This week in reality TV, we saw Cochran crowned as the ultimate Survivor, Hurricane Nia fall victim to rogue sex toy attack, and, you know, THAT. The tremendous vision above marked the high point at the climax of what was a legendary season of Survivor. [Buckshot Shorty voice] Let's take a sec to think back
Cochran (Survivor, Simmons), 50 points: As Chuck Klosterman masterfully pointed out in his Probstian Podcast, Survivor all too often rewards the wallflower. The backstabbers, challenge-winners, and manipulators are left wiping the blood off their hands and hoping for fan favorite. This season was different.
The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the agents are drinking. It's upfronts season in New York! This is the week the broadcast networks throw fancy parties to announce the new shows they'll be cancelling in a few months and celebrate the returning veterans whose survival was brokered through a bruising backroom combination of studio strong-arming, dumb luck, and blind optimism. Over the next few days I'll be posting my thoughts on all the announcements with the giant caveat that I haven't actually seen any of the new shows in question yet. Which isn't such a big deal because, odds are, you won't be seeing them for very long either.
For a long time, it seemed curious to me that some comic-book supervillains spent so much time trying to destroy the world. Lex Luthor, for example, is the richest man in Metropolis. What reason could he possibly have for picking a fight with a flying alien demigod? Why not sit back with a bottle of Krug, a couple tubs of scalp moisturizer, and enjoy the spoils of success?
As I grew older and not at all rich, it eventually occurred to me: Lex's archrival wasn't Superman. It was boredom.
I imagine it's much the same way for CBS president and CEO Les Moonves. Since taking the reins of the former Tiffany Network in 1995, Moonves and his team have redefined the rules for television dominance, winning the ratings race for total viewers year after year with a carefully curated schedule of breathtaking consistency. CBS airs the shows that Twitter doesn't talk about but America actually watches, joke-heavy sitcoms larded with howling studio audiences, and cop shows with tough-sounding acronyms in which the bad guys get theirs and the good guys wear sunglasses. Every spring, when his rivals are scrambling and cancelling, Moonves is smiling and renewing. Openings on the CBS schedule are as rare and coveted as vacancies on the Supreme Court. I'd make a joke about the candidates for the latter being roughly the same age as the target audience for the former, but Moonves has even triumphed over that stereotype. This past year, CBS won not just in total viewers, but also those in the much-coveted 18-to-49 demographic for the first time since 1991. At this point, CBS isn't just crushing its competition, it's excelled its way into a Champions League of one.
I will try not to be smug in this recap, but I have the feeling I won’t be able to help it. I’ve been pulling for my man John Cochran for quite some time. To some degree, all of Caramoan’s favorites had scores to settle or reputations to redeem from their previous seasons: Dawn Meehan battled her tear ducts, Phillip Sheppard tried (and arguably succeeded) to get some respect, Brandon Hantz made a futile attempt at impersonating a sane guy, and Erik Reichenbach was out to prove he wasn’t some double-dipwad who would get labeled a sucker for the second time for giving up his immunity. Can you say Survivor seasons have themes? Because if this one did, it would have been a distinctly high school motif: the popular, good-looking clique that excludes and titters about the outcasts, the embarrassments of dorky nicknames (hey there, True Grit), spring break–style sunburns, and the sexual tension of hookups that never were (I’ll bet Eddie gets pretty busy after his dog-bar speech, though). If Caramoan had been a movie, it might have been Can’t Hardly Wait or — if you were feeling like going on-the-nose with it — Revenge of the Nerds. There is ultimately nothing so satisfying to me as seeing the person who gave the most eloquent confessionals and had the indoorsiest complexion win a game involving so many different kinds of athletic and social maneuvers. Cochran struggled so much in his first season on South Pacific that it was often uncomfortable to watch; as a result, he was bullied, sometimes even reviled (at one point he was called “disgusting”), particularly after flipping on his alliance. He seemed both over- and underprepared, rich with theories but really poor on everything else required to win. He was the 13th castaway kicked out, but the whole time it was apparent that Cochran was in a panic, and maybe even not terribly proud of his performance. What a comeback.
OK, this week in reality TV was heavy on racism, violence against women, suicide, starvation, ranch dressing, and, you know, drunken people being idiots. I’m intelligent enough to know that I'm not intelligent enough to appropriately address most of those issues, so I'm going to dive deep into the ranch dressing. (Is ranch dressing on pizza really a thing? Have people been doing this for years and I just didn’t know it? Is it good? I need answers.)
