Sunday, May 24, 2009

TV Year In Review, Part Three: Reality Shows

This is the first season of the Race I've ever seen where I haven't actively rooted against anyone. The producers did a remarkable job of assembling a douchebag-less cast*, and for the first time I went into the finale not minding if any of the three remaining teams took the prize. That said, it was kinda bullshit that two of three final legs were based in China when you had a team (Tammy and Victor, the sibling law students) of Chinese descent who spoke the language flawlessly and had actually been to some of the locations just a year prior for the Olympics. I mean, the producers shouldn't penalize teams just because they speak more than English** and the race routes are probably planned before the teams are cast...but come on, Tammy and Victor suddenly had a massive advantage in the Race's endgame. It wouldn't have been very fair if the racers had been directed to a country where everyone communicated with sign language, so Margie and Luke and the advantage, nor if they had gone to a country full of smoking hot redheads so Jaime and Kara would've gotten the edge. (If there actually is such a country, by the way, I'd like a brochure.)

That said, Tammy/Victor were probably the strongest team anyways, so their victory wasn't a big surprise. The Race's highlights this season included the endlessly entertaining duo of 'Orange County' writer Mike White and his elderly father, a classic boneheaded Race mistake (more on this in a moment), a preponderance of tasks that featured the teams humiliating each other while being laughed and pointed at by drunken locals, and an opening leg in Switzerland that probably inspired my parents' recent trip to the country. My mother just kept going on and on about the beautiful scenery and then proceeded to nearly laugh herself to death watching the racers try to negotiated a steep, slippery hill while carrying giant cheese wheels. Ok, I just got an image of my parents doing this themselves in Switzerland and now I'm laughing myself to death.

So, the boneheaded mistake. Kisha and Jen are locked in a duel with Jaime-Kara to be the third and final team in the finale episode. Both teams are racing to the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing, and Kisha-Jen appear to arrive first (this may have been an editing trick, but who knows). Instead of immediately searching for Phil, Jen heads to a porta-potty since she claims she's about to explode after chugging down a dozen bottles of water at a previous task. If you believe the editing, this slight delay might have cost Kisha-Jen a spot in the finals. Honestly, I can't really blame Jen for wanting to take a piss. The idea of using a bathroom is such an ingrained social more that it would probably be actually somewhat difficult to just outright piss yourself even if you wanted to. I see this error as less egregious as Vixen and Kent's legendarily stupid "we'll detour a team we think is behind us, instead of the team we KNOW are behind us" mistake from a couple of seasons ago, but then again, I wanted Vixen and Kent to win, so that screw-up hit me much harder. If it were me, frankly, I would've preferred to have been known as The Guy Who Peed On Himself But Still Had A Chance To Win $1,000,000.

* Okay, I guess Jaime/Kara were somewhat douchey with Jaime's consistent berating of cab drivers, but then again, they're smoking hot redheads. Let's just said I had a higher level of tolerance.

** Or, at least, they shouldn't until I get on the show teamed with my language-student cousin, who speaks five languages. She could handle the talking and the physical challenges, while I provided invaluable....uh...moral support? Comic relief? Copious amounts of sweat while walking uphill? See, I bring plenty to the table!

Who gives a shit?

Who gives a shit?

Who gives a shit? Wait, addendum! I still don't get how professional athletes are allowed to be on this show. Let's see, you have people who spent their lives training in balance and dexterity competing against, say, Cloris Leachman. That seems fair.

Who gives a shit? The best 'Hills' moment of the year came when Sportscentre's Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole openly campaigned to host the Hills Aftershow. CTV GlobeMedia, if you hooked that up, I'd start watching. Just a suggestion.

Survivor took a casting turn this year that I'm not totally pleased with. Both the Gabon and Tocantins seasons featured what I call 'star casting,' whereas one person become such a Poochie-esque focal point within the show that it almost threatened to overshadow the rest of the series. This isn't to say that Survivor hasn't used this tactic before; Rupert and Jonny Fairplay were unquestionably the stars of Pearl Islands, Yau Man dominated the Fiji season, and my pal Mario once noted that every Survivor season has a 'narrator' of sorts who gives viewers the real dope on what's going on within the game via their confessionals.

And also, I should note that the two 'stars' of this year's Survivor series --- Sugar in Gabon and Coach in Tocantins --- were very entertaining. Sugar had the great, if slightly misleading (more on this in a sec) storyline of being the queen of Exile Island and overcoming her dad's death. Coach, of course, was a fascinating study in self-delusion. It's hard to describe Coach to someone who hasn't watched the show. Imagine a guy who thought he was the living embodiment of The Most Interesting Man In The World from the beer commercials, except that instead he was just a complete douchebag.*

* Top Ten Douchebag Moments From Coach

10. Throwing his jacket over his shoulder whenever he went up to cast a vote at tribal council. This became such a running joke that even the jury members once showed up at TC all with jackets over their shoulders.

