My favorite thing about this season of Survivor is that it’s based on the premise that people can only be one thing, and that one thing is completed tied to what they do for a living. It’s my favorite thing due to the fact that it’s actually my least favorite thing—because it’s total nonsense—and watching the show contort itself into knots in order to make this silly Worlds Apart “social experiment” seem groundbreaking is like watching a supersized version of the “Boom goes the dynamite” kid, in glorious high definition. Thirty seasons in and your flop sweat is showing, Survivor.
Network reality television at its early-to-mid-2000s height could at least somewhat claim to be doing some sort of social experimentation, even if it ended up either being accidental (the late, great first season of Paradise Hotel, which is like an anthropological study of sociopaths and mob mentality) or for sheer shock value (basically anything else on Fox other than American Idol during this time period). These days, any experimentation happens mostly around the fringe of smaller cable outlets, while networks are forced to settle for big, traditional ideas that just feature tiny tweaks on the familiar rather than introducing completely unfamiliar formats (The Voice being the best example of this phenomenon). The reality stalwarts that have lasted since the genre’s heyday also now find themselves desperate to remain relevant and churn out seasons that will not only keep longtime viewers but ensnare new ones, and the way these shows are doing this is by tweaking their formats just enough to have something easily promotable, while still maintaining the integrity of the game. This is something Survivor has been doing for quite a while (the biggest and most controversial of which was separating the tribes by race, which is a season I have unfortunately not seen so I cannot comment on it) but now, in concert with The Amazing Race suddenly turning into a dating show, it feels strained in a way it hasn’t before.
Perhaps it feels strained because when introducing the three teams, Jeff Probst is forced to say things like the No Collar players “use their free spirit mentality to get further in life,” while the Blue Collar players are “used to hard work and physical labor and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to get their jobs done,” and the White Collar players are “used to being in charge and calling the shots to get what they want.” It’s ridiculous stereotyping (No one who works a blue collar job is in a supervisory role? Everyone who works a white collar job is in a supervisory position and not just a tiny cog in a cubicle machine?) that almost turns amusing because Probst is so committed to selling the narrative that he blows past the reality that what he is saying is mostly insane. Perhaps it feels strained because some of the jobs featured in the various tribes are stretched so thoroughly to fit into their various categories that the categorization itself is rendered meaningless; for example, how is a law student a No Collar person, despite what kind of supposedly-free-spirit law they want to practice? Is a barrel racer only not a No Collar because it’s cowboy-based, and not a stereotypical crunchy-granola profession?
The good news is that although the show’s attempts to contort itself into fitting into this social stratification premise almost devolve into self-parody, this season of Survivor is off to a pretty damn good start despite itself. Even with of my whining above, what Survivor has going for it—and the reason it’s lasted 30 seasons and counting—is that once the game starts, almost all of the outside forces imposed by production don’t really matter beyond the superficial. A good season of the show depends almost entirely on the people cast to play the game, and once again it appears that Survivor has done a bang-up job of casting this group. There’s a good mix of people who fully buy into the premise (Carolyn on White Collar and Dan on Blue Collar are the biggest offenders here) and people who reject it (Joaquin, surprisingly enough), which makes for a good variety of talking-head interviews. Splitting people into tribes who automatically have some sort of easily identifiable similarity makes for a quick bit of camaraderie, one that’s smartly shattered almost immediately when two people are given a choice to undercut their new tribe mates, causing tension and distrust.
The biggest indicator that this might be a great season, though, is that so many of the players appear to be longtime fans who know how the game works. Not only is there Max, who actually taught a college-level course on Survivor, but several other players mentioned how long they had been watching the show, how many times they applied, and how much this opportunity to play meant to them. Having so many people who actually know how to play the game makes for a completely different tone from seasons that are mainly filled with recruits, because while watching people who don’t know how to play can be incredibly exciting, studying their gameplay is a bit more frustrating. This gameplay savvy is immediately tested when White Collar loses the Immunity Challenge (thanks to a truly pathetic puzzle performance from Shirin) and So takes it upon herself to go after Carolyn for the perceived sin of hanging out in the background instead of stepping up to take a leadership role in the challenge.
