Survivor narratives are almost always built upon stereotypes. Reality television in general is a slave to them, with the casting process often feeling like nothing but an attempt to tick off rigidly predetermined personality types rather than picking the most interesting people. It’s easy to see why reality television shows like Survivor gravitate towards stereotypes, as they act as both a shorthand for audience investment and a great way to build long-term narratives that either confirm or challenge those stereotypes—Cochran’s meteoric rise from stereotypical “nerd” to game winner, strategist, and challenge winner comes to mind. But although they can be easy storytelling crutches, stereotypes have one big downfall: They’re lazy as hell.
Given Survivor’s history and Jeff Probst’s involvement, hearing that this season was going to be themed “Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty” didn’t instill much confidence. Probst’s opening voiceover cheerfully exclaiming the contestants would be using “the qualities they most rely on in their everyday lives” confirmed these suspicions, and him following up by saying the Beauty tribe “use their looks to get what they want” cemented it: Survivor and other reality shows may trade on stereotypes, but turning those stereotypes into actual gameplay text is somewhat horrifying. Do you think Brice most relies on his looks while working as a social worker? Or Lindsey relies on her brawn as the owner of a hair salon? Or Alexis most relies on her beauty as a student at Northwestern? It’s insultingly reductive and simple.
But, let’s face it, reductive and simple is what Survivor wants. It wants to have a silly, straightforward hook it can promote in 30-second television spots. If that hook doesn’t stand up to a more microscopic view, what do they lose? Not much, it turns out. This is especially true because once the game actually gets started, other than the annoying tendency for everyone to identify themselves as a trait rather than a person, the game pretty much goes on as per usual (something could be said for calling this a social experiment about identity and the tendency to want to define yourself by the way others see you, but that’s far too lofty a goal for this show). The producers have gathered what appears to be a pretty decent mix of personalities. The challenges are fairly interesting. And the premise itself is salvaged by one tribe—one person, really—going completely off the rails.
When Survivor announced that it was doing Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty, it was obvious the early stages of the game was going to be all about shaming the nerds, and that definitely comes to pass. “Brains” isn’t a quality that is overly important in the first few days of the game, as alliances are barely there and all anyone can think about is where they are going to sleep, what they are going to eat and drink, and how they are going to keep from going to Tribal Council. During the first challenge, Probst made a big hyperbolic stink about Brains “absolute(ly) falling apart” in the challenge, but was that really a surprise? No, it was just a chance for Probst to be Probst and worship at the gods of physical fitness. When the Brains went to Tribal and eliminated Marlins General Manager David Samson (who listed his personal claim to fame on the CBS website as “Got local government in Miami to contribute over 350 million dollars to a new baseball park during the recession,” so go blow, asshole), it was basically a shrug. Who expected anything different?
Where things got interesting was during the second Immunity Challenge of the episode, when Brains pulled out to a big lead, only to have J’Tia blow it all on the puzzle. It was fascinating and devastating to watch someone so incredibly intelligent (J’Tia is a nuclear engineer) fall apart so spectacularly. Even Probst seemed surprised, as he didn’t needle her nearly as much as expected. J’Tia’s meltdown at the challenge was only the beginning; when the tribe sat down to discuss who was going home, everything went to hell as Garrett—who has a hidden immunity idol and therefore feels rather bored and blasé about this whole “playing Survivor” business—decides they should all talk as a group about who is going to go home. It’s an epically bad decision: J’Tia going home is a foregone conclusion, all anyone has to do is shut up and let it happen. But Garrett wants to make sure he doesn’t have to use his immunity idol, and in the process tanks his own game trying to squelch any extraneous conversations. First Tasha bristles, and then J’Tia goes a bit mental at being on the chopping block and pours the tribe’s entire rice supply in the fire. Once that happens, there’s no way J’Tia isn’t going home right?
Wrong. Because Garrett is perhaps the worst player to grace the game of Survivor in quite a while, he performs so incredibly poorly at Tribal Council that he ends up getting blindsided and going home. I repeat: A man who had an immunity idol in his pocket and a relatively decent alliance went home over a woman who threw all of the tribe’s rice in the fire. It’s one of the biggest Tribal meltdowns in history. And this man plays poker for a living!
Really, though, although the Brains tribe conquered stereotypes here and melted down completely because of two people losing their brains completely, there isn’t much more the show can do with their stereotypical narrative beyond the superficial. If the season keeps going on like the premiere episode, the season will survive despite of the little boxes the show is trying to put people in and not because of it. What really matters is that overall, it looks like the Survivor producers have cast the season well, and good casting trumps all.
- Everyone guessing what tribe they were on at the beginning was like the worst middle school gym class team selection flashback ever.
- The beginning of the show was so unnecessarily complicated, with the tribes electing a leader then those leaders electing someone else. All we need to know is that Tony has an immunity idol because of it.
- Tony also has a “spy shack,” which he plans on using to eavesdrop but if he was on Big Brother would be used for …something else.
- From the flags, it looks like the tribes have actual names that aren’t Brawn, Beauty, or Brains. Yeah, I’m never going to use those.
- I am intrigued by the bromance between Cliff Robinson and Woo. Tipping the boat was hilarious.
- Garrett: “I want to play Survivor to outwit and outplay people. I don’t want to play Survivor to survive out in the wilderness.”