Digging Deep into Australian Survivor Season 3

jakec / 02082018

Let’s talk about Australian Survivor by talking about American Survivor.

Let’s talk about American Survivor by talking about death.

People die on this show. By which I mean, one person died, once (uh, it was in the France edition, where are you going with this?) — but, other people come close with alarming frequency (relative to the safety of other reality shows (more people should die on The Voice)). Medical evacuations happen, like, once a season. In the case of Kaoh Rong: three times a season, which could have been five times. These folks were lying in the boiling sand, cooking inside, shaking and crying while doctors and other contestants poured water over their shoulders and cried too. Jeff Probst called every member of the crew onto the set. Well, that only claimed one contestant. A few episodes later a guy got a cut on his knee and the doctors pulled him because it was getting serious. A cut! An accident! And then there was Joe, an old guy, who ate too much beef on a reward challenge and had to be taken to hospital. Christ, even when the going’s easy it’s tough.

A curious thing happens in these moments, and when people quit, often for just as good reasons like family death or being sexually assaulted: Jeff Probst never, ever says, “It’s just a game.” Instead, he asks other contestants to describe how this person’s leaving will impact their strategy. Sometimes they say things like, “Them leaving will really weaken the tribe, I think it’s a mistake,” and Probst will not disagree. He asks if the person is absolutely serious. He asks if the person understands there is no coming back. To Jeff Probst, host of American Survivor, this is not Just A Game.

(Obviously, I credit Jeff Probst, The Human with human compassion. But part of the tension of critiquing Survivor is checking the personhood of the people on the show at the door. What we have to go on is the thing itself — produced, edited, packaged.)

The term “game” in American Survivor parlance is awarded maximum gravity. It is as grave as a supermassive black hole. When players talk about “my game” they are talking about ensuring their continued existence on the show. They are talking about their survival. “Game” is not playful, it is existential. “In this game, fire represents your life,” Probst says at tribal council. “Once your fire is gone, so are you.” This emphasis on mortality produces a killer instinct in the game’s best players who, through exhibiting this killer instinct, have become as legendary as Olympians to the dedicated audience. Richard Hatch, Boston Rob, Parvati Shallow, Russell Hantz, Tyson Apostol, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Ozzy Lusth, Todd Herzog, Kim Spradlin, Tony Vlachos. In The Game, they would tie you to the tracks AND pull the lever, sparing five others just for the pleasure of watching you die. (And because killing five people is worse jury management.)

It’s absurd. But, so is life.

Ah geez.

Australian Survivor hasn’t seen quite so much with the killer instinct. Where Americans are unshy about spraying their psychopathy at the camera, stopping just short of baying for literal blood, Australians talk of friendship and fairness. This is part of the deeply rooted cultural lie of the Australian character, natch, but also makes for slower burning Survivor. Where people like Phoebe and Flick from the first season or Luke, Jericho, Henry and Sarah from the second come to play hard, the rest of the players are more concerned with proverbially burying hatchets than literally burying machetes. Last season had so many goats it’s a wonder anyone went hungry, and there hasn’t been such an obvious final vote loser as Tara since Gervase in Blood vs Water.

Which is to say: the new season of Australian Survivor might change that. But it depends.

First: Russell Hantz. Everybody except the fans hates Russell Hantz and he’ll almost certainly never play American Survivor again. But he might be the series greatest also-ran. Russell has never won. Russell will never win. He’s devious (good) in an obvious and obnoxious way (bad) and if it weren’t for his ability to manipulate the camera crew into finding idols for him, he’d never have gone as far as he has. He is fundamentally unlikeable. But for all his ambition, he’s an incredibly useful tool for better players. He tends to stay loyal to the alliances he makes on the first day. The people in those alliances outlive him. Sometimes they make it to the end (Parvati Shallow) and occasionally, win a million dollars (Natalie White.)

Russell has two strategies: the first is finding idols. The second is allying himself with the most beautiful woman on his tribe. Straight into the first episode and he’s already stalking Monika, Miss Universe Australia 2015.

Before we talk about the dynamics of this alliance, we need to talk about edgic.

Edgic is editing/logic but it might as well be editing/magic. Edgic is a Dark Art practised by Survivor cultists to determine how a given season will unfold, based on how the episodes are edited. This doesn’t sound so flawed: television is storytelling and most stories follow an identifiable structure. If you see a gun in the first episode, students of drama may understand that gun will get voted out at the merge as a physical threat.

