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Survivor (Classic): “Too Little, Too Late?”


Survivor (Classic)

“Too Little, Too Late?”

Season 1 , Episode 4

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So far in our walk down reality-TV memory lane, we’ve encountered quite a few historic Survivor moments: the first declaration of “I didn’t come here to make friends” (Kelly); the first gross-food challenge (squirming beetle larvae); the first rodent-based meal (grilled rat). In this episode, called “Too Little, Too Late?” (alternate title: “Why is Ramona So Fucking Lazy?”) we’ve got the most seismic moment of all, the formation of the very first Survivor alliance. This is the episode where the very premise of Survivor shifted forever, from a game of endurance to a game of strategy. And all thanks to a doughy, middle-aged gay guy from Massachusetts, currently serving a nine-month prison sentence for tax evasion. Bless his heart.

As “Too Little Too Late” begins, things are looking dire for Team Pagong. So far, Pagong has been the more cheerful tribe, but this week their spirits are in free fall. After a sleepless night exposed to the elements, Gretchen insists on moving their shelter back into the jungle (I guess she’s right, but I kept thinking about how buggy it must be at night). Ramona, perhaps sensing her teammates’ irritation with her negligible work ethic, finally decides to lend a hand, but Jenna warns that her efforts may be “a little too little too late.” Then there’s Greg, who spends most of the episode talking into a coconut shell. Is Greg crazy, or just funny? It’s anyone’s guess.

From the beginning, Tagi has been the more acrimonious of the two tribes, with tension popping up every which way between Susan, Dirk, Richard, Rudy, Sean and Kelly. Unlike the happy-go-lucky Tagi tribe, there are no obvious, instant friendships, just begrudging respect. This week, the primary source of conflict is Sean, who chooses to build a bowling alley on the beach while Susan goes out foraging for tapioca. Now if you’ll recall, Sean is the same putz—apparently a licensed doctor, which I find almost impossible to believe—who spent hours fashioning a useless fishing rod that looked exactly a prop from Gilligan’s Island, then whined that the rays Richard caught were weird looking. I barely remember Sean from the first time around, and I’m actually sort of blown away by what a huge waste of space he is. Sure, he’s young and fit, but he’s obviously counting on those two facts keeping him in the game for way longer than he deserves. (Don’t even get me started on the nipple ring.)

Señor Probst presents the reward challenge: Each team has to devise a distress signal to catch the attention of a passing plane. Whichever team comes up with the “most creative” distress signal will win a trunk load of branded merch from Target®—pillows, towels, a hammock—plus another luxury item of their choice. Representing Tagi, Jenna asks for a spice rack. Dirks asks for a filet knife. Here we’ve got two smaller historic firsts: the first (and maybe the only?) subjective reward challenge, and the first (and most definitely not the only) instance of blatant product placement. Conspicuous advertising aside, it is interesting to see what creature comforts the castaways are longing for. Colleen is thrilled at the possibility of drying off with a towel, while Jenna salivates over the idea of sprinkling a little garlic on her roasted rat. It’s close, but I might be with Jenna on this one.

Fired up over the rewards, the tribes begin to brainstorm feverishly. Dirk is offended by Kelly’s joking suggestion that they use condoms to spell out a message on the beach (presumably Survivor producers did not come to Pulau Tiga with thousands of prophylactics on hand, so he needn’t have worried). Meanwhile, Sean suggests they go for something “simple but extravagant, like the Rose Bowl,” which may be one of the most unintentionally hilarious quotes in the history of reality TV. (“Why don’t we just build a giant Roswell-themed float shaped like a spaceship on top of a massive flatbed truck, then spend weeks attaching thousands of flowers to it? You know, something simple like that.”) Tagi finally settles on something simpler and less extravagant: they write the message “Tagi is Groggy” in the sand and lie on the beach wearing their bright yellow raincoats, rhythmically moving their arms and legs. It’s cute that their message rhymes, but it’s weirdly indirect (possible interpretation: “Please help! We haven’t had any coffee this morning!”). After some discussion, Pagong settles for a less ambiguous, but still confusing message—a smiley face (possible interpretation: “We’re so happy to be here on this island and never want to leave!”). Swooping in on a plane overhead, Probst makes the call, and the Target® booty, filet knife, and spice rack all go to the Tagi tribe. The moving, colorfully dressed bodies clinched their victory, explains Probst, though the judging process is less than transparent.