9. Making no shortage of bizarre references and quotations in an attempt to make himself sound smart. Coach's allusions ranged from Pat Benatar to Friedrich Nietzsche.

8. Claiming that he was such a natural leader that, during the show-opening 'grab everything you can from the truck in five minutes' segment, he told his team with his eyes what to grab.

7. An overall sexist vibe that manifested itself by a) creeping out uber-hot Candace and then considering her a 'cancer' to the tribe when she didn't play along, b) considering every woman in the game save sycophant Debbie to not be worthy of his 'warrior alliance' and c) his "women take a pebble and turn it into a mountain" comment during the second-last episode. Just to add to the comedy: Benjamin Wade was actually a soccer coach...AT A WOMEN'S COLLEGE. That's right, this guy was put in charge of young women. Good gravy.

6. This is sort of an outside-the-game moment, but Coach was fired from said women's college because, incredibly, he didn't actually tell them he was going to be on Survivor. He claimed the time off was for medical tests, but after his week of leave expired and he didn't show up back at school, his ass got fired.

5. His boasts of playing the game in an honourable, honest fashion. In Coach's defense, a lot of players do this. "If winning this game meant I had to lose my integrity, then I wouldn't want to win!" is the mantra of many a losing player from the jury box. If you want to play Survivor without telling a lie, then prepare to be voted out very quickly. Anyway, Coach played the 'honour' card a ton of times, since in his view, real warriors conduct themselves in a warrior-like fashion. I believe he said this before he conspired to backstab Brandon, btw.

4. His insane tall tales, most notably his story about how he was dropped off by an Army helicopter in the Amazon jungle for a rafting trip, and was then captured by pygmies and spent three days in captivity before escaping. The scene where Coach told this story was amazing --- he finishes this cavalcade of bullshit, there is a moment of stunned silence from everyone in the group, then Brendan pipes up with, "So, how much does it cost to rent a military helicopter?"

3. A number of "oh, I've done that" moments. Yeah, he's that guy --- the Topper. You've met people like this at work or at parties. This is the person who, whenever someone says they've done something or had something odd happen to them, always has to chime in with a self-centered tale of how they've done something similar so they can remain the center of attention. Coach did this a lot, but perhaps his greatest boast was how he claimed to be a master of a secret form of martial art so hush-hush that you can't even find it on the Internet, and that he was only judged worthy of learning the method after months of study with a group of monks. This was in response to, I believe, Erinn saying that she did some yoga.

2. His whining attempt to get out of being sent to Exile Island, and then when he was sent, he decided to be a martyr and see the experience as a 'vision quest' and not eat, make fire, etc. (In all likelihood, this was because he was incapable of finding food or making a fire, even after over a month out in the wild.) When Coach returned to the game and competed in an endurance-based immunity challenge, he hung on until Taj mentioned that his back must be hurting him, thus giving Coach the out to quit. Of course, he didn't just quit...he fell to the crowd in a dramatic collapse. Coach also turned down Jeff Prosbt's offer of a checkup from the Survivor medical staff, obviously because his drama queen ass would've been found out.

1. His self-given 'Dragonslayer' nickname. This is compounded by the fact that when his loved one (his fucking assistant coach!) showed up, Coach told him that the nickname was given to him by the other players. If you took a shot every time Coach referred to himself as the 'Dragonslayer,' you would've been dead of alcohol poisoning about halfway through any Survivor episode of the last two months.

As entertaining as Sugar and Coach were, however, I'm not sure if I want to see more 'stars' in future Survivor seasons. The problem with the Survivor producers casting people like this is that I really didn't believe that Sugar and Coach were ever truly interested in winning the million dollars. They were only on the show to promote themselves and to play a role, so to speak. Even their names made them seem like characters, rather than actual people; they were Sugar and Coach, not Jessica and Ben. The problem with having a star is that, particularly in Sugar's case, it makes the show's editing seem more overt. Obviously, Survivor is one of the most heavily-edited shows on television and the producers are going to feature and highlight certain 'stories' for entertainment purposes. But when you watch Survivor and Sugar comes off as America's sweetheart, and then you read interviews with cast members after the show and find out that Sugar was universally hated and a grade-A bitch, well, that doesn't sit well. I'm not going to sit here in the year 2009 and decry the lack of reality on reality shows, but when a major factor in a game about social strategy is omitted entirely, that's not being fair to the viewer. The conceit of Survivor is that you get to see how 'real people' adapt to both a wild environment and the social dynamic of the tribe --- not how an actress and a self-promoting soccer coach piss off everyone in their tribes. I don't blame the producers for focusing on dominant personalities instead of less-interesting personalities in the game, but when those dominant personalities are cast in the first place with the seeming intent of being 'the stars of the season,' then it seems more than a little inorganic.

