Thursday, September 15, 2011

Survivor is Back - and Still Able to Impress

You would think after 22 seasons, there wouldn't be much Survivor could do to spark any interest. It's predictable, formulaic. We can all do Jeff Probst's lines from memory. No camera angle or cut away surprises us. Been there, done that almost two dozen times. And yet, Survivor is populated with people and sometimes those people bring something so real to the game that it transcends the formula and becomes a real moment. That's what happened last night at tribal council. And when the vote was revealed, I found myself cheering. As the hoary old quote goes, "Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in."

Survivor 23 moves to the picturesque beach of Samoa and brings us 16 new players (only half of whom are in search of their SAG card) and two "veterans." Tying into the theme of "redemption island" the two old timers each have something to prove. Coach aka The Dragon Slayer aka that creepy uncle you'd never let babysit your kids is coming back to show that he's learned from his mistakes and can be a social player. Ozzy, aka monkey boy aka Superman wants to prove he's more than just the most physically talented person to play the game and can play strategically. It's so cute when they try to pretend they're smart. Just be hot, Ozzy. It's what you're good at.

Example number one. Ozzy decides within about five minutes to ally himself with hipster poetess Semhar because she's cute, despite knowing nothing else about her. Actually example pre-number one, smashing something filled with paint on your only outfit -- not a smart idea. But Ozzy did look fine as he swam and climbed and did other physical stuff.

Coach actually stayed with his plan and seemed almost sane and pleasant during the first day on the island. Now, we know eventually he'll be talking to the birds or deciding the crabs are plotting against him and go all Commander Kurtz on us, but in the meantime, the calm, rational Coach is a nice change.

We meet a lesbian folk singer, wait, no, that's Russell Hantz's nephew. My mistake. But if kd lang and Melissa Ethridge had a child, wouldn't it look like Brandon Hantz? Anyway, he makes the best analogy in Survivor history, saying, of being Russell's nephew, "It's like being related to Hitler." Brandon's goal? "I came out here to change the course of the Hantz family's name." He could destroy all the food, set fire to camp and fill in Probst's dimples and still be considered the Good Hantz.

And early on we learn about John "call me by my last name" Cochran. He's a student, of the game of Survivor as well as that law school Elle Woods went to which I wasn't smart enough to get into but apparently half of my genes were, so that counts, right? Cochran wants to join the pantheon of the greats, the Donaldsons, the Penners, the other guys who didn't win Survivor but got the cool last name consolation prize. Not sure why getting Probst to consider you a bro is better than a million dollars, but perhaps when you go to Harvard Law School, you figure the latter will take care of itself.

Cochran has watched every minute of Survivor and I'd love to mock him for that, but so have I. And I used to bake a Survivor cake every Thursday night (back before it was switched to the god awful Wednesday slot), so top that Cochran! It has been Cochran's dream to be on the show and he's taking his thin, alabaster skin to the South Pacific to make this dream a reality. He brings little to his tribe. He's not physical, he didn't even help out in the puzzle part of the reward challenge. But he can name each of the preceding 22 survivors who have the distinction of being the first out their season and one thing he knows is that he does not want his name added to that list.

Leading up to the immunity challenge, I already knew what the outcome would be the second Semhar boldly volunteered to shoot the coconuts into the hanging basket. It's easy, she said. Little thing, big opening. I can do it. Oh, Semhar, do you not know that you should never tease the Survivor gods? Of course the minute you announced your throwing prowess, you would end up looking like Garo Yepremian trying to pass after that blocked punt. So Semhar fails, repeatedly, to put the little thing in the big opening and her team loses by a coconut. Mea culpa was not enough self-flagellation for some on her tribe and she's lucky she was allowed back to camp.

But something strange happened after the losing tribe headed back to camp. All eyes turned from "Throws like a girl" to "Has less muscle mass than a girl," and Cochran became the target. Some of this no doubt related back to Ozzy getting a warm and tingly the first time Semhar batted her eyelashes his way, but next thing you know, all is forgiven and it looks like Semhar will be spared. As they all head to tribal council, Cochran is understandably concerned. This future lawyer needs to make the argument of his life. He needs to pull out whatever tricks he's learned and blind his fellow castmates with his logic and persuasion.

But he doesn't. Instead, in one of the most real moments in reality TV, this diehard fan opens himself up, showing all his naked vulnerability, and pleads for his life. He can show them, and us, the gawky teenager who fell in love with this game over a decade ago and has been cultivating and nurturing this crazy dream ever since, to don his own official tribal buff, to dip his own torch into the fire that represents his life in this game, and play Survivor. Tears welling, fear spreading, he begged them, please don't let my dream die here. Please give me one more chance, don't let this end so soon.

And the game that has been labeled the ultimate social game showed that its players had heart. Only Semhar voted to send him to redemption island, the rest of the tribe gave him one more chance to prove himself equal to the game he loves. I actually jumped up off the couch when Probst turned around the fifth Semhar vote. And the show that has seemed so predictable was still able to give me chills.

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