player won the game. So there!

Other random thoughts:

  • I think the players’ facial expressions whenever Jeff tells them about food rewards is hilarious. Are they coached? Do they all really get that ecstatic over the idea of chicken or pizza or cookies? I know they’re hungry, but it’s always so over the top. We crack up every time.
  • There’s a lot of talk about people getting a “winner’s edit”, and it’s really true. The production team films 24/7, and I know they need to craft the footage into one-hour episodes, but it gets so obvious after a while from the edits who the likely winner and contenders are going to be. Maybe vague it up a bit going forward?
  • Also, it makes us laugh every time a contestant says “I’m in control of the game” or “There’s no way I’m going home today”. Sure sign that that person is going home!
  • Why do all the women wear bikinis? Are they required to? Why do guys walk around in their underwear? No one wants to see that!
  • In earlier seasons, they used to talk about luxury items. Do players still get luxury items? Are there set grooming items they’re allowed to have? Inquiring minds want to know.
  • What was up with the bandage on Ben’s shoulder all season? Was it to cover up a tattoo? Was it an injury? See above re inquiring minds.
  • Why don’t all players know how to make fire? Should be basic preparation before going on the show, right? Practice making fire, using a machete, making sure you can swim… maybe do puzzles every day?

That’s it for my random Survivor thoughts! Despite my initial doubts about this season, by the end, it was really a good time. An added bonus for me is the time spent with my 15-year-old watching the show and discussing strategy the day after each episode. Entertainment and family bonding all in one!

For anyone who watches, what did you think of this season? Did you think the right person won? Hit me up in the comments!

TV Reaction: An outing on Survivor

Pardon me while I amble away from books (shocking!) for a moment while I ponder one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen on TV.

If you follow TV news at all, then you’ve probably seen the headlines all over social media last night and this morning. In a nutshell, on last night’s episode of Survivor, one contestant outed another as transgender at tribal council, in a desperate and despicable attempt to show to their tribe mates how “deceptive” the other player was.

It’s been over 12 hours since I watched the episode and I still can’t stop thinking about it. This was truly stunning TV.

The stupidity of Jeff Varner, and his lame attempt to link the other contestant’s personal history to somehow being an untrustworthy alliance member, is astonishing. And I think he realized it within minutes of it all coming out of his mouth — but again, perhaps he was simply unprepared for the outrage he’d stirred up and was operating in CYA mode.

On the positive side, it was uplifting and gratifying to see the other players’ uniformly harsh reaction to Varner. Zeke, who was outed, was absolutely supported, and all the others basically tore Varner apart. Host Jeff Probst did a great job of letting the drama play out, giving Zeke time to compose himself, and refusing to let Varner off the hook by accepting his ridiculous excuse of being desperate to stay in the game.

In the end, in what really seemed like an unprecedented situation, Varner was shown the door and kicked out without the usual ritual of a vote. As Probst noted, a vote was unnecessary. They all wanted Varner gone.

There are some astute and well-written pieces out there already about what happened and what it meant. I have nothing but admiration for Zeke, who managed to show grace toward Varner, who didn’t deserve Zeke’s kindness.

It should be noted that this round of Survivor was filmed last summer, so that all involved had time to prepare for last night’s episode. Zeke wrote a thoughtful and moving piece about his life and his determination to compete on Survivor, and I recommend checking it out, here.

I do wonder, though, why the producers didn’t either a) cut the outing from the episode or b) explain why it was included. I can envision a few different scenarios. Did this tribal have a huge impact on game play going forward? I’d imagine that Zeke’s teammates’ loyalty and support of him was magnified by Varner’s behavior, and might be an important part of the storytelling going forward. If future episodes have the outing and the impact on Zeke as a storyline, then the tribal is highly relevant. Likewise, if Zeke makes the finals (as I’m now really hoping he does), surely the events from last night will be a big piece of his Survivor story — the narrative that finalists pitch to the jury in a bid for the $1 million prize. Further, Zeke and the producers may have discussed the tribal together and reached an agreement, with Zeke’s full cooperation, in terms of what they chose to air.

I’m not pointing fingers at the producers at this point, but I do feel they do their viewers a disservice by simply airing the episode without including any explanation of why those chose to do so and whether Zeke had a say in the decision. Yes, Varner is the one who outed Zeke — but the Survivor production team decided to put it on the air. I’d just like to know why, and I hope with all my heart that Zeke will confirm that he was a part of the decision-making process and gave it his blessing.

In any case, that was a shocking moment, unlike anything I’d seen previously on TV. For my household, it was also a great catalyst for discussion. I watch Survivor each week with my 14-year-old son, and we have fun speculating on strategy, mocking ridiculousness, and cheering for our favorites. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that an episode of a reality competition show would spark a discussion of transgender rights and identity, but it did. The kiddo and I talked about Zeke, what his life must have been like, his courage, and why the outing was such a travesty and betrayal. And the kiddo really gets it, which was gratifying for me to see.