So yeah, that's my 'big picture' view of Survivor. I overall enjoyed both individual seasons, though I'm not sure I'd rank either among my all-time favourites of the series. Gabon was a pretty straight-forward tale of the underdog Fang tribe almost overcoming the arrogant Kota tribe, except that the Fang tribe wasn't very likable themselves. They were definitely the lesser evil in comparison to the sociopathic trio of Corinne, Randy and Marcus on the Kota tribe, but even still, the Fang power combo of Crystal and Kenny were a pretty sad couple to try and get behind. I'd argue that the season's only really great 'hell yeah!' moments came when Marcus was voted out to break up the Kota Onion Alliance (I am SO GLAD I found the pic of Corinne's shocked reaction and Matty's shit-eating grin from the subsequent episode when they saw that Marcus was gone) and at Sugar's big scheme to humiliate Randy with the fake immunity idol. Something of a bitchy move from Sugar, but hey, Randy was a real piece of work. And really, nothing Sugar did justified Corinne's unbelievable "I don't believe you were sincere about missing your dead father" jury speech. That was just fucking jaw-dropping. Remember when we thought that Sue Hawk's rats-and-snakes speech in Borneo was harsh? That was a kindergarten class compared to Corinne's bitchery. My favourite part about the whole Corinne experience was how she kept ragging on Sugar for being unemployed and without a college degree, and yet Sugar was an actress (so basically in a constant state of semi-employment) and Corinne's own treasured college degree came from.....Florida. Wow. Degrees from safety schools must be hard to come by in Corinne's neck of the woods. Why do I have a feeling that her whole fridge is filled to the brim with Gatorade?

As for Tocantins, the season became less interesting once it became apparent that either J.T. or Stephen was going to win. It was another 'underdog tribe overcomes the odds' story, and yet Coach's tribe was so fractured (it was Coach-Debbie-Tyson, then Sierra, Erinn and Brandon all as wild cards) that it didn't really feel like the JT/Stephen/Taj trio really overcame a great obstacle as much as they simply exploited the wide gaps that already existed in the Timbira tribe. It was good to see Tyson go, since while Coach was so over-the-top in his douchebaggery that he was entertaining, Tyson was just a garden-variety dickhead that deserved the blindside elimination that came his way. The season also suffered from the fact that the three best-looking women (Carolina, Candace, Sydney) were all voted out in the first six weeks. It left us with the likes of Sierra, who is apparently a model, but one of those ATM-esque models who gets jobs based on a unique look rather than being actually pretty. Wait a sec, I'm the same guy that accused Coach of being sexist, right? Just checking.

So where do Bob and J.T. rank amongst the past Survivor winners? In the top half, at least. Bob played about as close to a blameless game as one can manage in Survivor --- he was in an alliance, and when it was broken up, he simply kept winning immunities and made it impossible for the Fangs to vote him out. On top of that, he was such a nice guy that when he finally lost a challenge at the final four, Sugar decided that he had earned a chance to play for his survival, thus splitting the vote and causing Bob to beat Matty in the tiebreaker. Oddly enough, Bob didn't much screen-time in the season apart from his mild poor-man's-Yau Man edit. I have to believe it was because Bob, while a nice guy, was a pretty boring guy. Imagine Walter White without the meth dealing and borderline sociopathic behaviour, and that's pretty much Bob to a T. As for J.T., he also played a superb game, never picking up a vote or even ever being seriously considered for an elimination. I'd compare J.T. to Tom Westman, winner of Survivor 10, and like Tom, J.T. even got his way through the game thanks to a strong friendship with another dude. Of course, Ian quit the game in a deluded attempt to win Tom's respect at the final three**, whereas Stephen was still playing to try for the win, as evidenced by his play to knock out Taj at the final four. I'll admit, I was rooting for Taj to win, but I have no issue with J.T. winning. Here's the odd thing: J.T. had such an easy ride to the win that it almost makes me want to underrate him. I mean, you could argue that he was such a good player that he made it easier than it seemed (i.e. Brian from Survivor: Thailand), but I dunno, a victory is more impressive in my mind if the winner has to really work for it. Maybe someday I'll do a Listamania ranking the Survivor winners and we can decide this once and for all. Wherever J.T. finishes in that list, he is the undisputed champion of picking up the most Facebook updates from female friends of mine that praised his victory and looks in the same sentence. Needless to say, J.T. picked up more of these than, say, Bob. Sorry Bob. Chicks don't dig the bowtie.

** = Still, in my mind, the dumbest move in Survivor history. This was rivaled only by Erik voluntarily giving up his immunity and then promptly being voted out in the Fans vs. Favorites season.

No comments: