Stalwart reality series Survivor, now in its 19th season, long ago lost its ability to bring any real surprises into its trademark “the tribe has spoken” ethos, with twists like hidden immunity idols and tribe-member swaps now part of the formula. The show, then, lives and dies by its casting and editing, relying on those two critical components to create the drama that its predictable rhythms and formula now lack. And it’s in those two key areas that Survivor: Samoa is a major letdown from some of the more compelling recent seasons set in Tocantins and China.
In fairness, it’s difficult to say that Samoa‘s casting fails, because so few of the 20 castaways (which is entirely too many to begin with, as a cast this bloated always leaves individual personalities short-changed) have received significant airtime through the show’s first four episodes. Part of that was the result of the Foa Foa tribe’s inability to win any challenges in the early goings of the competition, meaning that the 10 members of the Galu tribe were relegated to the background while Foa Foa plotted and schemed against each other in preparation of voting someone out of the game. But a more significant problem is in the editors’ disproportionate focus on “Little” Russell Hantz, a middle-aged Texan who fancies himself some kind of evil genius, even though his machinations have thus far consisted of little more than emptying his tribemates’ canteens during the middle of the night and outing himself as a misogynist with his constant references to the stupidity of the women on his tribe.
What has made the season such a bore is that the show’s producers and editors—and even two-time Emmy-winning host Jeff Probst—have bought into Hantz’s act, giving the blowhard the opportunity to provide the bulk of the show’s confessionals and talking-head narration. The producers have a vested interest in hyping up Hantz’s strategy, thereby justifying his already Internet-spoiled participation in the show’s upcoming (and, according to recent statements from producer Mark Burnett, supposedly series-ending) Heroes vs. Villains season, where he will be hard-pressed to prove himself more vile or self-delusional than the likes of such luminaries as Tocantins‘s Benjamin “Coach” Wade, Gabon‘s Randy Bailey, or Cook Islands‘s Candice Woodcock.
It’s unfortunate that The Russell Show comes at the expense of one of the most legitimately interesting story arcs the show has ever aired. A show that once infamously divided its contestants into tribes based on race should be one of the last sources of a smart dialogue on race relations, but Samoa‘s third episode hinged on an ultimatum given to the Foa Foa tribe by Jaison Robinson, who insisted that he would walk away from the game if his tribemates refused to vote out the repellant Ben Browning, who had previously directed a great deal of racially-charged invectives toward Yasmin Giles.
Survivor contestants routinely talk about integrity, but it’s exceedingly rare for someone on the show to demonstrate it in action. That Robinson’s comprehensive dressing-down of Browning, whose aggressive ignorance prevented him from understanding any of the larger implications of a Southern white male referring to a black female as “ghetto trash,” at tribal council also gave the show one of the moments of overdue comeuppance and schadenfreude that have long made Survivor a gratifying spectator sport could have provided the season with a real shot in the arm, in addition to a moment of rare insight and grace. Instead, Probst, who attempts to impact the game’s outcome via leading questions and comments more with every passing season, interrupted Robinson’s intelligent, impassioned moment to ask for Hantz’s opinion on the matter.
What has elevated Survivor above the majority of its reality competition brethren are those moments when its social experiment actually pays off, revealing something about how group dynamics evolve or about how individuals can willfully manipulate those around them. When the show focuses on just one or two “characters” like Hantz (or Shannon “Shambo” Waters, an ex-Marine whose frightening mullet and ability to lose the prizes won as rewards dominate what little screen time the Galu tribe receives), it becomes just another indistinct iteration of the type of reality series that it helped spawn. Having lost sight of the game at its core and, instead, emphasizing contestants who are clearly just angling for airtime, Survivor is really starting to show its age.