Survivor Gabon Week 1
In terms of production value and sometimes suspense, “Survivor” is in a class all its own for reality shows. Many have tried to emulate its format, but no one has learned how to capture what it means to haul 18 complete strangers to some exotic locale, force them to create a “society”, perform difficult physical or mental challenges, and, as its fabled slogan says, “outwit, outsmart, outlast” the elements and the other contestants for 39 days. Since its start in 2001, there have been cult favorites like the first winner, the ornery Richard Hatch (now serving time in prison, incidentally, for evading Uncle Sam with his prize money), professional soccer player Ethan Zohn, who won the otherwise uninteresting season three, Survivor: Africa. That was even the season that introduced Elizabeth Hasselbeck to the world, and now we can take in her Republican cheerleading on the “View”. The locales for the show was visually stunning, and the show is paced in such a way to guarantee that there will be some level of intrigue in every episode, and as the season goes on and there are fewer survivors, things get pretty intense. Of course, this is the show that brought the term “tribal council” to American cultural lexicon, and it’s the centerpiece of each episode. Survivors arrive here ready to vote out someone with lit torches. The erstwhile (and recently Emmy-winning) host Jeff Probst reads out the votes, and when your name is called, your torch is symbolically snuffed out. The prize at the end of 39 grueling days? A cool million bucks.
For its 16th (!) go-around (there are two “Survivors” each year –one in September, another in February), producers chose a return to Africa and the country of Gabon. As the show opens in HD (a first), Probst does the usual intro with a sweeping view of some of the grassy terrain and its wild inhabitants (cue the cute elephants), and all of a sudden 18 “normal” people come into the picture, dressed in their street clothes. As is probably customary still, producers want to give the impression that the contestants have literally been plucked from home and dropped in some foreign land. When you apply for “Survivor”, you don’t necessarily know where you’re going. When you arrive, you also can’t talk to each other, until you’re instructed to do so by Probst.
So when Jeff gets them all together and asks them to introduce themselves to each other, we get to meet them too. There’s Bob, a 50-something physics teacher/fisherman from Maine; Jacque, a middle aged blonde who is into medical equipment sales; Ken, a 20-something professional video game player who calls himself “shy”; Marcus, a handsome person “in the medical field” (he is a doctor, according to the official bio); Charlie, an attorney (his bio claims he plays “for the other team”); Ace, a bald, strapping photographer, etc., etc. One thing that’s hard about the very first weeks of “Survivor” in any season is trying to keep up with all the names and personalities. A few tend to stand out early, but most are behind the scenes and you can’t remember their names. Some idiots try deliberately to say something eye-popping at the outset. Corinne, a 30-something woman with brown curly hair says she is in “pharmaceutical sales” to the crowd but in the filmed interviews the producers intersperse, she declares, “I’m gonna be a total bitch and I’m gonna get rid of who I have to get rid of..and I’m gonna hurt people’s feelings. I’m gonna laugh when people cry. And I’m gonna own it!” What bravado.She’ll be writhing in pain in a couple of weeks over something that bit her. Guess she has to appear tough and bitchy at the start so we’ll know at home. Classy.
Matter of fact, one of the appeals of “Survivor” is the people. “Dan” used to be an attorney for five years and is “now finding himself”. “Sugar” is a “retro pin-up model”. And right off the top, host Jeff selects two leaders who will choose up two teams, playground style, like when you played dodgeball in school. Bob the Physics Teacher With the Bow-Tie is one leader. Gillian, the Older Nurse With Gray Curly Hair and a British Accent, is the other. Sides are chosen, and then there is Michelle, the cute girl who gets picked last. Bob’s team is yellow and their name is “Kota”. Gillian’s team is red and they are called “Fang”
Right away, they are put to work –as in racing up a hill for a physical challenge. If they make it there first, they can win the reward, which are supplies to get their camp started –tents, pots, canvas, a bag of rice. The twist, however, is that if the entire team of 9 arrives first, they can also win an additional sack of corn and beans. Some of these people are in their street clothes, so they struggle, including –amazingly—Crystal Cox, a Black woman who doesn’t reveal that she was an Olympic track-and-field star (2004 Gold Medalist in 4 x 400 relays). “My shoes weighed at least 10 pounds” is her excuse, as her large frame is helped along by teammate Matty, a surfer. The winners, Kota, head to their spot and build their space while Fang does the same, but just without the supplies. Kota gets to work quickly, with Bob building shelters, digging latrines, but then you realize that part of getting started is that there should (ideally) be a leader to tell others what to do. Maybe this is a natural tendency; maybe some people lead while others follow. Ace tries to “run the show”, which begins to annoy the others. Over at Fang, Gillian instantly annoys others by walking around and giving orders. It doesn’t look like she is doing much, so she isn’t all that effective. In fact, Fang doesn’t really have a leader because the members are still in some disarray. Plus they are hampered by the fact that they don’t have much to work with.
