Survivor (Classic): “Quest For Food”
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Survivor (Classic): “Quest For Food”

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.

On the other side of the island, it's a different scene altogether. Having rid themselves of B.B. the Horrible, the Pagong tribe frolics about like a band of enchanted woodland sprites. During a tapioca-foraging expedition in the jungle (no, really), they alight upon a mud volcano. The entire tribe splashes about merrily in the muck. For a minute there, they make island living seem like a blast.
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.

The booty proves very useful. Richard, determined to prove his mettle, goes on a fishing expedition. His tribe members are skeptical, but Richard quickly spears three rays. Sure, they look like greasy, fluttering pancakes, but hey—most fish are pretty ugly, aren’t they? Sean, whose Superpole 2000 has yet to get a single bite, yells at Richard for catching something insufficiently fish-like in appearance (Just wondering: How is this guy a doctor?), but he eventually concedes. Minutes later, Sean has already changed his tune. “Those are pretty damn tasty,” he concedes. It’’s official: Richard (or as Rudy likes to call him, “The Homosexual”) is the manliest man in the tribe.
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.

But I digress. While Tagi feasts on bowls of rice and flame-roasted fish goo, Pagong is not faring as well. They’re the happier tribe, prone to spontaneous conga lines and whatnot, but their esprit de corps hasn’t helped them catch any fish. The specter of rat-eating has loomed since the very beginning, and now, perhaps driven mad by jealousy over Tagi’s fishing spear, the tribe finally gives in to temptation. Greg devises an extremely clever rat trap, and quickly catches a few of the vermin (take that, Superpole 2000), but it’s Joel who really leads the charge when it comes to the rodent massacre. He is the Bill the Butcher of Pulau Tiga, gleefully sharpening his knife against a wet rock in anticipation of the bloody task ahead. Then he butchers the rodents and fries them up over the fire. As he casually nibbles away at a rat leg, Ramona and Gervase look on with rapt attention. A memorable conversation ensues. Inevitably, Greg says the rat tastes like chicken “if you use your imagination.” Ramona asks him to elaborate: “Am I using a lot of imagination?”

If you recall, Ramona is the castaway who just last week vomited at the thought of eating rice. It’s not surprising that, at first, she’s extremely wary of the rat barbecue. “Poor as we get in the ghetto, we don’t ever eat the rats.” (Another great line. I bet the execs at CBS were salivating over this footage.) Then Ramona and Gervase have a change of heart. Maybe they were driven mad by hunger, or maybe it was a trick of editing, but their reluctance vanishes rather suddenly. Ramona cautiously sniffs her chunk of rat meat, takes a nibble, then wordlessly hands a scrap to Gervase. All the while, some hilariously menacing music plays on the soundtrack—it’s the kind of music you’d hear in a serial-killer movie when the FBI raids the murderer’s hideaway and discover a fridge full of body parts. We’re expecting them both to be disgusted, so when Gervase finally issues his enthusiastic verdict—“We got to kill some more rats tonight. It’s on, ’til the break of dawn, like hot butter popcorn!”—it’s a surprise. The scene is edited perfectly, and played for maximum comedic effort.

When “Quest For Food” aired back in June 2000, it garnered huge ratings. 23 million people tuned in, an increase of 5 million from the previous week. I was hoping I could find some of the promos for the episode online to see how much CBS touted the rat buffet, but to no avail. The episode, of course, sparked a firestorm of controversy. Predictably, PETA protested outside CBS offices in Manhattan, but what shocked America was the idea that CBS was turning the cameras on starving people, shamelessly exploiting their desperation for the sake of ratings. Now the opprobrium seems a tad overheated. First, there’s the obvious fact that no one on the island was, technically speaking, starving. Then there’s the fact that the castaways all consented to be part of the show, a condition that buys a whole lot of leeway in the eyes of the American viewing public, or so it seems. These days, rodent slaughter is a fixture on Survivor, about as shocking as a hot-tub hook-up on Jersey Shore.

Both teams head into the elimination challenge with some traces of meat in their bellies. Their mission: build a stretcher using materials on the island, and use it to rescue their lightest team member from a fake plane crash in the jungle. I suppose the challenge is, on some level, a test of survival skills, but it still seems goofy. Tagi builds a stretcher with chicken wire (which I did not realize was indigenous to Borneo), while Pagong makes one out of bamboo and a few strategically placed scraps. There’s bickering on the Tagi side of the island, mostly between Stacey and Rudy, but over on Pagong, they’re getting along much better. They do a test-run with their stretched, and even turn Colleen upside-down for good measure. She just lies there, totally unfazed, like an unflappable pixie dream girl. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
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.

Stray observations:

  • 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.

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