Alan Sepinwall on TV: The name of the game
As the latest edition of ' Survivor' winds down, it's stronger than ever
Thursday, May 08, 2003 http://www.nj.com/entertainment/ledg...6337151360.xml
On "Survivor," the best players are often the ones you don't see coming. No one expected Richard Hatch to last a week, let alone win the thing. Tina Wesson pretended to follow the lead of others while deliberately bonding herself to Colby Donaldson, who was strong enough to carry them both to the finish line. Vecepia Towery spent so much time talking about the wonders of God that no one viewed her as a credible threat until she was counting up her million-dollar grand prize.
And thanks in large part to unlikely schemer Rob Cesternino, the "Survivor" franchise has surprised by delivering its most exciting season since the first, and maybe ever.
TV shows aren't supposed to get better in their sixth season, especially reality game shows, which traditionally have a creative half-life of about six weeks. (Those crickets you hear chirping when someone tries to discuss the latest incarnation of "The Bachelor" shouldn't be surprising.)
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But "Survivor: The Amazon" has outwitted, outplayed and outlasted the competition and returned to peak form. It's not the most popular reality show anymore, but none of the others, with the possible exception of CBS' soon-to-return "Amazing Race," can remotely match it for entertainment value from beginning to end.
Some of the credit for the franchise's resurrection -- especially after the tedium of "Survivor: Thailand" -- rightly goes to puppeteering producer Mark Burnett, who had the very bright idea to divide his teams by gender this time around.
What looked at first like a colossal mismatch -- the guys not only had all the muscle, but an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist to help with the brainier challenges -- turned into a surprisingly competitive and funny affair, as the overconfident guys kept choking on the determined ladies' dust. And both sides seemed to spend more time speculating and fantasizing about their opposite-sex counterparts than they did hunting, gathering and, you know, surviving.
But the novelty of this battle of the sexes only carried so far, especially since Burnett abandoned it after just six episodes by shuffling the lineups. At this late stage of its life, "Survivor" is a game of chance, depending on enough colorful personalities and drama to fuel 13 weeks of interesting television. Some seasons, like "Survivor: Marquesas," the pieces all fell into place; in others, like "Survivor: Africa," everyone was too worn down by the environment to do anything but complain.
With "Amazon," Burnett has character and conflict to spare, starting with Rob, who has been like manna from reality TV heaven. Starting off as the token Funny Guy who just went along with the majority, he gradually revealed himself as a "Survivor" chess wizard, capable of seeing three moves ahead and making sure his enemies have been in constant checkmate. Even his backup plans have backup plans.
Previous seasons have fallen victim in the later weeks to the phenomenon that "Survivor" die-hards call "Pagonging": the boring sequence where the alliance in majority picks off the opposition one-by-one, named in tribute of Richard's victims.
But Rob has been so elusive and conniving that his core alliance changes not only episode to episode, but minute to minute. In a way, he's a better strategist than Richard. Richard essentially created the rules of "Survivor," while Rob has had to scheme against 15 people who have watched the show for years. At this point, he's probably broken too many promises to win the game, but he's kept the audience guessing every week.
While Rob made the contest unpredictable -- Burnett doesn't even have to hide the strategy talk in the editing room, since Rob makes so many conflicting promises about how he's going to vote -- other contestants have supplied the sociological intrigue that turns "Survivor" into more than just a game show.
On "Survivor," fitting in with the crowd is just as important as doing well in the challenges, and this season we've seen all kinds of reasons why people don't get along:
Age, in the way fiftysomething ex-Marine Roger Sexton bossed around the youngsters and didn't understand why they didn't automatically fall in line.
Race, in the way Daniel Lue tried to blame his difficulties on being the show's only Asian male, instead of the fact that he was lazy, cocky and single-handedly responsible for blowing several challenges.
Gender, in the way lawyer Deena Bennett got so caught up in a hear-me-roar moment that she didn't realize two female alliance-mates had abandoned her to flirt (and vote) with a cute guy.
Sheer weirdness, in the way Matthew Von Ertfelda has acted like a cross between an android and a serial killer.
In the season's two most absorbing slices of anthropological life, we saw hearing-impaired Christy Smith struggle to communicate with people who showed no interest in making the tiniest adjustment to their daily routines to accommodate her, while Jenna Morasca and Heidi Strobel behaved like their alleged good looks entitled them to work less and whine more than anyone else.
Ordinarily, I wouldn't criticize a person's appearance, but Heidi's constant moaning about what a hardship it is to be so pretty compels me to point out that, even before the contestants started wasting away from lack of food, she resembled a skeleton with breast implants. The fact that she and Jenna were still able to use sex appeal to manipulate some of the men suggests the old adage that if you feed a starving man a few crumbs, he'll think it's a meal.
Heidi seems a bit too clueless to hate, but Jenna quickly established herself as the most loathsome contestant in "Survivor" history. Jerri Manthey, the previous title-holder, at least seemed to be using the show as an audition to play a soap opera villain. Nastiness just comes naturally to Jenna, who has complained about everything and everyone, and let her temper flare whenever someone dared question her self-assumed position as queen of the Amazon. When she was in a position of power in the game, she used that as an excuse to slack off and work on her suntan; when she was in danger of being voted off, she decided to be even more slothful just to spite the others.
The relationship between the two so-called cuties and Christy took on Cinderella connotations even before Christy dubbed them "the wicked stepsisters." They ignored her for weeks on end, acknowledging her presence only when they needed her to advance in the game -- at which point they promptly backstabbed her. In Jenna's lowest moment (and there were a lot of lows), she bitterly complained that Christy won a letter from home, which Jenna felt she herself deserved because her mother was dying of cancer. This ignored two points: first, that Christy allowed Jenna to get her own letter anyway; second, that Jenna had deliberately chosen to abandon her ill mom so she could wear teeny-tiny bikinis on TV.
In the end, Christy was lucky to last as long as she did, not because of her disability, but because she didn't even start playing the game until a few days before she got voted out. Still, she did wonders for deaf awareness and came out looking like the most beautiful woman on the show, inside and out.
In seasons past, Burnett has been burned by seeing his liveliest contestants voted out before the finale, but going into tonight's penultimate episode, the only dud in the bunch is middle school principal Butch Lockley, who has been flying so far under the radar that the mole people probably wave as he goes by.
Whatever happens, the final two episodes should be intriguing, which is something "Survivor" didn't seem capable of anymore.