More importantly, it's fun to watch Probst acting like he’s a war correspondent or something. Mostly, he just looks like he's modeling his “Blue Steel” face:

The reward challenge is decidedly stupid, but in the midst of it all, Richard drops a bombshell. Evidently frustrated by Sean’s general worthlessness, Richard reveals that he has formed a voting alliance with Kelly and Susan. They approach Rudy, who, at least for now, doesn’t think the alliance is right. (It’s funny how, so far, Rudy has mostly just been relegated to grumbling on the side lines; he doesn’t really become a central player until later in the game.) 

At this early stage, Richard mostly just seems shrewd, not duplicitous (though his conspiratorial goatee-stroaking hints at all the cunning to come). Survivor is, after all, basically an elaborate game show. Can you fault the guy for doing whatever it takes to win? What I’m wondering is when, exactly, he devised the alliance strategy. Did he dream it up back at home, or once he set foot on the island? (Related question: How much did the contestants even know about the game before they arrived in Borneo?)

Next up is the all-important immunity challenge, a multi-part relay race with swimming, rowing, running, and digging. Presumably because they have an extra tribe member, Ramona opts out of the race (so much for that work ethic). Then Pagong makes another big strategic error, assigning Colleen the first leg of the race. Colleen’s not an especially fast swimmer, and for some reason she makes the boneheaded decision to do the breaststroke, which certainly doesn’t help. Who knows what Pagong’s strategy was here, but they ought to have put their strongest swimmer first. After all, even a slow runner could have made it into the jungle and back fairly quickly; for a lousy swimmer, even a short distance can seem interminable.

Pagong’s situation worsens once it’s Gervase’s turn. It’s hard to tell with all the editing, but it looks like he makes it about 50 yards before stopping for a breather. Granted, it’s close to 100 degrees (or so Probst warns us), but Gervase looks like a pretty fit guy. Surely he could have made it a little farther? Once Dirk passes by him at top speed, Gervase is shamed into running for a bit, but once again slows down just to the edge of the jungle—then puts on a show of running at top speed down the beach. If only his fellow tribe members were able to see what the viewers saw, it’s doubtful Gervase would have lasted another week. 

It’s funny, given how much the editing emphasizes Gervase’s lollygagging—especially in contrast to Jenna and Gretchen’s furious digging—that the issue doesn’t come up in his one-one-on interview. At the tribal council, Gervase even has the nerve to admit that he feels invincible. Probst makes a glancing reference to Gervase’s weak performance in the past few challenges, but never comes out and says, “Why are you such a quitter?” Then Gervase changes his tune, admitting (jokingly, of course) to feeling vulnerable.  He’s way more charming than Sean, but Gervase suffers from the same deluded sense of entitlement—he assumes that being young, fit, and male means he’ll coast into the final four. How wrong he is.

For a minute there, it looks like our gal Colleen might get the boot, presumably because of her old-lady breaststroke, but in the end Pagong makes the predictable decision to send Ramona packing. Too little, too late, indeed.

Stray observations:

  • Greg on his “nature phone”: “It’s light, it’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s relatively affordable.”
  • I love the fearlessness with which Survivor mixes its metaphors: The contestants are tribe members and/or castaways, and they also go searching for treasure like pirates.
  • Ramona says that Jenna is her first white friend since middle school, so it’s a little sad when Jenna guiltily decides to vote her off the island.