If you watch Survivor, and I’m assuming you do, you undoubtedly find yourself discussing it with other fans over the course of the season. Survivor people have little homing devices; we find one another, and then we stand around in offices or on telephones or huddled over other people’s side tables of BBQ chicken and we talk about our picks to win. Then we talk about our mother’s picks to win. Then we talk about who knows a person who knows a contestant and who their pick is to win. And this season, one name that keeps popping up in these conversations, despite her anorexic story line, is Brenda.
With a slow Survivor this week, the GRTFL is all about Real World’s Hurricane Nia. What did Hurricane Nia do? Oh, nothing, just, ya know, revealed her plans to write a “how to” book about dating professional athletes, displayed the work ethic of a stoned elephant seal, and brandished both an alarm clock and a desk lamp as assault weapons. In her defense, it was a hardy desk lamp. Let’s review how Jordan and Nia, the couple that brought us attempted cannibal fellatio, continued to innovate with murder by alarm clock. Keep reading. It only gets weirder.
One of the many benefits to the structure of Survivor is that as soon as things start to look predictable — when one alliance outnumbers the other, when someone loafs around excessively or goes out of his way to act obnoxiously — the whole tribe seems to hear a subconscious buzzer signaling Big Move Time. Big Move Time occurs after the post-merge group has been whittled down to a handful of starving, paranoid, raw-nerved people; it’s a period during which each of the remaining contestants has an idea of how they think they’ll appear to have performed during the game, and how they have to tweak or edit that image in order to progress and eventually appeal to the jury. Dawn has been holding back tears, mostly futilely, for 30-plus days. Now her face is an almost constant grimace — I think she’s trying to appear stoic. She’s chewing the inside of her cheeks off in every challenge trying to prove her physical prowess. Cochran, high off the fumes of a combination of luck and strategy that led to a mini-streak as the “challenge monster,” has turned into something that “would scare [his] mother if she saw [him].” People be power-hungry. People be island-crazy. Each of them knows that they’re an important character in the narrative of Caramoan, because at this point every individual’s plot trajectory contributes in a large way to the outcome of the finale (though Brenda, basically a ghost, is notable mostly as a pawn). Big Move Time separates the stars from the costars, the leaders from the followers. Big Move Time has arrived. It’s a blindside, bitches.
Managing expectations is the key to success. When you draw a money hand, you should slow-play it — all the better to draw the suckers in. You keep the element of surprise in your corner. This week in reality television, Real World and Survivor overplayed their hands; they raised big with story lines that didn’t live up to expectations. There was no mutiny among the alliances in Survivor and there was no cannibalistic fellatio among the cast mates on Real World. The calm status quo in this week’s GRTFL shows was, in a word, boring. Don’t sell me on cannibalistic fellatio and feed me a Subway sandwich. Yes, a sandwich is leading this week’s column, but it isn’t any sandwich, IT’S A TUNA-AND-TURKEY SANDWICH. TUNA. AND. TURKEY.
After last week’s crazy tribal council, there was a Grantland e-mail chain during which all of the office Survivor fans discussed Malcolm’s strategy of letting Stealth know that the Three Amigos (if I’m embarrassed to type that, why are they not embarrassed to refer to themselves as that?) were voting for Phillip. A good question was raised: If Malcolm hadn’t named the Specialist, would the favorites’ alliance have started voting for each other out of fear? Mr. Fierman pointed out that if Malcolm had simply announced the three bros were voting together and let the favorites try to sway them, there could have been an interesting and hierarchy-shifting scramble. The problem, though, is that the numbers in the favorites’ alliance is still strong. Unless Eddie, Reynold, and Malcolm are able to pull off some really impressive mind-fuck maneuvers on the remaining six in Stealth, one of them is going home this week. This season lacks a mastermind like Boston Rob or Russell Hantz, and it would take that kind of evil genius to shake up the can enough to explode the unity that Sheppard created with his goofus nicknames and constant check-ins. I’m hoping that in the upcoming episodes, someone (Cochran? Sherri? Andrea?) gets it together and decides to play a little dirty. This season could now use more “Russell seeds,” lies deliberately and carefully planted in little one-on-one shelter gabfests. Sherri, Andrea, and Erik are all prime targets — Erik voted with the meatheads to get rid of the Specialist, Sherri’s one of the last remaining fans, and Andrea has the Eddie connection (their romantic B-plot has been sidelined momentarily, hopefully leading to a Very Special Date episode to follow sometime soon).
I always know it has been a great week in reality TV when I get a little nervy as I sit down to write this column. I just want to do the week justice. I just want to provide the people who worked on and watched these brilliant television programs with a column worthy of what transpired. I mean, there was a complete psychological meltdown, a kleptomaniac ghost, a legendary tribal council, and the most mystifying sexual encounter ever filmed in the history of the Real World.
We have to start there. This shit was just I don’t even know I’m definitely getting fired for this one.
Yesterday afternoon, John Cochran tweeted that “as a Survivor expert, I feel comfortable saying that tonight's episode is going to be one of the most insane in the history of the show.” Cochran won the Harvard Dean’s Scholar prize for comparing the judicial system to Survivor’s tribal jury, so it’s not surprising that he was right; over the course of years of watching this show, I can’t really remember a more chaotic moment during the pre-vote Probst-on-group interview. I assumed nobody was allowed to speak unless directly addressed. Apparently this rule gets waived when everybody jumps on board, like during times of extreme stress. And this was a stressful episode! In a good way. But not for Dawn. I’ll get to that in a second.
You have to trust your body. Your body will tell you what to do, what to think, how to feel … you just have to listen to it. If you dent a parked car and don't leave a note, your body will punish you with guilt. If you stand close to the edge of a cliff, your body will override your brain and back off of it. If you get drunk, when you wake up, your body will make you get a Gatorade and a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. Your body is smarter than you are. This week, my body was telling me that it can’t watch Ready for Love.
I tried; I really did. I carved out a couple of hours and sat down, ready to love Ready for Love. My body just wouldn’t let me.
Hey, guys. Nice tribal last night. We really saw some great text (use of the word “operatives” more than once, a “payback’s a bitch” bomb,) subtext (ominous warnings to play any idols floating around,) and a lightning-fast yoink right before the buzzer. That’s how you do it.
Before all of that, however, there were monkeys. Land monkeys, sea monkeys, and tree monkeys. Reynold is happy to be among the remaining fans in Enil Edam, following Corinne’s exit last week, and is grateful for his “ironclad” bro unity with Eddie, Erik, and Malcolm. Every girl they touch turns to snuffed torch dust, but the brotherhood endures. Malcolm is a little more hesitant because Corinne was the only other player who knew he had the idol, but he’s got a stew simmering with his fan dudes and knows it’s time for him to make those big moves he’s been talking about for ages, so he’s chilling. Since everyone's flirting like they’re in a dim restaurant in The Hills (R.I.P.), Sheppard jumps on the couples cruise and tells Sherri his first impression of her was that she was “hot.” He envelops her in the warm, suffocating embrace of Stealth R Us and dubs her “Tenacity.” They shake on her undying loyalty, then Sherri scurries off to tell the camera how nuts she thinks he is, calling him her new Shamar.
It's time to add some new shows to the GRTFL. With only Survivor and Real World in the lineup, we had to diversify. I was going to wait it out until Des made her debut as The Bachelorette on May 20 … but then this happened.
With Ready for Love, NBC is straight gunning for that “I like to watch people fall in love in the most preposterous way possible” demographic. They aren’t even being coy about it either. The trailer begins with a voiceover that says, “Hey, Bachelor fans, are you ready for a new show?” So, yeah. NBC is promoting the show as The Bachelor with a couple of twists. First twist: The girls are vetted by matchmakers who assign them to their “team.” Second twist: The bachelors are all quasi-famous, fully handsome bros. Third twist: NO CHRIS HARRISON! I'm skeptical that human beings can find soulmates on national TV without the help of the Love Shepherd, Chris Harrison, but stranger things have happened. Stranger things like Eva Longoria EP'ing this show and Bill and Giuliana Rancic hosting it.
I will include this show in the GRTFL next week, but GRTFL lifers will remember NBC’s last attempt at getting that Bachelor money, Love in the Wild, which cursed this column and my life for three months in June 2011.
After writing about the Koh-Lanta deaths and then talking about the assorted perils of reality shows on the Girls in Hoodies podcast, I was feeling kind of mixed on the whole Survivor thing this week. It isn’t that I don’t still love Survivor, but I felt like taking a little bit of a break from reality TV for a bit to just cleanse my soul, watch Room 237 a thousand more times, and think about The Running Man. But I’m devoted; conflicted, but devoted. I still feel better about watching Survivor than I do about The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills two-part reunion (which I also watched). It’s tempting to say I kept up with these shows in the wake of events that maybe should have deterred me because I write or talk about them for my job, but I think I would have watched them anyway. What does it mean? What does it all mean??! It doesn’t matter. Room 237 cost me seven dollars. Watching people throw up insect larvae is free.