Adam's journey from contestant to juror marks an important point in the season, and a commentary conundrum. Ultimately, he was a major character this season, and an extremely polarizing one. The main question: What part of Adam's season are we meant to focus on?
As a player, he's actually quite naturally skilled: He gets along with (most) people, he has solid reads on other people (seeing right through Dave's pretend reluctance to have an advantage, for example), and he's willing to cut his own friends loose in order to move forward in the game. As a character, he's much more of a mixed bag, but that seems to mostly be the fault of editing choices Survivor NZ made. Where in real life, Adam was a complex character who still probably had the second-best shot at winning of the final five, in the edited version, he was little more than a mean-spirited cartoon villain.
At the start of the game, Adam seemed a lot like the same Adam that has charmed and amused in his exit interviews (see, for example: Ryan Brink or Survivor Radio or 2 Boys Talk Survivor). He was a light-hearted, eccentric goofball, the guy who thought having Botox injections in his forehead would aid his game. Also the guy who loves watermelons so much he had one tattooed on his arm. He seemed like a real-life Homer Simpson in the Land of Chocolate. If the chocolate was made out of watermelons.
As the season wore on, though, it became clear that Adam was not cast to be the loveable goofball at all, but rather as the bitchy confessional queen. It's a time-worn reality TV trope: that one person who ruthlessly cuts their castmates to shreds behind their backs. Ha ha! Such fun! Just like on Real Housewives of Some Crappy City!
Therein lies the problem, though: It's a lazy reality TV crutch. It demands attention, and produces a few cheap, occasionally cringe-worthy laughs, but it doesn't really advance the narrative much, except to tell you, "Hey, this person is kind of an asshole." To which we ask: Is that really necessary any more? Especially in 2018, when the world is already awash in vicious, attention-seeking trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos?
Reality TV, and this specific character archetype, has been around for almost two decades now. Reality-competition shows like Survivor are supposed to be an escape from real-world concerns. But when America currently has a leader whose only internally consistent policy position is publicly shitting on anyone who opposes him, Adam's "sass" isn't really all that novel, refreshing, or entertaining. Particularly when it's coming from someone who spent a good chunk of time comfortably in power in the majority alliance, didn't particularly seem to know or care much about what he was doing, and who dominated the confessional screentime.
That's not a fun escape, but rather a painful reminder of the toxic world in which we live.
To be fair, Survivor NZ decided to show both the positive and the unpleasant aspects of Adam's time on the show, and let the audience evaluate his antics on their own. So his genuine, positive bonding with Tess sort of balances out his openly shunning Dylan. This becomes problematic in Adam's confessionals, however, which really blur the line between colorfully narrating the game's progress and just being a dick.
Some of Adam's most snide comments accurately narrated in-game action, and gave legitimate insight into how others were feeling. For example, when Adam ridicules Dave (in confessional) for his constant complaints about eating too much food on reward, that's probably a sentiment shared by a number of other contestants who weren't lucky enough to always be eating (and/or over-eating) at reward feasts. But this sets up Adam up as the show's uncomfortable truth-teller, rather than just some loudmouth who's occasionally accurate. Now when Adam says rude things, the audience expects to laugh uncomfortably, and think, "Yeah, but he's right, isn't he?"
This is where letting Adam's confessionals drift into over-the-top villain territory becomes problematic. By previously depicting Adam as bitchy-but-accurate, the show lends legitimacy to Adam's more cruel moments, such as when he mocks Lisa's physical appearance simply because he's mad that she blindsided Matt. That's not funny, nor is it insightful. It's just mean. Yes, the editors do their best to frame Adam's vitriol in the most damning context, intercutting his pettiness with a scene where a concerned Lisa convinces Adam to finally eat some rice, just so that he doesn't pass out. Even so, Adam's spite is still a jarring moment for the audience. Are we supposed to shock-laugh? Cringe? In the moment, it's not clear, because we're used to sort of siding with Adam.