In the end, it’s Michelle who’s gone at the end of the first episode. Why Michelle? Because she has a bit of an attitude. When she was picked last, and then subsequently was the first woman to reach the hill in the first challenge, she bragged about it. The others around her are “retarded’; she “pretends to like the others”, and she somehow makes a charity friend in Ken, who practically gets excited that a nerd invites the attention of a female and he thinks he actually has a chance at a girl for the first time since high school. (I don’t think he has had a girl at all, mind you.) Also, Michelle commits the common “Survivor” mistake of griping that she is miserable –and wants to go home. Yeah, some people just can’t hack it. She is exposed in the relative “cold”, and she does look like an unhappy camper. Her team grants her her wish to leave, and it’s just not worth having someone who doesn’t want to be around.
By the end of the next episode (there were two), it’s clear that Fang is overmatched by Kota. Fang can’t win the physical challenges, and thus they lose the reward (fishing gear) and ultimately the second immunity challenge. But they are also relatively leader-less. Jeff basically appoints GC, who had personal immunity because he reached the initial hill first, leader against his will, or better said, he and others just don’t want to be it for fear of being blamed for something down the line. It’s a common allergy on “Survivor’ because you can get picked off pretty quickly. In the second episode, GC argues with others, especially Gillian, but the interesting thing is that the team, despite their challenges, manages to work together and set up their own camp. It is about leadership, but for the moment, no one really wants to step up and tell others what to do. And ultimately the axe falls on Gillian, whose biggest fault is probably that she opens her mouth too much and wants to appear helpful. The problem is, she doesn’t quite contribute as much as the others. You want to light up some elephant dung? Who knew it was flammable? Finally, Gillian seems to just be out of it by the time her torch is extinguished.
The season is still early. There’s a lot to watch, but so much to focus in on. Nonetheless, here are a few noteworthy moments to keep an eye on for future episodes:
- Dan, the attorney on Fang, is chosen by Kota in the second immunity challenge to go to Exile Island. “Exile Island” is the name given to an isolated location in every “Survivor” locale for a few years now where someone is cut off from the rest of the group, with no food, but who is given clues as to where a valuable immunity “idol” is hidden. In other seasons, exiled Survivors have located the idol, and of course it can be used at tribal council if the Survivor feels he or she might be voted off. (Classic moment, during the Survivor All Stars season last year when Ozzie, one of the most physically skilled players, stupidly did not use his idol when he was blindsided by the others.) In any case, Dan does not find the idol, despite looking for hours for a “sandy crater” –which is right behind him. For an attorney with “strong analytical skills” he sure cannot make his way around and do some quality sleuthing.
- The cranky player this season may be Randy, the 50-something photographer. He does weddings and other events in real life, but affirms that he will never get married. Randy tends to complain about a lot of things, especially people around him like Gillian. He seems a little disagreeable and downright nasty, but he tends to keep things in, saving his remarks for the offside camera. Randy is also the first to have a minor medical emergency, when he hits his head against a sharp branch that is holding his tent up during the night. The gashes on his head are bloody and we see them through the cool night-vision cameras. The crack medical team (the production staff is close-by, with food and all the amenities) comes in and tapes him up, stitches him and hopes for the best.
- A fascinating ‘bro-mance’ is shaping up between Charlie Herschel, the 29-year-old gay attorney from New York and Marcus Lehman, the 28-year-old straight doctor from Jacksonville, FLA. I don’t know if ‘bro-mance’ is the right word, and I’m also thinking that the term originated in reality TV somewhere (Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell? Ryan Seacrest and male American Idol contestants?), but this very situation between two men of different orientations did occur on “America’s Top Model” a few years back. What is unusual here is that the two seem to naturally like each other emotionally and intellectually, and look to each other for support. Marcus does not seem to flinch at Charlie’s relatively excited interest in him, and yeah, it’s so gushing he can’t seem to contain himself. Marcus is also clearly clever enough to pick up on the fact that Charlie has a different genetic code, so to speak, but as he tells the camera, he is cool but he “doesn’t roll that way”. What a plot line filled with possibilities. Imagine when Charlie finds that Marcus snuggling up with Corinne, who is now part of their own mini-alliance. Watch sparks fly when Charlie, seeing that Marcus likes un-macho things like meditation and yoga, tries to make a late-night move on his buddy. What happens when this relationship “breaks up” when the teams either merge or one of them joins another alliance. Or, when Marcus finds another admirer? It’s not just the harsh elements, remember. You need to keep your wits around you amid all the various personalities to stay alive.
- In a related note, um, well, there is a tiny video clip out there that shows Marcus running during a physical challenge and his ding-dong is clearly in view. Yes, it’s hanging out and yes, the CBS television network managed to get this on at 8 PM in prime time. Somehow this got past the censors, who usually do a little fuzzy thing over people’s butts or exposed breasts. My question is this: since when did it become acceptable for men (and women) to wear underwear as athletic wear? Marcus was wearing boxer briefs, with the fly open for the world to see his jewels. Other guys are wearing boxers; women have worn garments that look like thongs. Over the course of the season, you will probably see less and less –as in less garment and less body mass and then those shorts and shirts begin to hang off the body. Charlie awaits eagerly.
- Finally, this “Survivor” season is the first one done in HD –High Definition. The look is very impressive and the producers (Mark Burnett, et al) have made it a thrill to follow. At times it looks like a National Geographic documentary in its wide shots and expansive sceneries. Given the Burnett empire and the lucrative enterprise he has built with this, his most prestigious of his reality shows, you can see where some of the production costs are going.