At its best – as it was in the five episodes prior to last night’s – Survivor is a combination of social and physical tolerance that tests a person’s mental limits, a game that sometimes might seem dormant but is always bubbling beneath the surface and, for the viewer, a show that mainly relies on legitimate developments within those confines to spark drama.
At its worst, it’s every single moment of “Don’t Say Anything About My Mom.”
The season’s penultimate episode – and one of the series’ worst – tried mightily to squash any momentum the first 12 weeks of “Caramoan” built, something that seemed like a gargantuan task considering how engaging and unpredictable the events of the previous five weeks had been. But it almost happened, and it’s going to take a major U-turn in Sunday’s 3-hour finale to correct course and provide a satisfying conclusion after Wednesday’s giant mess.
Griping about any reality show not being “real” enough is a major waste of energy in most circumstances. We know The Bachelor is scripted, developing personalities and situations that otherwise wouldn’t play out organically. We almost certainly know Storage Wars is a product of A&E buying and setting up lockers in advance and filming false reactions and appraisals. And we know Duck Dynasty is basically a giant mockumentary of the Robertson clan, relying on some producers’ touches and the family’s over-the-top personas to create a show that’s an embellished version of themselves.
Survivor always claimed to be different, and while the edits of the contestants and their storylines will naturally involve some producer manipulation – Phillip makes for good TV; Erik, unless scaling a 70-foot tall coconut tree, generally doesn’t – the OUTCOME of the game is genuine. With one act in Wednesday’s episode, the producers tried their best to make a mockery of whose torch Jeff Probst snuffed out at Tribal Council.
Reward and immunity challenges are essentially what separate Survivor from The Real World or a home video of your family vacations. It’s hard to win Survivor without winning a few immunity challenges along the way, and winning rewards offers the chance to build camaraderie, strategize, and most importantly, EAT.
Unless, of course, there’s no reward at all.
Imagine holding a birthday party for your 8-year-old daughter. There are presents, friends are invited and cake is about to be served. You call over little Charlotte and tell her after she blows out the candles that there’s a choice to make. Only she, along with one specially selected friend of the five hungry, innocent faces looking back her way, will get to eat cake. Our little hero picks her playground crush. BUT WAIT! It’s not that simple! Either Charlotte and her future beau can dine until their little bellies are content OR the other four friends, at this point weeping and sobbing because they’ve been denied cake and when you’re six CAKE IS EVERYTHING, can have dessert! And partially because little Charlotte is such a giving soul but mostly because she doesn’t want to be hated and alienated by little Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young for the rest of her formative years – and time is ticking, IT’S AN ICE CREAM CAKE AFTER ALL! – she gives it up. She’s regaled as a hero, ensuring her popularity and likely punching her ticket as homecoming queen a decade before it’s due. All is well and good for our little Charlotte.
But not for Brenda. Charlotte’s harrowing decision is basically what Mark Burnett and his evil dictator chums did to our favorite former Miami Dolphins cheerleader. Just won a reward challenge with your alarmingly athletic-for-his-age father? Your reward is a decision that’s basically GUARANTEED to piss someone off enough to want you gone from the game.
What we’ve known about the family reward challenge in the past: The winner is usually allowed to select one or two other contestants and their family members to embark on a bit of binge eating. Throwing in the little twist of food-for-them or food-for you, this late in the game, with family involved, including – thanks to our friendly sponsors at Sprint! – another person waiting on the giant backyard deck CBS erected in the middle of the ocean was downright unforgivable.
But we’re not done yet. Not only did Erik, Fast Eddie, Sherri and Cochran get to eat burgers and hot dogs, they got to do it a Matt Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson Hail Mary away from Brenda and the despondent Dawn, who were left to heat up another bucket of sandy rice and gruel.
Brenda was left with no choice once she “won” this reward. She wasn’t going to take Cochran – her primary competition as the biggest threat left – and she wasn’t going to take Sherri, Eddie or Erik because, well, what would the point of that be? Dawn is the other potential power player left and she’s also a LEGITIMATE PSYCHOPATH who may have harvested Jeff Probst’s kidneys on the spot had Brenda not chosen her. As soon as the twist was announced, Dawn pulled a Dawn and the tears flowed like a Caramoan rain storm.