As the day progresses and I read more pieces about this Survivor episode and the fallout, it does seem as though Zeke was deeply involved in the process of bringing this episode to the air, with the Survivor production giving him support and agency in determining how his story was told. I certainly hope that’s the case, and I applaud Survivor overall for its sensitivity to key social issues and flashpoints. (I can’t help but wish that this had been made clearer during the episode itself — even via a text screen at the end — rather than leaving viewers hanging until more statements dribbled out.)

More than anything, I’m filled with awe and admiration for Zeke’s humanity and decency in a moment of shock and betrayal, and for his bravery in sharing his feelings over a matter he had the right to choose to keep private. Prior to watching yesterday’s episode, I was kind of “meh” about Zeke — he’s a fun player to watch, but I wasn’t necessarily rooting for him to win. But now? Team Zeke, all the way! And I suspect I’m far from alone.

For more on the events on yesterday’s Survivor, here are a few thoughtful pieces:

New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/12/opinion/outed-as-transgender-on-survivor-and-in-real-life.html
New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/13/arts/television/survivor-contestant-transgender.html?_r=0
Vulture: http://www.vulture.com/2017/04/cbs-defends-airing-survivor-trans-outing-episode-zeke-smith.html
E Online: http://www.eonline.com/news/843440/survivor-s-handling-of-zeke-smith-s-outing-proves-it-just-might-be-the-most-lowkey-progressive-reality-tv-series-around

 

Q&A with the kiddo: A kid’s-eye view of Stranded

Book Review: Stranded by Jeff Probst and Chris Tebbetts

From Amazon:

A family vacation becomes a game of survival!
It was supposed to be a vacation–and a chance to get to know each other better. But when a massive storm sets in without warning, four kids are shipwrecked alone on a rocky jungle island in the middle of the South Pacific. No adults. No instructions. Nobody to rely on but themselves. Can they make it home alive?

A week ago, the biggest challenge Vanessa, Buzz, Carter, and Jane had was learning to live as a new blended family. Now the four siblings must find a way to work together if they’re going to make it off the island. But first they’ve got to learn to survive one another.

Proudly presenting Q&A with the kiddo, courtesy of my 10-year-old son, in which I ask my kiddo to describe a book he’s enjoyed recently and he gives his opinions, more or less unfiltered by mom.

Without further ado:

Q: What book do you want to talk about?

A: Stranded

Q: What was it about?

A: It’s about these kids who get stranded on an island. They were on a boat and there was a boat wreck. The adults were gone, so there were just four kids on an island surviving for themselves.

Q: Who was your favorite character?

A: Carter and Jane. They’re the most adventurous and outdoorsy and fun and not scared.

Q: What was the best part?

A: My favorite part is when they get sucked in [by strong currents in] the water. They’re in the water and they finally pop out and Carter catches Jane and they swim back to shore.

Q: Would you recommend this book?

A: Yes. I’d recommend it for adventurous kids and kids who like stories with cliffhangers.

Q: Do you want to read the rest of the series?

A: Yes! I want to read the next book when it comes out.

Q: Do you have anything else to say about this book?

A: It’s funny, it’s fun to read. You should read it or it’s your loss.

Mom’s two cents:

My kiddo and I are big fans of Survivor on TV, and so when I heard that Survivor host Jeff Probst was writing a book series for kids, I knew we had to get it! My son read Stranded on his own, and thought the reading level was perfect. He like the book so much that he pretty much insisted that I read it as soon as he finished. Stranded is really a lot of fun, with a good solid lesson in there as well (although without any preachiness or heavy-handedness). The four children in the book are step-siblings who are being treated to a sailing adventure while their parents are on their honeymoon. While my son mostly focused on the adventure aspects of the story, I liked the portrayal of two sets of brothers and sisters forced to figure out how to redefine their family and accept one another’s quirks, talents, and weaknesses. When the two adults on board are separated from the kids during a sudden storm at sea, they have to rely on themselves, their bonds, and their skills and knowledge to figure out how to survive — and hopefully, how to get themselves rescued.

The blended family aspect provides a nice layer of complication to the high-adrenaline disaster and adventure story. Stranded is the first in a trilogy, and ends — as my son mentions — with a big cliffhanger. We’ll both be back for the next installment!

Stranded is a good choice for middle grade readers, especially those just gaining comfort with reading chapter books on their own. It’s not very long, but it’s certainly engaging and exciting. Any time my kiddo asks for “5 more minutes!!” while he’s reading, I know we have a hit on our hands.

My only complaint? Nowhere in the book does anyone say, “The tribe has spoken.” Maybe in the next book? One can only hope.

Stranded 2: Trial By Fire will be released in June.