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TV Talk: Survivor: Cook Islands

AKA Let's decide which is the TRUE Amazing Race.

TV Talk: Survivor: Cook Islands

Starring: Jeff Probst, 20 contestants

Series Creator: Mark Burnett

This season started off with a lot of controversy, as the show decided to separate its contestants into four tribes divided by race: a white tribe, a black tribe, a Hispanic tribe, and an Asian tribe. This led a lot of observers to freak out about how reality TV had hit a new low, or that creators Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst (the host and producer of the show) were so desperate for viewers that they were resorting to FX-type stunts.

Me? I wasn't too concerned, for the simple reason that unlike most of those outraged over this move, I actually watch the show. Thus, I knew what would happen: the same thing that happened the previous season (Survivor: Panama), when they divided the tribes into four different groups: one of young men, one of young women, one of older men, one of older women. Or, the same thing they've done the two times they divided tribes into two tribes based on gender (in Survivor: Amazon and Survivor: Vanuatu). Or, the only other time they had more than two tribes (Survivor: All-Stars, where they had three tribes). What I knew would happen, which did happen, is that after a couple episodes, they'd mix the tribes up and no longer have battling races pitted against one another.

Simply put, small tribes don't work for the basic survival purposes, in that its difficult to set up shelter and boil water and stuff with 3 people (which small tribes can quickly get to after eliminations). Moreover, small tribes that early on in the game aren't that interesting from a television standpoint: not enough different dynamics at play. Finally, challenges where only one of three competing teams lose are difficult to keep interesting. For these simple reasons, I knew the show would quickly abandon the racially-divided tribe idea, and become what it has become: the most ethnically-diverse season of Survivor in the show's history.

Isn't it funny how that works out? A season critics were so quick to denounce as racist becomes the most diverse season ever? Of course, you could question why it took an admittedly-skeevy concept to finally get the show to do more than token minority casting, but we should be happy it happened at all. The result has been one of the best seasons in the shows history, bringing in fresh character-types and new dynamics to a show that becomes far too predictable when at its worst.

Not that race is the biggest reason for the interesting new character-types, although the show's hyper-sensitivity over the racial issues it opened up may have prevented it from casting the same shrill archetypes as in seasons past (except for the whiteys, they still seem to be getting some villain-edits, but mostly because they have the highest percentage of bimbos and himbos). I've heard that a few of the contestants this season weren't all that familiar with the show before being cast, which has made for some interesting choices, instead of everyone playing the same, tired playbook all the time.

I will admit that it's a bit uncomfortable that the white tribe has managed to stay together post-switches, mutinies, and merges, picking off the other minorities in their tribe (to be fair, one caucasian was eliminated), but that seems to have less to do with their race, and more to do with the fact that the three in the main voting block, Adam (AKA A-dumb), Candace, and Parvarti are treating the game like the cool kids table in high school, and flock together because of other demographics than race (i.e., age, physical attractiveness, and lack of maturity). The fourth whitey in the game, Jonathan Penner (you may have seen him in The Nanny or The Last Supper), stuck with those three as foolish impulse decisions boxed him into a corner with no other options... until the most recent episode, when he flipped on them. The other alliance in the game between Yul and Becky again seems to have more to do with similar temperaments and original tribal organization than it does with race (although both are Korean).

The season thus far has really been great, for the same reason why any season is successful: solid casting and interesting challenges. Gimmicks come and go in different seasons, rarely having much overall impact to the show. When the show works, its because the cast works, when the show doesn't, it's cause the cast sucks. Usually, gimmicks rarely make much of an impact, although, this season seems to be an exception.

The first twist for the season is a carryover from the last season, the hidden individual immunity idol at exile island. Last season, the idol turned out to be much ado about nothing, as the holder of the idol, Terry Deitz, failed to successfully use it to change the game in his favour, and didn't have to use it to save himself until the end by winning a series of individual immunities. This season, Yul has already used it to change the numbers of the game, causing Jonathan to flip back to the Aitu tribe he abandoned and give the majority to the remaining Aitu members. It was a fantastic use of the idol without actually using it, highlighted by an outstanding episode that showed Yul and Jonathan going back and forth over their strategic options in how to deal with this wrinkle.

The other gimmick was the "mutiny" option that allowed anyone to flip to the other tribe. They've tried this in the past, and no one was dumb enough to do it. This season, Candace was so desperate to get back into her new boyfriend Adam's arms, that she flipped to the losing Raro tribe. Jonathan quickly followed her at the last second, in an attempt to remain with his alliance-mate. This put Aitu at a great disadvantage, and managed to collect all the unlikeable contestants on one tribe (Raro). What was great about this is that it revealed Candace's intention to flip post-merge to Aitu, thus eliminating any sneak attack (okay, that was only great for Aitu. It was stupid for Candace). What was excellent is that the four-person tribe of Aitu (Yul, Becky, Ozzy, and Sundra) kept on kicking the meatheads of Raros asses in challenges, who kept having to boot out members despite an 8-4 advantage.