But: edgic sort of only works given ideal editing conditions, i.e. assuming the season is edited as deliberately as possible. There are reasons to believe this is not the case for Australian Survivor Season 3. Like: at tribal council, Jonathan LaPaglia mishears something a player says, and we get a weird little sequence where the player says something clearly (for the audience), Jonathan says he doesn’t hear it, and then the player repeats himself. There’s no subtext to this moment. It should have been cut. There were other moments (mostly featuring LaPaglia, still finding his feet as a host but mostly doing a solid job) that could have been edited around, but led to sort of stilted exchanges instead. If the season is edited poorly, discerning logic from it becomes tricky. Maybe there isn’t logic in the first place.

With that said, there’s one sequence in the edit of the first episode that warrants dwelling. Russell, Monika, and cosmologist weirdo Sam are gathering wood. Sam says something basically innocuous, Monika replies normally, and Russell says “Did you know this guy is really funny?” Monika and Sam totally stonewall him, so he repeats it. And Monika just sort of says, “Yeah…”

In edgic terms, Russell’s episode one cut was OTTN — over the top negative. All his confessionals have him talking about being the Idol King and how everyone else is an idiot, and then they show him getting ignored by the only two people on his tribe willing to be in his presence. His saving grace might be that the rest of the Champions tribe were too busy winning gold medals at the Winter Olympics to watch enough Survivor to know who he is. But otherwise, this guy isn’t getting to the merge.

Second: archetypes. Part of the character development in Survivor is how players either play to or against archetypes established by earlier seasons. Two archetypes are prominent in American Survivor that haven’t really shown up in Australian Survivor and they’re both more or less for the audience to mock. The first is the nerdy superfan. Sam is socially awkward and clearly The Nerd on a tribe of sporting legends, but he’s also self-aware:

“Monika was Miss Universe. I study the universe. I’ll probably make a couple jokes about that at some point. They’ll probably fall flat.”

He’s not apparently a superfan either. Fenella looks like a caricature Mark Knight would draw of a Greens voter, but players who typically fall into the hipster archetype are usually edited to seem elitist and out of touch, whinging about the conditions and unwilling to work. We’ve only seen Fenella being amicable and a team player so far.

American Survivor plays to the American heartland. If you cut past players by their voting history, you’d almost certainly see a red tide. The show itself is relatively chaste. They like it when the cuddly military vet wins the mil instead of the hawkish blonde actuary or the nebbish nerd. In a series where the audience doesn’t get a say, they have to find other ways to engage viewers, and part of that is showing allegedly undeserving people fall down in public.

In Australia, it’s a little different. 85% of our population lives within 50km of the coast, so the idea of coastal elites just doesn’t exist here. Instead, the class divide is city by city, and then how close to the center of that city you’re perceived to live. That’s not to say the class division is any more flat, but the only people making fun of hipsters any more are whoever’s behind that awful comedy pilot TEN was promoting starring Roz Hammond during last night’s episode. i.e. famous comedians. I.e. “coastal elites.”

Maybe this is Australian Survivor’s most significant distinction from its fraternal brand. It’s celebratory.

Jeff Probst lives in a universe of his own creation where American Survivor is celebratory too. In Probst’s imagining, Survivor shows how literally anybody can persevere through incredible hardship and come out on top. This is true! But it’s not entirely true. Turn the coin slightly and you see another side, in which literally anybody can turn on their best friends, inflict lasting emotional (and physical) trauma, and debase themselves in pursuit of a life-changing amount of money.

(How much that amount can change one’s life has diminished since its premiere to the tune of about $463,000USD. In other words, the prize is almost half as valuable. The reward for being the Sole Australian Survivor is $500,000AUD, or $369,890USD. In other words, you could win American Survivor and Australian Survivor back to back today and still win less than Richard Hatch did (although you wouldn’t have to go to prison.))

The Survivor: All Stars final tribal council in 2004 is one of the most brutal the series has ever seen. Boston Rob and about-to-be-fiancee Amber Brkich get roasted. What’s different about this series is they’re not just getting roasted for betraying friends they made in the game; some of the players had been friends with Rob, in particular, for years outside the game. One by one they stand up and tell Rob that they hope the chance at the money was worth it, because “It’ll never be enough to buy it all back.” If Survivor as a franchise has ever felt evil, this was the moment. Like, The Hunger Games doesn’t need to exist. If you want a parable about how the pursuit of victory corrupts, watch Season 8.

