Survivor Has Found God… and Social Media

When people talk these days about reality TV, the images of Snooki making out with a girl (both drunk), or loud housewives screaming at each other in restaurants probably come to mind. But quietly, oh so quietly, the show that started it all is taking this whole concept in another direction.

Let’s for a minute revisit the old direction. Survivor started out eons ago now, with conniving, back-stabbing Richard Hatch winning its first season (you remember him, he later ended up in jail for tax evasion). Throughout its seasons, it has pretty much been thus, too. Lying, cheating, backstabbing, blindsiding people who trust you. That’s how you win.

But its strength, right from that very first episode, has been in listening. In letting people do what they do, and letting things happen. That first outburst by Sue at Tribal Council still gives me chills if I think about it. People are funny, and people will surprise you.

That is really what has kept Survivor at the top of its game all these years, and is, frankly, why Jeff Probst keeps scooping up those Emmys every year (well-deserved). They let people do their thing and they capture it on camera.

But something really significant happened last season. While there had been many backstabbing moments captured on film, this was different. These last couple of seasons of Survivor have added a new wrinkle called Redemption Island. Where you aren’t voted out immediately, you kind of go to a holding area, to fight one last battle for your survival.

The brilliant thing about this new thing is that the Survivors who get sent there are pretty much removed from all the pre-planned and produced hoopla going on with the others. They are pretty much on their own, for days or weeks sometimes.

Matt was the contestant who changed the path of Survivor. You see, Matt believed in God. Strongly. And you’d see him on Redemption Island, getting spiritual, connecting with God, then winning all these challenges. Survivor producers may not have originally planned it that way, but it turned out to be great TV.

Sometimes competitors would get to hang out for a bit, before they had to do battle. Such a thing happened with Matt and an opponent from the opposite team. They were on opposing teams on Survivor, but in the team of religion, they were on the same side. They shared Bible verses with each other, and prayed before their battle.

And here was the moment, as stunning a Survivor moment as that first outburst by Sue when she described Richard as a rat. One competitor on Redemption Island lost. Matt was left behind to fight another later. As the competitor left, he turned and gave his Bible to Matt. “You need it more than me right now,” he said. It was stunning, heart-wrenching. Poignant. Real.

Ratings gold.

And also, brought up a whole new question, one which had been bounced around, in some contestants here or there through the seasons, but usually played down. What if there was a different kind of Survivor? What if you picked people who had a very strong faith, of whatever kind? People who might play Survivor with integrity instead of the old, played-out backstabbing mold? What if you quietly, but surely, looked at the various contestants to see how they make it through their days? What types of prayers do they share? When do they call on God, and how?

And most importantly, is the structure of Survivor such that you cannot win without cheating, lying and back-stabbing? It is, after all these seasons, a thrilling question. A compelling spin on an old game.

We are two episodes into this new season of Survivor: South Pacific. Another recent new wrinkle: contestants from past seasons are brought back. Last season, two “villains” returned: Rob Mariano (who ended up winning) and Russell Hantz (possibly the most hated and evil manipulative player ever). This season, a new direction. The two brought back were known for their spirituality.

Cheerful loving Ozzy, and “Coach,” who was primarily known for meditating and doing yoga on the beach. Right out of the gate, both are molding their teams, not through sneaky manipulation (lying to this one or that), but by trying to function through integrity. Being truthful to their tribemates.

In a really bizarre wrinkle (it’s almost like a parallel-universe Survivor), evil Russell Hantz’s nephew is on the show. Except, he’s the exact opposite. He quotes Bible verse, and gets so troubled when he tells a lie that he has to blurt out the truth, sometimes at very inopportune moments. He is physically struggling with lust in Ep. 2. He endeavors to get the object of his lust booted out, since “I’m a married man. I can’t have her around.” It’s fascinating.

There are hints that in the next episode, he’s struggling with the good and bad sides of his nature.

And it’s not just these three. Ozzy, whom contestant Dawn had called “Bob Marley” just a bit earlier for his free spirit, calms Dawn down when she freaks out a bit, after realizing the tough conditions of actual Survivor. Jeff Probst (whom I take for a very spiritual man himself) always says that Survivor will “kick your ass.” Sometimes it takes awhile to see this, as contestants get emaciated and pass out, or quit. Sometimes it shows up right away.

Dawn, whom I love, cause I can relate to her so much, seems very tightly wound. Very much in control in her normal life. Suddenly in an out-of-control situation. You can imagine. But there, in a deeply spiritual moment, Ozzy the veteran, stops what he’s doing, to counsel Dawn. Tells her (what is obvious to us) that she’s “got what it takes.” (I think she’s got what it takes to win, too.)

And really, the truth of Survivor always has been that you have to push yourself to limits you didn’t know you could get through. There was a moment last season, where two tough talking chickies pulled all sorts of shenanigans, but one week of solid rain brought them to their knees. They both quit.

Since then, new rules have been put into place about the whole quitting thing. It was a Survivor disgrace. To say nothing of the thievery and pushing down people with one leg. It got very nasty. Maybe this is a karmic way for Survivor to get its good mojo back.

Other cast members have their own methods of religion or connection with the Universe. One calls upon her Native American roots, and prays to their gods. Another, a gay policeman, talks about how now he “has nothing to lose.” Each, in their own way, seems to be on a spiritual quest of some kind.

Of course, TV is about conflict, so amidst all these do-gooders, you have to have some evil. We have a poker playing pot seller (medical), a scheming selfish shrewish woman (who’s already been voted out), and maybe a couple of others. But it really looks like this season, the good guys are going to win. Or at least those connected to God. You really should watch.

********************

In other Survivor news, host Jeff Probst continues to push the envelope with social media. Last season, he simultaneously Tweeted to first the East Coast, then the West Coast, as each’s episode aired. It was wonderful. So far this time, he is only Tweeting for one show, but he’s also adding an element called “Tout,” where he can post video segments (answering fan questions during the commercials). It is the most effective use of social media from any show I’ve seen on TV. Great way to get the fans involved–and watching in real time.

All great reasons to tune in to Survivor: South Pacific. It’s going to be a good season, God told me so.

Emmys 2011: Some thoughts

Kyle Chandler. That’s all I keep thinking about when I remember last night’s Emmys. The good guys finally won. Our full hearts and clear eyes finally found some Emmy voters who agreed with not only Kyle Chandler as Best Actor in a Drama, but also the series finale, “Always” as Best Writing in a Drama.

That image, of Kyle Chandler (truly not expecting to win), and the favorite, Jon Hamm truly looking stunned he didn’t, keeps staying with me.

That, and the Best Actress in a Comedy beauty contest pageant lineup (dreamed up by Amy Poehler and Martha Plimpton) that ended up with long-overdue winner (for Gilmore Girls, not just Mike & Molly) Melissa McCarthy ending up with a tiara on her head, and roses in her hands, in addition to an Emmy.

Melissa McCarthy with a tiara. Kyle Chandler, nearly speechless. The good guys winning. That’s what this Emmys brought.

Many of my predictions (Peter Dinklage for Game of Thrones Best Supporting Actor, Drama; Julianna Margulies for Best Actress, Drama; Ty Burrell for Best Supporting Actor, Comedy) seemed easy to me, and came true (I had a 16-9 record). But it was the ones I thought were too good to actually happen that did.

Kyle Chandler, Melissa McCarthy. I had actually predicted “Always” to win Writing, but I thought it too sweet, too perfect to happen. Like Martin Scorcese, winning for Direction in Drama for Boardwalk Empire. It seemed like it must happen, I predicted it, but it seemed so far outside what everyone else was predicting.

I was wrong about Julie Bowen, though I was right about most of the rest of the Modern Family cavalcade. Both Jane Lynch and Julie Bowen triumphed thru being submitted on their competitors’ tapes this year. I’m really glad it was Bowen who pulled it out.

And when Peter Dinklage got up there (the common wisdom varied, usually centering on either John Slattery or Josh Charles), taking a statue for the Lannisters, all felt right with the world. So, too, when Margo Martindale (whom I also had predicted) got to the stage. It was like there was a collective “Awwww” heard all through Hollywood. Here was a working actress who had been one of those “jobbers” who’s constantly working in series after series, being recognized for what a great actress she actually is.