What's more, Adam doesn't seem to have any regrets about these comments. Most players are quick to point out (post-game) that everyone is more irritable when they're starving and paranoid, they weren't making their best decisions, and sometimes people say things they don't actually mean. Adam, in contrast, seems really proud of his confessionals. His post-game exit interviews are giggle-filled exercises in "Ha ha! I have no filter! I'm so naughty!"
That's the thing, though. This show edits down 72 hours or so of footage into a 90-minute episode. That process is a filter. They choose what goes in, and what's unnecessary. They can leave in Bitchy Adam Confessional Hour, without letting him go over the edge into pure personal attacks. Could the show have hit the same villain beats by just showing him leaving for reward with Tess, saying (out of everyone but Tess's earshot) "See you later, you miserable pieces of shit"? Yeah, they probably could have. But they didn't. So is the show endorsing his toxicity, or just casually amplifying it for shits and giggles?
Clearly, Adam really did say all the mean things he said on-screen. Survivor NZ didn't create them out of thin air. All in all, Adam's edit over the past few episodes, seemed to be veering more towards this over-the-top pettiness, and therefore egging him on, while merely mildly tut-tutting him. The show's position seemed to be: "Look, we know he's being kind of a dick, but it's just so TV-worthy we can't help ourselves. And besides, *we* didn't say it, he did. He's the real villain here."
At the same time, we were only shown brief glimpses throughout the season of Adam's day-to-day efforts to keep the camp lively and entertained. People like Tess and Renee really did seem to enjoy being around Adam, which is why he lasted so long. He played a complex game, and if he were to play again, he might actually have a shot at winning. Which is all the more frustrating, because this season conversion of Adam into a superficial, cartoon-ish villain means that his actual moments of gameplay, such as his fierce final stand at Tribal Council, seemed to come out of nowhere.
There are still two episodes left. Perhaps the (full) heel turn for Adam was necessary because as a juror, he raises a ruckus at the final Tribal Council, but we're meant to root against his interests from here on out because his antics ultimately aren't rewarded, and he casts his jury vote for someone who doesn't win (most likely Tess). But after seeing Adam's Jury Villa video, who knows? Maybe, as with the real world, the bad guys end up winning.
- The missing day: After two straight episodes of calendrical consistency, this episode's date stamps jumped ahead a full day. The last episode ended on Day 33, as announced by Matt Chisholm at Tribal. This episode somehow started on Day 35, even though Adam referred to Matt's blindside as "last night." Chisholm confirmed the revised numbering at Tribal, marking it as Day 36. Ah, consistency. It's unclear what happened, so we'll just assume the reward challenge was on Day 35 (as shown), and nothing at all happened on Day 34.
- Jury mismanagement? Is Adam more of a threat to Lisa's winning game as a finalist or a juror? He clearly had friends on the jury (Brad, Renee, to some extent Matt, and absolutely Tess, if she ends up there). With just seven jurors in total, Adam reaching the finals already having 2-to-3 votes locked in plus a question mark is too much of a risk to take. The problem, as his Jury Villa video made clear, is that the alternative—putting Adam on the jury—is like tossing a live hand grenade in there. In mere minutes, he's already turned Matt against Lisa, and is well on his way to sabotaging Dave, as well. He's also guaranteed to be a tireless campaigner for Tess, who has suddenly started winning challenges, and could plausibly Morasca her way into the finals. Putting Adam on the jury was the best of a set of bad options, but it could easily turn out that Lisa had no winnable move here.
- The idol remains unplayed: A fitting end for Survivor NZ's first idol experiment. It starterd with awkward clue finds, and even more awkward ziplock bag wrapping. It ended with just one out of four idols actually being played, two people getting blindsided with idols in their pockets, and zero total votes voided. Despite all that, the idols still added some excitement (such as Dave's stealthy hiding of Chani's idol and Matt Chisholm's in-person delivery of it back to Eve after the swap), and created additional uncertainty at Tribal. Most importantly, they were a (potential) lifeline to outnumbered alliances, which is their main purpose. All in all, a welcome addition, even if they didn't end up working as intended.
Jeff Pitman is a New Zealand expat, is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, you can do so on twitter: @truedorktimes
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Exit interviews - Adam O'Brien