1) It’s happened to all of us
You’re out somewhere – a movie, the mall, a night on the town – and you bump into an old friend with whom you haven’t spoken in a long time, and now that you think about it, that friendship ended sort of abruptly and without much explanation, and upon further reflection, why the hell would you ever want to be that person’s friend again? He just upped and left and didn’t return your calls! Screw that guy!
Yeah, this is sort of like that.
As most of you know, I bailed – on the Dozen, on RHAP, on Survivor – after Bedlam (aka Brandon Hantz’s Backrub & Banishment from Fans vs. Favorites II). Despite being the author of my own fate (believe me, I’m aware of the parallels between Brandon’s departure and my own), you’ve decided to check in to see what I have to say. You have no idea how much I appreciate you giving me another shot – frankly, I don’t deserve it.
I’ll get into my reasons for my hiatus later on in the Dozen, but for now, let’s get back to the business at hand: Blood vs. Water.
May it feel like old times.
2) I don’t know who’s in charge of these things, but I would like to nominate Colton Cumbie – a quitter quite possibly twice over – to be named Survivor’s “Mr. Irrelevant.”
Let me explain…
Every spring, at the end of the NFL draft, one of the stranger rituals in professional sports takes place: One “lucky” player – the last guy picked at the end of three days of drafting and over 250 gridiron hopefuls have been selected – earns the ignoble title, “Mr. Irrelevant.” It’s a dubious honor, of course, but thankfully, the college kid who ends up being taken in that spot usually has fun with it and enjoys his moment in the sun.
Now, to make the logic leap to Survivor: Let’s say you were to name two Tribe Leaders – I’ll go with Natalie White and Fabio, because I like nothing more than throwing gasoline on a fire – and have them draft all 400+ players in the show’s history. Would you be surprised if Colton was picked dead last? Yes, lower than Osten. Lower than Purple Kelly. Lower than Chet (who for my money is the worst player in the show’s history). Colton is toxic, cruel, and useless – why would Natalie and Fabio want him on their tribes?
Colton is now, and shall forever remain, a meaningless footnote in the annals of Survivor history. A racist, elitist, sociopathic bully who quit the game he claimed to love not once, but twice.
I think that qualifies Colton for the title of Mr. Irrelevant, don’t you?
3) Before I close the book on Colton, though, let me weigh in on the “Did Colton quit in One World” debate:
I tend to be a jaded Survivor skeptic, particularly where Probst is involved, but I think there might be some validity to his claim that Colton quit during One World.
Colton defenders – including Colton himself – point to the fact that Colton was in a power position when he was medevacced: He was the head of the Misfit Alliance and was in possession of an immunity idol when he left the game. Why, with so much power in his hands, would he choose to walk away? The merge was on the horizon; all he had to do was arrange for the elimination of Christina and/or Alicia, and then leverage his idol into an alliance with Kim and her minions. If a few things broke his way, he could have navigated a path to the endgame.
The problem then, though, as it was in Blood vs. Water, was that he knew, pre-merge, that there was no way he could win. Because of his staggeringly inept social game, even if Colton made it to the end – a big if, given that his tribe was getting annihilated after the uneven tribe swap – it would be solely as a pawn. While Colton insisted in interviews that he had arranged for a post-merge alliance with Kim and Chelsea, they both dismissed that idea once the game was over. Kim, in particular, laughed it off and said that they were ready to use him if he made the merge, but that Colton wasn’t a contender she had to worry about.
In the end, here's what I think went down:
** Colton was aware of the brutal truth that he could not win.
** He was suffering physically (I don't doubt that he felt sick – he just didn’t have appendicitis; that said, everyone out there is suffering after sixteen days).
** He was also suffering socially; his attitude and behavior from the start of the game – with Bill Posley and others – made it so that his presence was marginally tolerated, never enjoyed.
** When one is staring at three more weeks of physical discomfort and strained social interactions, and with no hope of a million dollar payday at the end of it all, it becomes easy to consider quitting. Some players can fight through that temptation, but Colton possesses neither the intestinal nor the emotional fortitude to push through the pain. So he quit.
All of that circumstantial evidence and armchair psychological assumption aside, what is most damning to me is Colton’s reaction to Probst’s aggressive accusations at the Redemption Island challenge. Had Probst been totally off-base, Colton would have whined, sneered, and mewled that Jeff was wrong and mean and horribly unfair. But Colton didn’t – instead, he got as close to an admission as you’re ever going to get from a petulant narcissist: A half-hearted rationalization (“I had a bacterial infection”) and tears.
And we have reason to believe Probst’s take on Colton, don’t we? Probst saw the unedited camp life of One World – giving him a better read on the social dynamics than we could possibly divine from the edit – and he was standing next to the stretcher when Colton threw in the towel. If Probst says Colton didn’t want to be out there – in One World or Blood vs. Water – then I’m inclined to believe him over Colton, who is too invested in rehabbing his reputation to take him at his word.
In the end, we have to choose whom to believe. And – although I can’t believe I’m saying this – I’m siding with Probst. Colton quit Survivor – a game he has memorized, if never really learned – twice. I don’t know about you, but I refuse to forgive him.
In the end, Colton didn’t want to pay the ultimate price – getting his torch snuffed – for his approach to the game and his treatment of the other players. Moreover, at least during One World, he wanted to make his exit a memorable one. Mission accomplished, right? He got invited back, didn't he?
Let’s just hope it never happens again.
4) Probst Probe: The Colton quit, I would argue, showcased the best and worst of The Dimpled One
On the one hand, he voiced what viewers were thinking; yes, Probst was harsh, but Colton deserved every ounce of anger, frustration, and vitriol that Probst unleashed. From where I sit, Probst remains the best at what he does when one views him solely as “The Host of a Reality Show”; the fact that he wasn’t even nominated for an Emmy the past two years is utterly baffling to me.
On the other hand, perhaps we can understand the Emmy snubs in light of Probst’s endless parade of missteps as executive producer. The latest blunder: Casting Colton. I don’t buy it for a second that Colton's invitation to play again didn't get Probst's personal seal of approval. Even if Probst had reservations and it was other people (CBS/casting) who were clamoring for Colton to get another bite at the apple, Probst had the final say: if he didn't want Colton on the show again, it never would have happened.
All things considered, I applaud when producers take risks – and, truth be told, many of the twists in Blood vs. Water have worked out far better than I’d anticipated – but when a scenario turns into a snafu, I ask only one thing: Own it. During his recent interviews, Probst could have said, “I had my doubts about Colton, but ultimately agreed with casting that his path to redemption would work well as a possible narrative in a season where we brought back Redemption Island.” Instead, he accepted no culpability in the casting of Colton, opting instead to let casting shoulder the blame.
You’re the Executive Producer, Probst – act like it. Even if you didn’t push for Colton’s inclusion (something Colton has been insisting during interviews, for whatever that’s worth), Survivor is your show, so if it happened, it’s on you, for good or, in this case, for ill. You’re going to be blamed anyway, so you might as well jump on the grenade – especially if, contrary to your public declarations, you’re the one who pulled the pin.
5) I suppose now, in the aftermath of my latest critique of Probst and the show, is as good a time as any to explain – swiftly, and with a minimum of pugilistic pontification – why I ceased crafting the Dozen in the middle of Caramoan
I will be succinct – or at least less verbose than usual – because you’re here to read about Survivor, not about me. In this case, the two are interwoven, but still, this is a story best told in summary.
Shortly after the Brandon/Bedlam column (which is no longer up at RHAP – perhaps I’ll be able to convince Jeff to post it here), a fellow blogger asked me why I was walking away. I offered a litany of reasons (the truth of the Brandon quit being far worse than we were shown; my growing disillusionment with the show’s exploitation of groups who deserve respect rather than ridicule; my frustration with not pinging on casting’s radar, which I understand is a hypocritical contradiction, for how can one be so angry with a show and yet still want to be on it)… but it really came down to how I ended my email:
“Bottom line, I have grown disgusted with Survivor and Probst – but, more fundamentally, I have grown disgusted with myself. I had ignored what the show had become, and my own willing complicity in that evolution. Once I realized that – and I'm ashamed that it took something as blatant as Brandon's meltdown to do it – I knew it was time to stop watching, stop writing, stop investing.”
And that, my friends, is where my head and heart were five months ago.
6) So what changed?
The short version is that I decided not to take things so personally. I’ve chosen to accept the show, warts and all, and share my opinions – about the episodes themselves as well as the larger social and psychological truths it reveals – with those who care to read them.
Which is just another way of saying that I missed the show (I ended up catching up on Caramoan and, despite my misgivings about yet another returnee-heavy season, I’ve tuned in to Blood vs. Water)… I missed interacting with the former players (even my Twitter Feud with Fishbach)… and, most of all, I’ve missed analyzing and debating Survivor with fellow SuperFans like you. That may seem like pandering, saccharine drivel, but it just so happens to be true.
Survivor remains – despite the endless efforts by production and Probst – a remarkable concept. Indeed, unlike most of what litters the cultural landscape, Survivor perpetually carries within it the potential for greatness. I would prefer it to be more pure, I desperately wish it could be above mass media’s mockery of the marginalized (women, minorities, etc.), and I would hope that it would remember what made it so great in the first place. But whatever its faults, Survivor still intrigues and entertains, and so long as it does, I’ll be there to offer my opinion on the good, the bad, and the ugly.