This is also what makes Survivor so thrilling. Elaborating on this can belong to a different essay, but Survivor can tell you everything you need to know about life and the people you’ll meet. And it isn’t all cynical. Not nearly. But some of it is dark.

Australian Survivor is not. When Luke and Jericho in Season 2 ate all the jam and got Anneliese voted out, it was played like a prank. When Lee and Kirstie made it to the finale in Season 1, it was a victory for the good guys, not the most boring final matchup in the history of the series. When Henry made big moves and ran the mid-game, he was never portrayed as a conniving villain. He was just a loveable strategist. Every single ad for Australian Survivor carps on the players’ heroism in the face of tragedy. There were a lot of serious players last season but it was never Good vs Evil. One kinda wanted everybody to win, somehow, and even when they lost it was with grace.

It was an incredible season, still.

This season, there are a lot of potential social villains. But nobody is playing as if their life depended on it. Jonathan LaPaglia does not seem to feel that this Isn’t Just A Game. Jeff Probst will mock you in public for quitting Survivor. Jonathan LaPaglia would buy you a beer.

In this game, fire does not represent your life. It’s just a flame on a stick on a film set.

Third: the cast. What a bag! Anita is already set up as the narrator for the season, getting a confessional in every other scene. In American Survivor, this would imply she’s going deep into the season, but we already know that might not be the case here. Zach and the boys club all seem like macho dickheads and Shonee and the other women on the Contenders were all massively horny for it. For some reason, almost every guy on this season is The Biggest Guy Ever, including a seven foot tall tradie. Matt, the misogynist cop from Queensland, talked himself into getting voted out faster than any contestant in Survivor history. This early in the game, who’s playing hard? The fact that the Contenders knew enough to split a vote in the first episode, plus a bunch of them recognising Russell, suggests they know how the game is played. Steve’s edit is painting him as an idiot, with him saying he’ll use Chinese military strategy and stealth to find idols and immediately cutting to him rifling through every bag in front of his whole tribe. The first episode is always about introduction and especially with a longer season (55 days on the island instead of American Survivor’s 39) people are averse to strategising too hard right up front.

The guys are all drips. Show more of the women.

Finally (and, sinfully, as an aside): Survivor has always walked a line between cultural imperialism and genuine respect, and then cartwheeled like an idiot off to the former side. In the opening of this season - shot in Fiji - one tribe is carried by boat along a river to the first challenge. The camera looks off to the banks where Fijians in traditional dress stand on rocks and in bushes like some Heart of Darkness shit. Let me put my hand up and say: I don’t know how the people of Savusavu live, but given that it’s home to resorts, tourist shops and weatherboard houses, something about this opening sequence seems less than genuine. All the trappings of the show, from the concept of “tribes” to the immunity “idols” and set design are pillaged from Indigenous iconography, and while sometimes reward challenges send players to meet and interact with the locals, these cultures are rarely mentioned. That such a white and wealthy cast is contrasted with the local population as if they’re the threatening, mysterious Other deserves reckoning. Given how long it’s taken for Australia to reckon with its own Indigenous population, I’ll let you guess how long we’ll be waiting for the show to do as much for Fiji.

But let’s dream, for a second, to round this out. The season honours the cultural heritage of its setting, integrating Fijian history and tradition into the series with collaboration from the local government. The show transcends its backstabbing legacy and becomes newly relevant for raising genuine discussion about Indigenous treatment. Players are forced to reckon with their own guilt, complicity and compassion while competing against and outmaneuvering the rest of the cast, knowing they’re benefiting from structural privilege AND possibly denying more deserving people from a whole stack of money. The winner comes home and donates most of their winnings to Indigenous Australian communities and organisations and Jonathan LaPaglia makes a huge announcement: that’s right folks, for the first time in almost 20 years, we’re going back to The Australian Outback. Only this time they pledge to have a more representative cast of players. TEN is applauded for leading network television into the 21st century and in response, Channel 7 immediately fires Kochie. I’m not saying this is the panacea to hundreds of years of white supremacy, but as far as Survivor goes, wouldn’t this be The Biggest Move of them all?

Uh, instead they’ll probably just do an episode where everyone gets fucked up on kava and makes fun of Steve for being Chinese.

This big, dumb, big-dumb series is back. 55 days. 24 contestants. There are plenty of shows, but only one Survivor. I hope it's Moana. I really hope it's Moana.