I did not blog Survivor: Redemption Island this year, expecting it to be as mind-numbingly boring as last season's Survivor: Nicaragua which was won by...anyone? Exactly. But I watched every episode because that is what I have done since a certain overweight gay guy sat up a tree and told us all that we might as well write the million dollar check for him right then and there (sadly, not suggesting that the producers deduct the taxes first). I'm glad I did, because I found this season, though lacking in surprises, to be one of the most satisfying and enjoyable ever.
There were two twists for this twenty-second season of Survivor. One, was the return of two of the most notorious past players, the pathologically evil-yet-entertaining Russell Hantz and the bad boy-turned- endearing "Boston" Rob Mariano. The second was the creation of Redemption Island, a place where voted-off castaways would be given a second chance to get back in the game.
I loved the first twist because I recognize that first and foremost, Survivor is a television show and its first requirement is to entertain. And like them or not, Russell and Rob are two of the most dynamic contestants to ever play the game. The success of any season of Survivor is about 90% casting, 5% Probst dimples and 5% location. When, like last season, there is a lackluster cast, no amount of "wanna know what you're playing for" or "Survivors, ready?!" will save it. So, the producers were smart to ensure that there were two remembered, as well as memorable, cast members.
Bringing back two players did not guarantee that they would be around long to carry the show, as they each came with huge targets on their backs. And, indeed, Russell was so hated by his tribe that they did the unthinkable -- throwing a challenge just so that they could vote him off. It turned out to be a $1 million mistake for one of the former Zapatera tribe because they had the momentum, the numbers and the edge going into that challenge. There is no question that had they not thrown that challenge, it would have been one of their own (if not all from that tribe) sitting in the finals and not riding the jury bench.
But Rob somehow used his voodoo magic, Boston charm or Survivor mind control to convince his fellow castmates to keep him around. Though he was clearly the biggest threat, though he was the obvious choice to get rid of early, his team instead clung to him like a life raft in the middle of the ocean (rather than the 2 ton anchor he actually was...to continue the metaphor). Rob made them believe they needed his construction skills to build their shelter. He had them thinking that, despite them losing challenge after challenge, they shouldn't risk becoming a weak team by voting him out. He somehow manipulated everyone of them to being a key player on Team Rob.
A great example of just how intellectually overmatched his fellow castmates were, at the finale Jeff asked Natalie why she and the other girls didn't try and vote out Rob when they had the chance. She, as did Ashley, admitted that she knew Rob had the secret Immunity Idol and so thought it would do no good to try and vote him out. It is Countering the Immunity Idol 101 that when someone has it, you do whatever you can to force them to play it. But instead they let him have the benefit of the idol without having to use it until the very last opportunity. Crazy.
The Redemption Island twist was infuriating. After "the tribe has spoken" there's a catch?? No, I'm a purist. Out means out. But this year...and it appears next season as well, sadly...you had a chance to get back into the game by outlasting the other kicked-off survivors in a series of duels. It gave us the story arc of Matt the Christian true believer whom God appeared to be carrying all the way to the end. Matt won ten duels, was brought back in the game only to be voted out again, and seemed poised to make another miraculous comeback, all thanks to God, which would have given the premed student and the almighty quite a story to tell their friends. But, instead, Matt fell short and all that time on the island seemed in retrospect a cruel joke.
A few observations. David said during the jury questioning what the rest of us were thinking--no one played a better game than Boston Rob and no one since Richard Hatch has worked harder or more cleverly to come out on top. Steve and Grant are whiny jerks -- the NFL should be embarrassed. Phillip did not have to apologize to anyone. He was interesting and real and was treated horribly by most of the opposing tribe (save for the hirsute hillbilly who redeemed himself with his Phil vote). Cyclops needs to apologize to Natalie and Natalie's mother for her nasty comments during the jury segment. The girl is 19, away from home, playing a game for $1 million with people much older than her. She made it to the end, which 15 others couldn't say. Julie, go take your bitterness against the cute girl, oh, and your stealing Phillip's trunks, and show us just how classy you really are. I'm sure your girls are really proud.
It would be easy to discount Rob's masterful play this season as "fourth-time's-the-charm." But as anyone who watches Survivor knows, it does not get easier the more times you play, your vulnerability actually grows exponentially each time. It is a testament to his brilliant social game that Rob overcame being the most obvious choice for an early boot to control almost every breath that his tribe took for 39 days. I have not seen such blind obedience to a male authority figure since Jim Jones. May not be the most flattering analogy, but it is the most apt.
I'd strongly urge Natalie and the rest of the Omatepe tribe to steer clear of Koolaid for a while.