7) Speaking of offering my opinion, here’s a rapid-fire rundown of my thoughts on post-Bedlam Caramoan
** Michael Snow deserved to be on an all-newbie season – Kojak’s got game.
** I was as shocked as anyone that Phillip was willing to fall on his sword for his alliance. More proof that veteran players – even awful ones – are better prepared for the game than any newbie could possibly be.
** Malcolm cemented his position in my personal pantheon: he sees the game from the point of view of a strategic showman, and the show is better for it. Many people can play Survivor; few can do it with style. Let’s hope he gets one more shot at the title (but please, God, not in the rumored Three Amigos season).
** Reynold is all that is wrong about casting: he had never seen the show before he was recruited, watched a few seasons on DVD, and thought, because he found the idol and lasted deep into the game, that he was an exceptional player. Sigh.
** Brenda’s treatment of Dawn at the final tribal council was, in a word, vile. Dawn has one of the kindest and sweetest souls in the history of forever, so I’m sure she’s forgiven Brenda… but that must have been very, very hard.
** Were I Erik, I don’t know that I’d ever be okay with having an illness take me out when I was an immunity challenge victory or two away from the final three.
** Cochran was a worthy winner… yes, he had a lot of advantages going into the game (pre-game alliances with just about everybody, ready made targets like Francesca, early challenges offering him places to hide his weaknesses) but he still had to work hard to win. And he gets bonus points for giving one of the last available “Great Final Tribal Council Speeches”; Cochran is right, one of the key components of Survivor is timing.
And now, without any further ado (because there’s been wayyyyy too much ado), back to Blood vs. Water.
8) Contradictory Things Can be True #1
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I can’t stand Redemption Island as a concept – for many reasons:
** It privileges challenge beasts: First and foremost, Survivor is a social game; eliminating the “outwit” part of the equation feels utterly wrong to me. Indeed, the fact that Ozzy would have won South Pacific if he hadn’t choked on the Final 4 challenge still bothers me. Most of the game took place with Ozzy on the sidelines!
** It prevents big moves: the obvious worry is that the castaway who emerges from RI will be looking for revenge. But the more subtle and insidious result is that the castaways aligned with a blindsided power player might hold out for a leader’s redemptive return to the game rather than seek new safe harbors, particularly if that return might be imminent. One cuts the head off the snake so that the rest of the snake needs to find a new head.
** More often than not, the whole purpose of RI is undermined by the immediate targeting of the player who survives.
I love how Redemption Island is now a mini-tribal council, with dirty laundry aired in 114 degree heat; even better, both tribes are present, so everyone gets a stronger sense about the opposing tribe’s inner workings. Think anyone is in the dark about F#*K You Brad Culpepper now? Or missed the fact that Tina and Tyson are empowered to comment on the social dynamics of their tribe (they spoke up about Colton while Mrs. Rupert did not; this, for the castaways paying attention, is information about power relationships).
So, yeah, maybe Redemption Island isn’t totally awful. I still don’t think it has any place in Survivor. But if it has to be there – and the existence of Jeff Probst demands that it does, because he likes loser brackets – then having the Redemption Island arena turn into an acrimonious mosh pit makes the pill we’ve been asked to swallow a little less bitter.
9) Contradictory Things Can be True #2
I don’t know about you, but I’m over the whole “returning players on every season” thing.
Given that I’m someone who wants to play the game, calling for all-newbie seasons is obviously self-serving – but my reasons for wanting to limit veteran players to All-Star seasons go beyond my dreams of a call from casting. Forget about the physical, psychological, and emotional edge returnees have for the moment (and these advantages virtually guarantee that newbies don’t stand a chance); the real edge returnees have is their pre-existing relationships, and the pre-game alliances they forge long before they arrive on the island.
If the returning players were honest, how many hours would they admit to spending on Skype with one another after the producers have told them they’re in the cast? Dozens? Scores? Hundreds? How much time would YOU spend with a million dollars and your Survivor reputation on the line?
Oddly enough, I think the returning castaways have to play a totally different game than the newbies – longer, to be sure, and in many ways harder. Every charity event, every party in L.A., every opportunity former castaways have to spend time with one another becomes a part of the social game; the thirty-nine days on the island are utterly dwarfed by the hundreds, even thousands, of days which precede them. Proof of this: Rupert had NO CHANCE to go deep this season; he, from all reports, is an insufferable egomaniac at every charity event, so nobody wanted to work with him.
I’ll talk about pre-season alliances in a future column (in truth, in probably more than one; this collusion is the gravity of Blood vs. Water, the invisible force that shapes everything we see), but until then, whenever something oddly puzzling or slightly suspicious happens (the unified vote on Day Zero; none of the returnees wanting to talk strategy; the targeting of Candice and John), understand that pre-season alliances are underneath it all.