The scene continued back on the beach, Dawn harboring resentment toward Brenda even though Brenda had no control over the situation.
I have no proof of this, but it’s almost like the producers realized their ridiculous gaffe of screwing Brenda in the reward challenge by creating an immunity challenge that could have been titled The Brenda Lowe Invitational. But instead of holding on for the seven to 10 hours on that rail I’m sure she could have, Brenda listened to the classic Dawn “woe is me, I’m a mother of a Division III football team and I’ve never won a challenge” tale that Dawn likes to weave and eventually gave in and fell in the water. In case it wasn’t clear, Brenda admitted that had the challenge come down to Eddie and her, she certainly could have held on longer.
So it’s hard to feel too bad for Brenda, who thought she was skating along on the good graces she built up in the reward challenge and didn’t need immunity. But at this point in the game, everyone needs immunity. Cochran, who wouldn’t stop playing the strategic game even if a reward challenge promised a night with Kate Upton – and certainly wouldn’t trade it in after Probst announced he could trade it to Erik AND Eddie – went to Dawn to wisely discuss booting Brenda and the rest was history.
And thus, the rub of Survivor. Get too big too fast and you go home. Fly so far under the radar that you can make no legitimate case of your value to the jury (Erik! Sherri!) and you’re not going to win.
To do what Dawn did, though, is a far bigger sin to me. She’s tried to play a strategic game amid her wild bouts of crying, but Brenda is going to EAT HER ALIVE if Dawn makes it to the final tribal council. And it’s safe to say the rest of the jury will as well after Brenda divulges the details of Dawn being part of the backstabbing that went too far.
That leaves us with Cochran as a seemingly heavy favorite and Underdog Eddie, who has made his “I Just Got Eliminated” speech at Tribal Council about five different times, as the likeliest winners.
Power rankings heading into the finale:
5) DAWN (30/1 to win): Good luck getting a jury vote after that performance, darling. Let’s hope she doesn’t make it to the final three so we can be spared another sobfest, though Brenda’s prime-time evisceration of her would make for must-see TV.
4) SHERRI (25/1): She’s zero threat to win a remaining challenge and basically zero threat to win the game considering she sat on the back end of any alliance with which she was involved. She is, however, a major threat to replace Sandra Bullock in the straight-to-Blu Ray sequel to The Blind Side.
3) ERIK (8/1): Based on the way he’s been edited, Erik has about the same case to win the game as I do. We both enjoy coconuts and neither of us angered anyone – at least I don’t think I did. Though if the tease of a medical evaluation in the Sunday finale is legit, it’s probably going to be a result of Mr. George of the Jungle deciding to scale another tree with a 14-inch diameter.
2) EDDIE (6/1): Hear me out. The least likely underdog since the ’69 Jets has done ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to deserve to win. But, if some members of the jury despise the other two members of a potential final three so much that they’re casting their vote out of spite, Eddie has a real chance. Malcolm, Reynold, Michael and Andrea all would have reason to reward Eddie if for no other reason than to avoid handing $1 million to someone like Dawn or Sherri. Even if he’s up against likeable Cochran, Eddie could get Malcolm and Reynold’s votes. A stunning climb from a guy who was given very scientific 3,000-to-1 odds on this blog just weeks ago.
1) COCHRAN (1/1): Even odds for the only guy whose winning would make the events of this season very palatable. He’s played the best game by far, is such a cult hero that Sherri’s husband seemed to want to adopt him as his own son (would that make him Michael Oher in The Blind Side: Part II?!?) and just axed the biggest physical threat remaining in the game. The tricky part will be whether he slits Dawn’s throat before the final 3. He shouldn’t, because Cochran was a 5-million-times better version – and 10-trillion-times less annoying version – of Dawn. Cochran’s dream final 3 should include Dawn and Sherri.