White Collar losing the first Immunity Challenge is an interesting test of what this Worlds Apart season is trying to do, in that it ostensibly pairs up six people who are used to being in charge and then asks them to work together as a tribe, both in challenges and to decide to who vote out of the game. So and Joaquin were at an immediate disadvantage, trust-wise, in that they chose to lie about the beans at the beginning and did it so poorly that they were caught. But instead of taking this into consideration and hanging back, So couldn’t help herself from wanting to direct the vote in the end as well, and that’s where everyone’s distrust comes back to bite her. It doesn’t hurt that Carolyn bonded with Shirin and Max right away, then also found an idol simply by being observant of what So and Joaquin were doing. From her confessional statements, So is obviously someone who is used to getting what she wants from people. Could her being surrounded by people who are (stereotypically, according to the season’s premise) also used to getting their way have been her downfall? It’s a big of a chicken/egg situation, but it’s certainly something to look for in the future. Overall, it’s an incredibly lively Tribal Council for the first week with a really fun outcome, as So is shocked when she is voted out over the obviously (to her) inferior Carolyn.
One thing that I’m glad this Worlds Apart concept is bringing about is a wrinkle in the Immunity Challenge, which I hope continues going forward. Instead of having a straightforward challenge that everyone has to complete the same way, this challenge has options to choose different paths at multiple points: using keys instead of untying knots on an obstacle, and the choice between three puzzles at the end. Presumably this is being done to “test” which type of tribe will choose which option—it’s a grand social experiment, you see!—but really, the reason it’s interesting is because it adds variety to the same old types of challenges we’ve been seeing for years. Why White Collar chose the simple puzzle isn’t interesting because they’re White Collar, but it is interesting to watch Shirin completely fail at this puzzle that’s supposed to be so easy, while other people fly through what is supposed to be a harder one. It’s that type of variation which, if it continues, could make for an increasingly interesting season, whether or not what these players do for a living has anything to do with it.
- The Blue Collar tribe seems to be the most divided, as they appear to have the largest personalities of the bunch. That should be a fun dynamic moving forward. Maybe not so fun for Dan, though, whose reaction to the whole shelter-building situation was a bit frightening.
- The absolute best thing about No Collar right now is the weird non-love triangle between Vince, Jenn, and Joe. The fact that Vince already asked Jenn if she was attracted to Joe and acted like their connection was so strong after only a few hours is simultaneously terrifying and amusing. Luckily Jenn seems to have a good head on her shoulders and is on to his insanity. I’ll just be over here laughing at the shots of Vince creepily watching Jenn and Joe from afar.
- Rodney wants to “get the girls” in an alliance because according to him, they want to sit back and see a guy in a leader role. I sure hope whatever girls he gets prove this assumption completely wrong.
- Mike’s “see a scorpion, pick it up, eat it and you’ll have good luck” policy seems like it could make for some good train-wreck television. You have to respect a guy who does something so stupid with a huge smile on his face and no later regrets.
- Tyler’s assertion that he is cutthroat and large-in-charge in life because he worked at a top talent agency is somewhat undercut by his onscreen identifier clarifying that he is an “Ex-Talent Agent Assistant.” As someone who used to work in that industry in that very capacity let me just say: I’m sure he fit right in with those delusions of grandeur.
- The immunity idol is so bad. It looks like something No Collar would make with three sticks and a pack of pipe cleaners.
- CHERILYN. Is Joaquin the new Ralph?
- My early-on favorite is Joe, who is a good combination of nice, capable, and potentially knowledgeable about the game. He practiced making fire! (Also, he has nice hair.) Who are your favorites?
- “Which way of life will prove to be most valuable?” Oh, shut it, Probst.
- Jenn, on Vince: “He’s everything I expected him to be, and more, maybe.” Jenn might be the best.