If you’re someone who thinks that I wear a tinfoil buff because I tend to believe the various conspiracy theories that swirl around Survivor – as well as hatch a few of my own – then this ISN’T the column for you.
What follows are my relatively unfiltered thoughts about the Tyler Perry Idol and Tony’s discovery of it. Needless to say, my initial reaction was shocked incredulity. A few days of contemplation and conversation have done nothing to ameliorate my dismay; if anything, debating this situation with knowledgeable SuperFans has just made things worse.
Anyway, don’t say you weren’t warned.
Before I get into my more serious concerns, how about we focus on the strategic damage that the T.P. Idol has done?
A safe place to start, I’d say…
Here’s what we know: Tony found the T.P. Idol, and, according to the CBS cheat tweet, will reveal it to everyone this Wednesday.
So now, instead of having an increasingly paranoid Tony in danger each and every Tribal Council – and having a savvy strategist like Spencer constantly putting pressure on fringe alliance members like Jefra and Kass – once Tony reveals that he has the T.P. Idol, no one will make a move against him (which is precisely what happened when Yul leveraged a similar idol on Survivor: Cook Islands).
Instead of having Spencer, Tasha, Kass and Jefra quite possibly take out Tony this Wednesday – turning the game upside down – we’ll get a predictable elimination of Spencer or Tasha. (My money’s on Spencer, unless he wins immunity.)
Even if Tony convinced his alliance to hold together at F7 – not impossible, given how persuasive he is and how well he utilizes the fear-based inertia of his fellow players – we’d have more potential drama at the final flip zone (F5) when Trish and Woo could opt to drag along Jefra or Kass to the end instead of blindly following Tony. But that can’t and won’t happen, assuming the T.P. Idol doesn’t expire until F4; given the abundance of other targets left in the game, and Tony’s ability to play his idol after the vote, the remaining players will simply hand Tony a spot in the Final 4 and set about getting rid of other threats. The plan at that point will be to eliminate Tony at F4 or, if there’s a Final Two, at F3, should Tony win individual immunity at F4.
Anyway, the end result is this: The very existence of the T.P. Idol guarantees there will be no major power shifts for the next three or four votes, and that makes for an awful, predictable endgame. No amount of Tony paranoia is going to change that. And really, what at this point does Tony have to be paranoid about?
Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that Tony found a regular hidden immunity idol.
He’d have to pick the perfect moment – which he has not yet been able to do; his moves have been aggressive, but poorly timed – and he’d only be able to it once. But that, too, is out of the question; he doesn’t even have to play the T.P. Idol to navigate what SHOULD be his hardest stretch of the game.
Bottom line: The fact that the T.P. Idol exists makes the game significantly worse, and given who found it, the damage may well be irreparable. Which is a Survivor tragedy, if you ask me. This was a top-tier season, until the T.P. Idol came along and ruined everything.
Small wonder that my 7 year-old son thinks that the T.P. stands for “Too Powerful.”
Know what’s even worse?
The fact that the T.P. Idol has disrupted strategy isn’t even the most awful thing about it. The details of its discovery are FAR more faith-shattering than the fact that the next several episodes will be strategically underwhelming.
What do I mean by that? This: The T.P. Idol was a temptation too great for the producers to resist. Indeed, it has managed to once again call the integrity of Survivor into question.
It pains me to say this, but I am officially shredding my #TeamTV membership card.
Here’s the thing: This – probably – has nothing at all to do with Tony. He’s aggressive, he’s invested, he’s entertaining. I stomp around in this column all the time asking for more players like him, and I love that casting found him and the producers were wise enough to put him on the show.
But Tony, I am convinced, got help finding the T.P. Idol.
Let’s look at the circumstantial evidence, shall we?
** The tribes were told about an idol with special powers when the tribes merged on Day 17.
** Presumably, players – particularly those in trouble – searched for this idol whenever the opportunity presented itself. (Jeremiah, for one, said in a post-elimination interview that he “tore the jungle apart” looking for it.)
** On Day 20, Spencer and Woo trigger a massive idol hunt (which leads to Spencer finding a normal-powered idol)… this gives us an idea how these particular players approach the existence of idols. The idea that all of these players have been ignoring the existence of the “special” idol since the merge is utterly laughable, given how they swiftly, and collectively, mobilize during the #MadTreasureHunt.