I love that the family dynamic is turning this season into one long, emotionally turbulent loved ones visit. Sure, we’re not going to have the same “it’s getting dusty in here and my allergies are acting up” moments of the post-merge loved ones challenge (and choices) – and, given my fondness for the honest and earnest reactions of the players, I know I’ll miss that – but I’m willing to trade the empathetic impact of that endgame episode for the range of emotions we’ll see this season (joy will be tempered by bitterness and acrimony).
I don’t know about you, but I’m already looking forward to the merge episode; it could possibly be the most psychologically complex episode the show has ever seen. And over the course of the rest of the season, we’ll see daughters voting out mothers, brother turning on brother, players being asked to align with people who took out their partners… there will be love, friendship, hatred, fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles.
I may be tired of returnees, but I’m never tired of drama.
10) Fortunes Falling
Man oh man are the editors going out of their way to make F#*K You Brad Culpepper look like an idiot:
** He admits, “I’m not worried about me” (Survivor Commandment #29: Whenever you’re inclined to say “I’m not worried,” you should be worried)…
** He proclaims that taking out John would be “a colossal move in Survivor history” (it’s an early pre-merge boot, Brad)
** He opened Pandora’s box (the English teacher in me wants to point out that in the original Greek myth it was actually a jar, but so it goes); interestingly, turning on the five guys gave the episode its name, making it clear that the betrayal would happen.
The questions now: What miseries will the box unleash? And who will end up walking away with hope (which, if you know your mythology, is what remained in the box after everything else escaped)?
To answer the second question first: Vytas. What fascinates me about a player like F#*K You Brad Culpepper – other than his delusional self-appraisal – is how he makes more nuanced games, like the one being played by Vytas, possible. FYBC's been taking all of the blame for who was targeted, even though the group agreed... FYBC has to police the locker room while Vytas can build bridges with the women... and FYBC overplays his power position by opening Pandora's box while Vytas gets to walk away with the hope that remains after the ugliness is released.
And what miseries are going to emerge? Let’s just say that Brad’s game is over, and Hayden, too, will pay the price.
11) Fortunes rising
I’m sorely tempted to say Tyson, who has really impressed me thus far. He’s older and wiser, and he keeps making observations which resonate with earnest truth and uncomfortable honesty. Calling out the returnees for targeting Rachel? Awesome. Pointing out that being big won’t help Brad in challenges? Brilliant. Confronting Colton about showing his true colors before his back was against the wall? Exceptional.
But I have to temper my enthusiasm because of Tyson’s injury; at some point post-merge, he’ll need to win a challenge – something that involves supporting body weight with arm strength – and won’t be able to.
I have a feeling that Tyson will go deep in the game, but won’t win…
12) … because he’ll eventually fall to the Brothers Baskauskas, who for my money are the team to beat
Aras has already had a number of showcase moments – accumulating hero points by helping Gervase in the first immunity challenge and earning our sympathy with his “I love my brother the bully” reaction after last week’s physical battle – but it is Vytas, perhaps because of novelty, maybe because we’re spending more time with Tadhana, but probably because the edit is allowing him to literally and figuratively shine, who is emerging as this season’s most compelling character.
In the premiere, we saw Vytas sitting on the beach, bathed in the golden glow of a Philippine sunset, offering a long voiceover about his junkie past and Survivor present, and both of the episodes since have showcased facets of the Aras/Vytas relationship. Narratively speaking, their story will define the season; post-merge, they’ll use their cool charisma and yoga calm to unite the remaining players against threat (Hayden) after threat (Gervase) after threat (Tina) – I really can’t envision a scenario in which they’re not both endgame threats.
Eventually, though, brother will have to turn on brother. And I can’t help but think it will play out just like Vytas’ cheap shot during the challenge: He’ll try to blindside his brother, fail, and pay the price. Vytas – who pointed out during Tribal Council that Survivor is a game about information and trust – will do something to break that trust, and Aras will have no choice but to cut him loose.
Don’t get me wrong – at this point, I want Vytas to win. And he may just pull it off. But for now, I’m going with Aras.
13) Prediction Time
It’s clear from the promos that the loved ones are heading back to Tribal Council; when Probst mentions a huge power shift, he has to be referring to Tadhana, given that he has yet to sit down with Galang.
Seems pretty obvious at this point that Vytas, Katie and Ciera are going to team up with Caleb and/or Hayden…
F#*K You Brad Culpepper!
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen. I’ll try to come back each and every week, but no promises. I’ve got a day job – I’m an English teacher – and a night job – I’m a newly minted yoga instructor – and I’ve got a 7 year-old son who adores Malcolm and a wife who edits these columns – so there will be times when life intervenes.
That said, I won’t quit twice – I’ll leave that for people like Mr. Irrelevant.
If you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!
Andy Baker is a Survivor blogger who wants nothing more than to get a back rub from Jeff Probst the next time he's thinking about quitting his column. Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius