This week we arrive at “Quest For Food,” the episode of Survivor that turned the surprise ratings hit into a nationwide sensation, the 44 minutes or so of TV that would inspire thousands of important conversations about the exploitative nature of reality television and what animals we’d be willing to eat for a million bucks. That's right: As the title euphemistically suggests, this is The Episode Where They Eat Rats.
As the episode begins, tensions are running high among the Tagi tribe. Stacey is seething with hatred for Rudy, and resentful that everyone on her team thinks she’s a wimp. Meanwhile, Dirk’s annoying the bejesus out of everyone with his incessant God-talk—or what he calls “my testimony.” Of all the people on the island, Dirk, the religious virgin saving himself for marriage (and making everyone else miserable in the process) is probably the most archetypal. He’s also clashing with fellow tribe member, Richard. “Homosexual people tend to talk about their homosexuality all the time, and it’s really annoying to me,” he says, blissfully unaware of the crushing irony of his words.
Even his hat is preachy:
Like The Real World’s Jon Brennan, who pined inappropriately for engaged cop Irene, Dirk is not so secretly lusting after Kelly, who’s got a long-term boyfriend back home. To her credit, Kelly doesn’t get too worried about the crush; she just thinks he’s sexually frustrated. Dirk says he “knows” he’s going to love sex—“It’s a gift from God”—but for now he insists he’s fine, totally fine, no really, just fine, thanks, then excuses himself to go “review a few chapters Ephesians” by himself.
Soon enough, Jeff Probst arrives to put an end to all the gaiety. Looking resplendent in his khakis and puka-shell necklace, Probst explains that it’s time for the first-ever reward challenge. The tribes have to lug a sunken treasure chest back to shore; whoever gets back first gets to keep the booty. Gervase is freaked out because of his lousy swimming skills, though he seems to do just fine when they actually get in the water. Tagi wins the challenge, and they get to take a mask, snorkel, and fishing spear back to their side of the island.
One thing that I find disappointing about Survivor is that it rarely, if ever, bothers any effort to tell the audience anything specific about the show’s setting; it always takes place in some undifferentiated “exotica” locale. Survivor is a network reality series, after all, so I wouldn’t expect a segment on the endangered toad slugs of Malaysia, but a few notes here and there couldn’t hurt. As it is, we know next to nothing about Pulau Tiga—its wildlife, its climate, its history, whether it’s ever been inhabited by humans who weren’t competing for a million-dollar prize. Nothing! We get lots of shots of teeming ants and scurrying rats, so couldn’t Probst take a break from all the quasi-mythic narration and give us a kernel or two of information about what it is we’re watching. For example: What is that critter that Richard caught? And why the plane-crash challenge in this episode? Is that just a goofy stunt dreamed up by producers, or is that something that actually happened on the island? It’s not like a little context would suddenly turn the show into a tedious educational documentary (don’t you hate those?); just look at The Amazing Race. If anything, it would add to the drama.
When it comes time for the challenge, Pagong soundly defeats Tagi. Heading into the elimination, it’s pretty clear it’s either going to be Rudy or Stacey who will be voted off the island. The problem with Rudy is he’s old, grumpy, and uncooperative. The problem with Stacey, or so we’re told, is that she’s not physically strong, though we never see much evidence of this (not to mention, it’s not like they’ve had to do anything particularly grueling anyway). Stacey does seem like a Debbie Downer type, but she gets some good lines in this episode (e.g. “I don’t trust Susan as far as I can throw her which according to the group would not be far.”) At the tribal council meeting, Stacey pleads her case, reminding the rest of the tribe that her fearless larvae-eating saved their asses last week. It’s a valid point, but it’s not enough to save her; at this point in the game, everyone’s still voting off the perceived “weakest link.” In her exit interview, Stacey expresses disbelief. “They kicked off their bug-eating hero instead of their food-stealing, stumbling, ornery old Navy SEAL.” Just like a mouthful of beetle larvae, she’s bitter to the very end.
- It’s unclear how widespread the rat-eating is at this point. Did anyone other than Joel, Gervase, and Ramona take part?
- Again, if you want to watch along, I recommend this YouTube account.
- Between the mud bath and the snorkeling, this is the first episode of Survivor where I was a little jealous of the castaways. Then they started eating rats, and I got over it.
- Add this to the growing list of Susan malapropisms: “Rich getting fish for the group, that’s not coming into foreplay yet.” (Well, I should hope not… )
- Rat-eating aside, Pagong really seems to have a lot of fun with each other. The even do a conga line into the reward challenge.
- Is it just me, or does the Tagi gang have a much nicer stretch of beach than Pagong?
- I wonder how far apart the Tagi and Pagong camps actually were. It’s funny that, for the first week or so anyway, the tribes have very little interaction with each other.
- Notice how Probst calls the tribes “Pagong” and “Tagi”—singular, no article. This drives me a little crazy. Even if they were actual tribes (which, duh, they aren’t), this makes very little grammatical sense.
- One thing Survivor does incredibly well is cinematography. There were several moments in this episode when I was struck by the beauty of the footage, especially in the underwater sequences.