** On Day 25, Tony blindsides LJ – and receives four votes from the minority alliance. This begins a trend in Tribal Council where the minority alliance makes it clear that Tony will win the game if he gets to the end. Tony’s paranoia increases, which pleases producers; the odds of him being voted out also increase, which to producers is the very opposite of pleasing.
** On Day 28, when a stretch of Tribal Councils which will have Tony in real, honest-to-goodness jeopardy begins, Tony finds the T.P. Idol.
** Let’s look at the details of that discovery: He searches under a small plant on the beach (really?), he investigates a tree with a distinctive root system along the path to the water well (no luck!), and finally explores a tree he claims he never noticed before despite it looking like a “spaceship” (which has a root system not dissimilar to the one for the previous tree). For the first time, we see Tony dig. And there it is, the T.P. idol, just when he needs it most (if not for that night’s Tribal, then for the three Tribals to come).
Now, let’s take a quick look at Tony:
** He’s been compared by many to Russell, an assessment which becomes increasingly apt as the game approaches its end. (Russell, too, has been accused by many – pundits and players – of getting hidden immunity idol help from producers.)
** He’s given the show most of this season’s signature moments (and hashtags).
** He’s enjoyable to watch (if you like relentless gamesmanship, which I do).
** He’s increasingly paranoid.
** He’s innovative (a rare thing after 28 seasons).
** He’s a force of nature.
** Without him, the game becomes predictable and quite possibly boring.
** At this phase of the game, he should be in a ton of trouble.
To sum up: The show wouldn’t be the same without Tony – indeed, I think most of us would agree that it would be significantly less entertaining – and he’s on the brink of elimination.
In other words, Tony’s in desperate need of an idol, and the producers would prefer that he (and not, say, Jefra) finds one.
Under those circumstances, the temptation to tinker must be all but impossible to resist.
Now, I’m not saying that the producers who are asking the players questions during confessionals are saying, “The idol is right over there if you dig.” What I AM saying, though, is that it’s easy to play hot/cold with cameramen – former players have spoken about doing precisely that – and that it’s incredibly easy to give that edge to some players and deny it to others. Savvy players can also divine quite a bit from a producer’s line of questioning about his or her idol search; I’m sure you could come up with a dozen leading questions right now which, when put together, would obliquely lead someone to the location of the T.P. Idol. And Survivor producers have been doing this for over a decade…
An example of the sort of questions I’m talking about:
“You remember the clue at the merge feast about an idol with special powers, right? Have you been looking for it? Do you want it?”
(This reinforces that there’s an idol to be found.)
“The clue said it was somewhere near camp. What locations does that lead you to think about?”
(This reminds the player that there is a limited radius to search, and offers a hint that the idol will be found near a distinctive landmark. Also, as the player rattles off likely places, there will be nonverbal cues on the face of the person asking the questions… if the player needs more guidance, we might get follow up questions like…)
“How do you think an idol with special powers would be hidden? Would you be willing to climb to find it? How high? Would you dig? How deep would you go before you assumed it wasn’t there?”
(Now we suspect that the T.P. Idol is more difficult to find than other Hidden Immunity Idols… and that it’s either up in a tree or buried somewhere. As the player further refines his list of possible searching spots, he might very well get interrupted by…)
“Do you want to go look for it?”
(Hold on a second – it’s probably in one of the last few places I listed!)
The confessional ends and the search commences… and that’s when a smart player (such as Tony) keeps an eye on where the cameraman is looking. Time for a high-stakes game of hot/cold! They CAN’T miss the shot of you discovering the right spot… or when you decide to dig… and when you finally feel the idol beneath your fingertips. This is the coverage they HAVE to get. It’s simply human nature: How they act in the right location will be substantively different than when you’re way off base; and if they WANT you to find it, well, they’re not even going to bother trying to hide their reactions.
And that’s how I think Tony found the T.P. Idol.
Ask yourself: Did you or someone else who religiously watches the show feel that anything was fishy about the T.P. idol landing in Tony’s lap? Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
Also ask: Are there any Cagayan castaways who, at any point this season, expressed their discontent about the T.P. Idol and/or Tony on Twitter? More smoke. More flame.
At risk of getting repetitive, let’s play the journalistic game of Who/What/Where/When/Why/How:
What: Found the T.P. Idol
Where: Buried at the base of a tree that looks like a spaceship, a location that Tony said he never noticed before, despite searching for the idol for 10 days.
When: Right when he needed it most.
Why (would the producers risk the integrity of the game to help Tony): Because they’ve done it before, and indeed, have been bending the rules of the game since the very first season.
How: By indirectly guiding a player to the location of an idol with the help of cameramen and confessional interviewers.
It’s all plausible, don’t you think?
To go all infomercial on you: Wait, there’s more!
Many writers – mainstream columnists and bloggers like me – regarded the reemergence of the T.P. Idol on a season of newbies as a test balloon for its eventual use in a returnee-based season. If there’s one thing that has doubtlessly driven producers – particularly Probst – nuts in modern Survivor is that players like Malcolm struggle to avoid elimination immediately post-merge without the help of idols. When they attempt to address this “unfairness,” by constantly replanting idols and/or assisting the search, they take heat every time an alpha male miraculously finds an idol, often more than once (hello Reynold!). How better to solve this problem than have an aggressive player find a single idol, the necklace equivalent of Tolkien’s One Ring; what is the T.P. Idol if not the “One thing to rule them all, One thing to find them,/One thing to bring them all and in the darkness bind them”?
Now, to give Tony credit, he turned himself into a player who the producers wanted to help.
And really, if there’s one piece of advice I’d give to a future castaway, it would be to play in such a way that the producers will help you catch the breaks. If you make great TV, you create your own luck; and by luck, I mean subtle producorial intervention on your behalf. This is most readily apparent in seasons with returning players battling newbies, but any time you have a breakout character, the potential is there – and the temptation is there – for production to keep him or her around as long as possible.
Let me ask you: Is it pure coincidence that players like Russell and Tony find idols when and where no one else can? Is it simply because these castaways are just more proactive than anyone else? Is it because they understand the game so much better than the other members of the cast that it’s almost inevitable that they’ll end up in possession of an idol, super-powered or not?
You may think so, but I don’t.
Oddly enough, my biggest counterargument to your reasonable objections: Spencer.
He is every inch as smart and savvy as Tony – probably more so. He knows as much or more about the game, including where idols tend to be buried. He’s heavily motivated to find the T.P. Idol, given that he’s been in danger of elimination almost continually since the merge. And yet, you’re telling me he never searched this particular, peculiar spaceship tree before? (For those of you who think that he probably did and just failed to find it, don’t you think they’d show us that footage to make Tony’s discovery all the more impressive? There’s no way they’d be able to resist the juicy temptation of showing Tony out-searching Spencer.)
When Spencer gave us a confessional last week about how Tony is unpredictable and that’s why he needed to go, what he was really doing was revealing an uncomfortable truth: that producers love what those in the game try to avoid at all costs – chaos; unpredictable players are the lifeblood of Survivor (at least, according to those who see the show as more an entertainment product than a social experiment), which means that producers will do whatever they can to keep that element in the game.
They were never going to hand Spencer the T.P. Idol; the resultant game would be by-the-numbers, and give Survivor it’s second young SuperFan winner in three seasons. If there’s one thing that Probst longs for more than anything it’s for someone like Tony to win the game and in so doing, at last exorcise the Samoan demons of Natalie White’s victory over Russell. (Can you imagine Probst’s reaction if Tony lost to Jefra on May 21st? He’d lose his mind. And probably once again send a note to the loser saying he got robbed.)
And finally, I can’t help but wonder: Is THIS why Probst was so subdued about Cagayan before the season began? Because Tony finding the T.P. Idol was bound to stir up controversy? And that he knows in his heart of hearts that he once again crossed the line – and invited heavy scrutiny of Survivor – in an effort to cultivate the post-modern Hantz?
Whatever the truth – which I realize we will never know – I, for one, am no longer shocked by the possibility that the game is at best manipulated and at worst corrupted. At this point, we pretty much expect the producers to create certain outcomes, and to hope for anything resembling fairness or objectivity or purity is ludicrous in the extreme. And that might be the saddest thing of all.
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – 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