By the time the merge came around, Raro held a narrow 5-4 advantage, with Jonathan sick and tired of his lazy tribemates. This allowed Yul to convince Jonathan to flip back to Aitu (along with the threat that Yul would use his hidden idol to boot Jonathan), and eliminated any advantage Raro once had. It's been an awesome season for an armchair Survivor player like me, with a lot of interesting strategy being presented. It's even been an awesome season from a personality standpoint, as the assholes of Raro keep getting their asses handed to them by the adorable Aitus.

My favourite thing to do when watching Survivor is to try and handicap how the season is going to go, so here's what I think of the chances of the remaining 8 contestants:

Yul: the odds-on favourite to win. His tribe now has numbers with Jonathan switching over (giving them a 5-3 advantage), he has one free pass with his hidden immunity (that four people already know about, and thus would be weary of voting for him, lest they have the second-most votes). He also has a rock-solid two-person alliance with Becky, giving him two votes as long as she remains in the game. He should have a clear path to the final three, at which point he'll need to win immunity (or for Becky to win) to get to the final two. He's highly intelligent and a strong athlete, so he should be able to win a few more immunities and rewards to keep himself strong, and is well liked by everyone in the game, which should garner him jury votes against most players. With his numbers advantage, hidden idol, and obvious relationship with Becky, he should be able to get to the end without betraying people to get there, so that shouldn't turn too many votes against him. If he can make the final two, I don't see anyone beating him.

Becky: she has a very decent chance at winning, provided that Yul doesn't make the final two. Her hope would be to make the final three challenge (which is almost always some form of endurance trial), then have both she and Yul lose to the third player. That player would most likely choose to up against Becky rather than Yul, which would set her up for a potential victory. The biggest threat for her is her open alliance with Yul. Players not willing to go up against Yul's not-so-hidden immunity idol may wish to take her out to weaken him. Otherwise, she's athletic and clever enough to win at least one immunity challenge (particularly a puzzle-based one).

Ozzy: a dark horse contender to win, Ozzy would have to win the final two immunity challenges to win. He'd be the player Yul and Becky would target in a final four situation, and Sundra would probably go along with them, so he'd have to win that. From there, an endurance-trial final three challenge would be ideally suited for him, which he'd have to win against Yul and Becky. If Sundra or Jonathan were in the final three with him, they might choose to take him instead of Yul to improve their odds (Jonathan definitely would, Sundra might not out of loyalty). Ozzy is also the player most likely to try and flip on Yul/Becky before the final three perhaps pulling in the final Raro member along with Jonathan and possibly Sundra to try and get rid of Yul's hidden immunity. In a jury situation, Ozzy could probably beat anyone but Yul, as players will respect his competitive dominance throughout the season.

Jonathan: could only win if the remaining Aitu members turn on one another early. If this puts bitter Aitu members on the jury, Jonathan would come off looking like a schemer who "outwitted" people, as opposed to a friend who betrayed their trust. He's already lost Nate, Candace, and A-dumb's votes for sure, by flipping on them after flipping on Aitu originally, but as of right now, we have no idea what the makeup of the jury will be (right now, by traditional rules, it'll be a ten-person jury, which doesn't really work). Jonathan will need to convince people to flip on Yul for self-preservation reasons, then hope to get carried along as an ideal final two companion, since he's screwed over most of the people on the jury.

Sundra: not much chance of winning. She'd need Becky taken out before the final three, then hope that whoever wins immunity takes her to the final two (Yul would most likely choose her if Becky wasn't there, unless Sundra helped vote Becky off, the others would probably rather face her than Yul in the final two). Against Ozzy or Jonathan (especially Jonathan), she'd be an appealing "under the radar" vote. She should be able to get votes from Becky, Yul, Ozzy, and Rebecca, plus anti-votes from Nate, Candace, Adam and Parvati. But, I don't see her winning a final three challenge, and I don't see her going to the final two. She's a perfect final four finisher.

Parvati: will probably be the final member of the original Raro tribe, as she is the least likely to threaten for immunity. Her only chance to move on from there is to prove herself useful for Ozzy, Jonathan, and possibly Sundra to try and take out Yul's immunity. Of course, in such a scenario, she'd probably be Yul and Becky's vote, which would eliminate her.

Adam: what a dumb fucking meathead. Every season there's some entitled gym guy who isn't even that strong who thinks he'll dominate simply because he has pecs. Not gonna happen. No chance to win.

Candace: even less of a chance to win than Adam. First off, she's a better athlete than Adam, and thus should be the next targeted to go by the Aitu alliance. Moreover, she betrayed them, so she's a satisfying vote off from a personal standpoint. Finally, if she somehow goes on an immunity streak and wins EVERY immunity challenge (doubtful given the presence of Ozzy and Yul), she'll never get a jury to vote for her to win. She doomed herself to lose the second she mutinied to hang with Adam, who was busy pawing at Parvati. Before that, she was in a solid position to win the whole deal.

My final thought is over the new jury make-up: I don't know how they're going to handle the new numbers, but my preference would be to not have the final person eliminated from the game (the third place finisher) to serve on the jury. It's a wasted vote, as they almost always vote against the person who won the final immunity and took them out of the game.

Rants? Raves? Predictions? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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Tags: reality_shows, tv, tv_talk

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