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.
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.