That was the tenor and the fabric of this year’s Emmys. No glossy winners who didn’t deserve it. Jeff Probst had won again at the Creative Arts Emmys last week (so very deserving). The Daily Show, deservedly, collected its stash of trophies. (So very deserving.) Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce, who made Mildred Pierce come alive, picked up theirs.

Stately Downtown Abbey won its share, including for Maggie Smith.

In fact, I can’t think of one winner where I thought, Oh, that’s so wrong, that person/show didn’t deserve it. And, for me, the ones I missed I credit to the fact that I hadn’t yet watched their tapes (Jim Parsons for Best Actor, Comedy; although everyone else was predicting Steve Carrell, anyway).

Let me speak to that for a moment. People who predict Emmys (for a living, even) often choose based on who is “due” or who seems to be hot at the moment. I believe firmly that the driving factor in choice is the tape in front of that Emmy voter, compared against the next tape. Perhaps, if, for example, Martha Plimpton and Melissa McCarthy both had brilliant and funny tapes, and a voter can’t decide, they will go to “Oh yeah, she’s been working in the industry for so long, she deserves it,” or “I loved her in Bridesmaids, so I’m going to pick her.” Perhaps it works like that. With the tape being 85% of the decision, and all things being equal, other factors being added in after that point.

Others, including big Emmy gurus, predict people like Steve Carrell because of the sentimentality, the picture they’d like to paint, that “well, it’s his last year on The Office,” of course people are finally going to give it to him.” I don’t think that factors in at all. (Or within 10-15%, at most.) I erred in my prognostications this year because I bought into the hype, thinking that Betty White, back together with Mary Tyler Moore in her tape, would be Emmy catnip.

Really, what counted was that in both Jane Lynch’s case and Julie Bowen’s case, they were on TWO tapes that Emmy voters watched. And since Lynch won last year, it was a simple choice.

I use these factors to make my Emmy prognostication better next time around.

But until then, go seek out Friday Night Lights, if you haven’t already. Cause you know: Clear eyes, Full hearts can’t lose. Congrats to all.

2011 Emmy Predictions

NOTE: Items marked in bold are the ones I got wrong…

Just a quick list. Will have more detailed explanation in my podcast, MBH116, which should be out tomorrow.

VARIETY SERIES
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

REALITY COMPETITION
The Amazing Race

MOVIE/MINI SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey

MOVIE/MINI SUPPORTING ACTOR
Guy Pearce, Mildred Pierce

MOVIE/MINI ACTRESS
Kate Winslet, Mildred Pierce

MOVIE/MINI ACTOR
Edgar Ramirez, Carlos

BEST MOVIE/MINISERIES
Mildred Pierce

COMEDY SUPPORTING ACTOR
Ty Burrell, Modern Family

COMEDY SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Betty White, Hot in Cleveland

COMEDY ACTRESS
Martha Plimpton, Raising Hope

COMEDY ACTOR
Louis C.K., Louie

COMEDY WRITING
Louie, “Poker/Divorce”

COMEDY DIRECTING
Modern Family, “Halloween”

COMEDY SERIES
Modern Family

DRAMA SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Margo Martindale, Justified

DRAMA SUPPORTING ACTOR
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones

DRAMA ACTRESS
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife

DRAMA ACTOR
Hugh Laurie, House (Happy to get this one wrong! Kyle Chandler! Swoon!)

DRAMA WRITING
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, “Always”

DRAMA DIRECTING
BOARDWALK EMPIRE, “Pilot”

DRAMA SERIES
The Good Wife Really? Mad Men only wins HAIRSTYLING and DRAMA SERIES? Really?

Congratulations to all the nominees, and all those who didn’t get nominated, but nonetheless turned in great work this year.

Emmy predictions 2011, part one: Comedy Series

Emmy season is upon us again, and I’ve been deep in episodes, trying to view as much as humanly possible before those gold statues are handed out. I pretty much bombed my Creative Arts Emmy predix, but then, I don’t usually predict those, so I chalk that up to a learning experience. My stellar ace in the crown last week was predicting Hot in Cleveland for Art Direction. C’mon! Who else had that one?

But it’s this week’s awards, especially in this unpredictable year, that are going to really separate the true Emmy prognosticators from the slackers. I am gonig to give my full predictions in my podcast, which should be posted in the next couple of days, but I wanted to use this column to cover some aspects of the judging that have come up for me.

Once again, people do not seem to realize that you rise and fall, or Emmys are given, based on the episodes that you submit. This is true for actors, who submit one of their stellar performances from the season (which is then pitted against other actors also nominated), and it’s true for Series nominations. In both Comedy and Drama Series, the shows put together packages of six episodes. Three tapes, two on each. These are then randomly given to voting members, so they see one of each show, in various combinations, and then vote on which is best. It behooves people, then, to select their best episodes, AND their best shows paired together. Sometimes people seem to forget this.

And if you have storylines that carry over, it’s best to have it make sense. To have self-contained episodes, that aren’t reliant on you knowing the whole season and its intricacies. Lost lost out a few times due to that.

So I wanted to explore what those who’ve been watching TV all season already know. Here’s the way I judge it. You have six episodes. Three of those (by my rating system) have to be an A+ episode to win an Emmy. And even then, they also have to best your competitors’ A+ episodes. You pretty much have to have all A episodes to stay in the game. Anyone with a B episode or lower is out. Simple.

This year, I’ve done something different than I normally do. I’m trying to watch every episode in the Drama Series category that’s been submitted. (In some cases: Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Friday Night Lights, The Good Wife, Mad Men–it meant catching up with entire seasons of shows I was behind on; in other cases: Dexter–I have stopped watching any because the one I did watch (“Teenage Wasteland” which is a Series submission and Michael C. Hall’s submission) was so dreadful, C+ by my grades, I need go no further. Dexter is out. So is Michael C. Hall. Sorry, pal.

I feel really remiss in the Comedy category, and I may pay for it on Sunday. I am super behind (like more than a season) on both 30 Rock and The Office, so I’m not even factoring those in. I normally hate jumping into a season, without having seen the seasons before, so I’ve been hesitating about The Big Bang Theory, though I probably will watch their eps before Sunday.

The one big question mark is the wonderful show Parks and Recreation. I did catch up with the early seasons and it just keeps getting better and better. However, I have not, and will likely not, caught up with this Season before Sunday. If they win, I’ll be happy for them, but bummed that I didn’t have time to view these eps.

I want to focus in this blog post about two of the Comedy Series competitors that I have been spending quite a bit of time with. One that I think has no chance in hell of winning, and one that I think will win.

First up: Glee. Sigh. What the hell happened to you, Glee? There were so many things about Glee last year that I totally loved, but this year, WOW. It’s, as the kids say: “A hot mess.” That it got nominated astonishes me. (Where is Hot in Cleveland?)

But let’s take a look at it, shall we?

I’m still slogging through it. I have the last six eps to force down. Boy, has it been a tough slog this season. In fact, it’s been so jaw-droppingly awful, I would be hard-pressed to pick the worst moment of the season. Sue Sylvester marrying herself would be right up there. Characters were all over the place, bed-hopping with abandon. Mr. Shue even kissed the football coach (for no apparent reason). Sometimes people were gay, sometimes they weren’t. In much of the beginning of the season, the viciousness and hurtfulness was almost too much to bear. If I didn’t have Emmy predictions to do, I would’ve stopped back then.

Kurt goes to another school, cause he just can’t take the harrassment, then he gets ridiculed and put in his place (in a different way) at his new school. New characters get dropped into the story, also for no apparent reason. Emmy-winning Gwyneth Paltrow, whom I thought was just awful in the episode she won an Emmy for, actually comes back later in the season and redeems herself. Mr. Shue’s wife has all but disappeared. Shue and Emma had a hot wistful romance going at the end of Season 1, then she gets cold feet, then she takes up with AND MARRIES, completely out of the blue, a hot dentist. Then she’s not having sex with him, cause she really still loves Will. Yawn.

Very few parts of what any of these characters do is plausible. Their motivations change like the wind. Even the great dance and song numbers from last season have regressed to Top 40 pandering. The season included tracks from Ke$ha, Justin Bieber and My Chemical Romance instead of last season’s Streisand. (Are you puking yet? I certainly was.) The episode, Original Song, mind-bogglingly one of the episodes they submitted for consideration, included songs written (supposedly) by the students themselves. I think those were even worse than the Bieber stuff.

The lip-synching is out of control. Even Sue Sylvester was dancing and singing in a song. She was the most all over the place this season. She has Cheerios, then she has none. She was on TV, then she wasn’t. She hates Will, then she goes with him to see some sick kids sing, and nearly cries. And if she wins another Emmy this year (which she very likely will) I think I’ll cry. (Listen to my podcast, MBH116, for more on that fiasco.)

But, in the midst of all that real dreck and pablum, there are moments of absolute brilliance. The entire Rocky Horror Glee Show was genius, from start to finish. Shue and Emma do a fabulous “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me” then they all come to their senses and realize, “Oops this is a high school. This is too racy.” So they can’t perform it. Even though they already have.

It’s just stuff like that. Eye-rolling constantly.

But then you have a beat-for-beat recreation of Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” which just took my breath away. Excellent stuff.

I also loved how the hot stud falls in love with the “fat chick.” He sings a rowdy and wonderful version of Queen’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls,” which anyone would be complimented to have sung to them, but said girl gets offended. Yet, later in the season, when he sings her a much more offensive song about fatness that he “wrote,” she loves it.

The saddest thing about Glee’s contention at the Emmys is that they didn’t even INCLUDE the Rocky Horror Glee Show as their Emmy submission. So, to my eyes, Glee is out.

GLEE
Tape 1: “Audition” = B/“Silly Love Songs” = A
Tape 2: “Original Song” = C+/”The Substitute” = B+
Tape 3: “Duets” = B/“Never Been Kissed” = A (their strongest tape)

Compare this to a show that, in its second season, only built on and improved the amazing stuff they brought us in their first season. I am talking, of course, about the show I believe will take its second Emmy for Comedy Series: Modern Family.

MODERN FAMILY
Tape 1: “Old Wagon” = A/”Someone to Watch Over Lily” = TBA
Tape 2: “Mother’s Day” = TBA/”Caught in the Act” = TBA
Tape 3: “Manny, Get Your Gun” = A+/”The Kiss” = A (their strongest tape)

FOX: Raising Hope, the gem of Paley Fest

I knew nothing about “Raising Hope” walking into the Paley Fest evening. Didn’t have much hope for it, either. In the end, it was the only show, over many nights, which elicited CHEERS from the crowds at the end.

Of all these shows featuring earnest handsome leads, Lucas Neff as Jimmy is the best of them. Created by the same talents which brought us the charming and quirky “My Name Is Earl” (Greg Garcia), “Raising Hope” is funny. Laugh out loud funny. The funniest of all these comedies paraded to us during Paley Fest.

I’ll let you discover the little gems on your own, but here’s the family you’ll be watching: the always amazing (and I predict an Emmy in her future right here and now) Martha Plimpton as the mom, Garret Dillahunt (whom you know from “Deadwood” and other dramas) is the dad. Cloris Leachman frequently takes her clothes off as the grandmother.

It’s sweet, it’s poignant, it’s damn funny. You must watch it. In fact, if you watch one thing you weren’t otherwise going to watch from the Paley Fest schedule, make it this one. It follows “Glee,” but it’s much funnier.

Did I mention there’s a baby? Normally, I hate babies, but this baby rocks. Watch it.

BOTTOM LINE: “Raising Hope” is the highlight of Paley Fest 2010 fall season.

FOX: Running Wilde is no Arrested Development

Oh, I wanted to like “Running Wilde.” After all, “Arrested Development” is probably the best comedy of all time. Mitchell Hurwitz and Jim Vallely are geniuses. Cast members Will Arnett and David Cross are attached to this project. And I watched nearly every episode of “Felicity” and kinda miss Kerri Russell. What could go wrong?

Well, as it turns out, pretty much everything. Whereas “Arrested Development” was a delectable comedy that you could watch over and over and still laugh at new jokes, “Running Wilde” feels like a forced mess. Will Arnett is supposed to be playing a spoiled rich guy, something he excels at (and was pretty much his stock in trade on both “AD” and “30 Rock”). Kerri Russell plays the do-gooder environmentalist, fighting Arnett’s big oil company. What’s not to like?

