So... balance has been restored to Survivor again. The black cloud has been lifted. It turns out there are people named Alec and Wes (who can actually talk!) on Coyopa tribe. Hunahpu also appears to have people who do more (between naps, anyway) than just show up at challenges, win them, then disappear for the rest of the episode. There is, in short, a new hope.
The John-Rocker-on-Survivor era appears to be over. Was it as bad as we expected? Nope. He was, in fact, an adequate player, although probably not quite replacement-level. He performed heroically in the first IC, almost single-handedly getting Coyopa to the puzzle stage with a lead, only to have his efforts frittered away by Coyopa's puzzle team. In contrast, he then lost a duel (one that was, as we belatedly noticed, biased against left-handers), and his one-on-one matchup with Jon in "Sumo at Sea," which was about as purely physical a challenge as he's ever likely to see. But he was fine in this week's IC, although why was his the only pair that didn't go twice, since Rocker-Jaclyn seemed to breeze through their first heat, while Josh-Baylor lost on both their attempts? So he was indeed a physical asset, if not as overwhelmingly so as people like Probst (and Alec) seemed to believe.
As we know, however, Survivor isn't a purely physical game. He fell into an all-male alliance, in part because Alec and Wes were giddy to be in an alliance with an ex-baseball player, and in part because the pre-season medevacs meant men started with a 5-4 majority on each tribe. Rocker didn't seem particularly adept at strategy. His plan to have Baylor and Jaclyn vote Dale, while the men voted Baylor seemed straightforward, but he was unable to sell this to the women, who immediately agreed, then snickered behind his back the second he left. And apologizing to Jeremy at the reward challenge, in front of his entire alliance? Wow. Plus, you can lead a horse to an idol, but you can't make him play it, apparently. Fine. And let's not get started on his social game!
On a scale of 1-10, Rocker was about a 7 physically, a 3 strategically, and 2 socially. Would he get further if given a second shot? If he could luck his way onto the next Koror or Hunahpu, then sure. But otherwise, probably not. Luckily, he seems disinterested in trying. As stunt casting goes, he tried harder than Jimmy Johnson, at least. So there's that.
That argument, though
The centerpiece of the episode was clearly the argument between Rocker and Hunahpu (mostly Natalie) at the end of the immunity challenge. Heated, unkind words were exchanged, and neither side came out of it for the better, as often happens during arguments (except Hunahpu's Jon, apparently, whose yelling was completely edited out). One troubling part of this, however, is how the tone of the exchange changed between the pre-season ads trumpeting Rocker's Big Blowup, and the version that actually aired. Obviously, some balance had to be gained from hearing both sides yelling, since it was all Rocker in the ads. (Because why waste valuable ad time on other, less famous, contestants? Side note: CBS has now deleted the pre-season ads from YouTube and their Survivor site. It's as if they never happened!)
But it's more than that. Some of Rocker's crueler comments were minimized or completely edited out of the episode (and the second version of the pre-season Rocker ads). To be sure, they left in the disturbing "If you were a man, I'd knock your teeth out." But that was followed up by (still to Natalie) "You look like a man." In the ads, Rocker was center screen for this, as CBS gloated "Ha ha! Look what we got this guy to say! This is great!" It's still there in the episode, but just barely, since the cameras now cut to Natalie as he says it, and it's barely audible. Furthermore, in a complete deletion, Rocker also mocked Natalie's size in the ads, saying (paraphrased, since there's now no record of it) "I thought people lose weight on Survivor." Again, the ads celebrated this outburst as the greatest thing ever, begging viewers: "Tune in to Survivor this season! Watch this loudmouth jerk berate people!" In the episode, Saint John the Falsely Accused would never utter such untoward thoughts.
And that dichotomy, between the ugly raw facts in the ads and the sanitized version in the episode, is the core problem here. We get that Probst and SEG were desperate to create a redemption arc for Rocker. It's their right, Survivor is not a documentary, and they're free to use the footage they have to tell whatever story they think will be the most compelling and entertaining. Their chosen narrative -- notorious bigot John Rocker is really someone who plays hard, plays fair with everyone, and struggles daily to disprove everyone's preconceptions about him, but falls when unjustly attacked by an accented minority woman who has jumped to an incorrect conclusion because those p.c. liberals are always wrong, just look at what they did to poor Paula Deen! -- plays extremely well with Survivor and CBS's casual viewing audience of white, middle-aged-plus people in the Midwest and South. It's fine that, even in context of the season, that was a stretch: Rocker seemed resigned to losing in his pre-game interview with Dalton Ross, "tried to save" Val by talking to her once then telling his alliance to vote against her, didn't feel that any of the women on his tribe were worth keeping around, and when his ability to read the game situation was finally tested, didn't play his idol despite repeated nudging from Probst and production (and Jaclyn). That's actually a strength of reality-competition shows: the audience is free to judge a contestant based on whatever criterion they prefer, be it strategic prowess, physical dominance, social skills, or even hero/martyr/villain edit feelings (or if you're really nerdy, statistics!). What's bothersome, however, is the disconnect between the ads and the show. It's as if CBS tried to have it both ways: "John Rocker is a hilariously loud bigot!" and "John Rocker is the true victim here." And in doing so, that the in-season narrative was revealed to be even more forced and false than it already seemed.
Stats corner: Jock watch
We understand the appeal, especially to CBS, of casting retired pro athletes. They're minor celebrities, and there's at least the hope (read: pipe dream) that they'll pull in viewers who don't normally watch Survivor. Never mind that the ratings don't actually support that wishful thinking. There's also the appeal to production: A former athlete has a proven track record of remaining competitive under adverse conditions. You're unlikely to see a jock throw in the towel. And they probably still look pretty good with minimal clothing. Put that all together, they're dream contestants, right?
The problem: After an initial successful stretch of these guys doing relatively well (Gary Hogeboom, Grant Mattos, Jeff Kent, heck, even the near-comatose Steve Wright made the merge), Survivor has now cast retired pro athletes in each of the past three seasons. These three were booted on Day 10 (Brad Culpepper), Day 14 (Cliff Robinson), and now Day 8 (Rocker). That doesn't even add up to 39 days. And despite Jeff Probst's continued insistence that "you can't boot a physical asset early," their longevity has been pretty much exactly what you'd expect for a generic 40+-year-old guy on a tribe of mostly twenty-somethings. So why does Survivor keep casting retired athletes? Because the fan reaction is never "Why not cast people who actually know how to play Survivor, not some completely unrelated sport." It's always, "You know who would be really good? [Some other retired athlete.]"
Thanks a lot, fans.
Rising from the ashes
Despite one particular contestant crashing and burning this week, several non-retired-athlete contestants emerged in ways they previously hadn't had a chance to during the first two episodes' non-stop "Oh my gosh, is that John Rocker?!" scenes. Who knows? There may actually be a chance of a Survivor season in the coming weeks! Here's a brief run-down of those who stepped into the newly enlarged spotlight:
We'll close by repeating SuperJude's joke: The era of John Rocker on Survivor is over. We may even learn in future episodes that there are other contestants on this season. It's a new day.
San Juan del Sur Episode 3 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - John Rocker
Podcasts - Episode 3