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Survivor Survives

Another Thursday night, another episode of Survivor.

Yes, two years after the initial hype, I'm still tuned in to Mark Burnett's game-show spectacle. This spring's installment, Survivor: Marquesas, is the best since the original, and its ratings are surprisingly respectable. Especially given that everyone I speak to about Survivor looks at me as if I've farted not only in their presence, but in the presence of Miss Manners, Emily Post, the Queen of England, and the Sultan of Brunei.

We seem to have a misunderstanding about Survivor, you and I.

You think of it as a sort of ersatz Real World or -- perish the thought -- another Big Brother. In other words, a show that people watch because they're addicted to the soap opera-style lives of a bunch of uninteresting people acting out of character in order to become TV stars.

That's not Survivor, at least not the one that I'm watching. Survivor is not a reality show, as I've said before on this site -- it's the best damned game show ever.

I don't watch Survivor for a dramatic plot line about how someone is hurting someone else's feelings by taking up too much space in the hut at night. (Real World: Gilligan's Island, coming soon to MTV!) No, these days Survivor is all about strategy and gamesmanship. There is no other TV series on television as complicated and attention-grabbing. My wife and I pause our TiVo throughout every Survivor episode, to speculate about the strategies of the various contestants and to try and intuit what the final outcome will be.

You see, the contestants on Survivor: Marquesas have seen all the Survivors before them. They know how the game is played. And as a result, they're not revealing anything about their own personalities on this show. Instead, they're carefully playing a game of alliances and counter-alliances, interspersed with various physical and mental challenges that ratchet up the degree of difficulty even further.

Take Rob Mariano, the a construction worker from Boston who became one this season's villains. Rob is, as far as I can tell, a really interesting guy. He's got a great sense of humor. And yet he came across on the screen as a bad guy, because he was plotting the defeat of his fellow players -- and being honest to the CBS cameras about how he was just screwing with them all, in an attempt to win the game.

Boo! What an evil man! Doesn't he know that Survivor is just a show about sixteen people enjoying an all-expenses paid vacation to an exotic locale?

Well, no, he doesn't. Because Boston Rob had it just right: Survivor is a game, with the ultimate prize being a million bucks. To win it, you must prove your worth as a worker and member of the tribe, cut a deal with the right set of players so that you can be protected from being voted off the proverbial island, make the people you execute along the way like you enough to vote for you if you're one of the final two players, and find a way to make your final opponent someone who's even less likeable than you.

That's hard to orchestrate, and Boston Rob proved that he wasn't quite a master at it -- although he came damned close to making it. Rob's fellow conspirator, Sean Rector, is still alive and kicking (and in good position to be among the final four survivors) through a combination of luck, good strategy, and the idiocy of other contestants.

See, this is why Survivor is a brilliant game. It's because it relies as much on the ability to ride the bucking bronco of human psychology as it does on endurance skills or physical attributes. Sean, Rob, and their compatriots seemed ready to be drummed out of the game, beaten by another four-strong alliance of players. But the alliance of four made one critical miscalculation: they didn't do their math. An arrogant group of four people does not have the upper hand when there are nine people left playing the game. They showed their hand a little too soon, before they had a numerical advantage over their opponents -- and the other five players sent them packing.

Not interested in games, strategy, and the like? Then Survivor isn't for you. But I'm a sports fan, I enjoy playing games, and I love watching Survivor. Just don't watch it to see who's going to have the next big temper tantrum. Because even if someone has one, they won't be doing it for real. They'll be doing it for some (most likely ill-conceived) strategic effect.

That's just evil. And insidious. And brilliant. I can't stop watching -- and I'll be back for Survivor 5 in the fall, guaranteed.


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