You know how in finely tuned comedia dell’arte, characters rush around the stage in perfect timing, the timing of everything alone is what makes you laugh, in addition to what they are saying? Well, this is the opposite of that. Everyone is running around, slapstick like. But not in a funny way, just in an annoying way.

The only likeable characters are Arnett’s and Russell’s and those are marginal.

Oh yes, and let’s not forget that the whole shebang is narrated by Russell’s daughter, Puddle. *eyeroll*

No, this was such a mess that I won’t be revisiting it at all. The only real upside is that, for once, the focus of the show isn’t Kerri Russell’s hair. Small comfort.

BOTTOM LINE: Leave this “Running Wilde” in its puddle.

FOX: Two and a Half Winners Served Up

SPOILER ALERT within

Really didn’t know anything about this series before sitting down to watch “Lone Star,” the first entry in Fox’s night of new TV. Well, other than it’s set in Texas, of course.

So here’s the gist. Handsome and sexy James Wolk is a con man who works with his dad, David Keith. He’s married to lovely and rich Adrianne Palicki (who can’t seem to get out of Texas, and looks WAY different than she did on “Friday Night Lights”). Palicki’s rich dad, Jon Voight, offers the young buck a job at the oil company he owns.

But the man can’t seem to get out of his mind the other woman, Eloise Mumford. So, SPOILER ALERT, at the end of the episode, he marries her.

In “Big Love,” it’s one guy married to three (or is it four now?) women. All the women know each other and get along. In this one, the women don’t even cross paths (well, not yet anyway). And the man just travels a lot. Not sure how I feel about this bigamy trend. Guess it’s better than the electroshock torture that the previous Fox timeslot owner had been dispensing.

BOTTOM LINE: Pretty to look at, but are we interested?

CBS: Blue Bloods Blech

The last presentation was Tom Selleck’s latest vehicle, “Blue Bloods.”

Some good actors in the cast (Len Cariou, Bobby Cannavale, Donnie Wahlberg, Bridget Moynahan, Will Estes). Not enough other stuff to remain interested, so I bailed on this screening.

Also, I’d heard that Selleck sees this as a “family drama,” while the showrunner sees it as “a procedural.” Blech.

BOTTOM LINE: Dunno. I skipped out of “Blue Bloods.”

CBS: Mike and Molly Wins Hearts

So we who are viewing this Paley Center extravaganza are slogging through these selected dramas and comedies. Eh to this one. Eh to that one. I have to admit, the one I was most excited about, of all the shows presented was “Mike & Molly.”

I’ve long admired Melissa McCarthy, who was the devoted friend of Lauren Graham’s character on the many years of “Gilmore Girls.” She was also the devoted friend on the recent Christina Applegate comedy, “Samantha Who?” (Are we seeing a pattern here?)

BOY, and I mean, BOY, am I excited to see her finally headlining her own show. She’s long been an underrated talent. Billy Gardell, primarily known from the standup world, seems to be her match. A strong supporting cast includes Swoozie Kurtz.

The fat jokes may get tiresome after a while, but the pilot (with Chuck Lorre’s influence) was a sparkling gem.

BOTTOM LINE: This is the one show I rushed home to program into my TiVo.

CBS: Defenders Shows a Different Side of Vegas

What is there to say about “The Defenders”? Well, it’s got Jim Belushi. It’s got Jerry O’Connell. And it shows you a “different side of Vegas.” Different, that is, than their other successful Vegas show, CSI. It’s more about the performers and their backstories. Helping the little guy, rather than solving crimes. Well, at least, that’s what they said it was about.

The show reveals like a standard-issue procedural. Some courtroom wackiness reminiscent of David E. Kelley. Lots of cool Vegas shots.

But really, if you wanted to watch a good courtroom show, “The Good Wife” is already a jewel in CBS’s crown, having scored that Best Drama Emmy nom this year. “The Defenders” sure isn’t gonna do that. And really, how many care so passionately about Vegas that they want to watch it for all the in-jokes?

BOTTOM LINE: Myself? I’d fold on this one.