Monday, March 19, 2012

Survivor US: One World Analysis (Part 1)

SURVIVOR US (Season 24)
"One World" (Part I)

Warning: This contains mild challenge and plot spoilers for the first four episodes of Survivor: One World, although it does not mention any particular contestants. Read at your own risk.

I'm breaking this season up to keep it manageable (and to keep it mildly relevant), but will do the rest in two batches at later points, probably at the merge and at the end of the season. This instalment covers the first four episodes, in which tribes were split by gender and lived on the same beach. Aside from this high-concept and well-overdue opening twist (which hardcore fans have been suggesting since at least the sixth season), the first part of the season has really been probably the best example in years of a show actually embracing the "back to basics" concept every show pretends to be using every couple of seasons. The reward challenges have been particularly simple, which is quite welcome. They're also refreshing by their very presence at this early point in the season, having been absent from the second hour of the season since China (nine whole seasons ago), the third hour since Tocantins (six seasons ago), the fourth hour since Nicaragua (three seasons ago) and from the last two seasons almost entirely as a result of the show-damaging Redemption Island twist. The Immunity Challenges so far have been decidedly less simple -- although one is a recycled idea from a previous season -- but that's understandable. The reward is bigger, therefore, the challenge needs to be bigger. But now, let's discuss them one by one, shall we?

Episode 1 Immunity Challenge: Obstacle course. Jump from "a 25-foot-tall tower" into a raised circus net, cross a balance beam, then go through a rope chute bridge to the finish, raising a flag. All obstacles have to be done one member at a time, and everybody must finish before moving to the next.

Simple idea. Too simple for a first challenge, you'd think, right? Well, you'd be correct. The behind the scenes video confirms tribes had to collect four bags of puzzle pieces before the rope bridge, then had to assemble them to work out how to raise their tribe flag. The puzzle isn't shown in either the episode or the video, but it was probably your fairly standard "use the numbers shown as the combination for a lock" deal. But why wasn't it shown? Well, one of the players ignored Jeff Probst's safety instructions (understandable, given how he's generally a nuisance) and broke their wrist after landing wrong on the circus net, causing the challenge to be cancelled. You could be forgiven for wondering why the challenge was even approved with such a dangerous section, but keep in mind that Probst clearly says it's the tower itself that was 25 feet tall. Take out the height beneath the net, and having to step down into the jump, and they were probably only falling about ten feet. Three metres. If that. I'm usually the first to criticise challenges for being needlessly dangerous, but that... really wasn't. It was just a horrible landing by someone who, frankly, had no business being out there to begin with.


Episode 2 Reward Challenge: Untie a group of knotted ropes to free a large metal ring. First to do so wins a tarp, but both tribes get their ropes and the crate they came in.

For the first reward challenge at this point of the season for almost five years, it's remarkably plain. So plain, in fact, that the players were told to run it themselves. Because you know what always makes challenges interesting? Knowing the host doesn't feel it's interesting enough to bother with. It actually wasn't a bad challenge, though. I'd rather a few deliberately smaller challenges each season than have them try (and fail) to impress every week.


Episode 2 Immunity Challenge: Balance beam. Everybody stands on a narrow beam next to each other, then must cross it to the finish platform... starting with the player farthest away.

Recycled from the Vanuatu and Fiji seasons (the former also containing tribes divided by gender), this challenge was rather notable the first time as being a blatant excuse for homoeroticism among both the awesome specimens of male flesh and those who make Ron Jeremy look attractive. This time, however, they decided to play up to it by having a little person and a gay guy on the men's tribe. Unfortunately, they forgot to cast anybody you'd enjoy seeing groping each other in order to get across. I once read a comment on a forum somewhere stating that basically, while good contestants can make decent challenges the stuff of legend, bad contenders can make pissweak challenges even worse. Here, unfortunately, the latter definitely happened. This challenge just doesn't work without the right cast, and gambling on that happening isn't the sort of risk the producers should be taking with their current casting practices.


Episode 3 Reward Challenge: One tribe member at a time memorises a row of items and pulls a lever to cover it from themselves and the other tribe's player. They must then go to a solving station and assemble it. First to do so (trying as many times as needed) scores a point for their tribe. First tribe to five wins a canoe and fishing gear.

I'm honestly not as much of a hater of puzzle challenges as some of the people I've come across in my years as a Survivor fan, but that said, I'm also not a huge fan of them. Part of it may be that in recent years, challenges have tended to be shoehorned in as the final stage of a physical challenge ostensibly to stop the young fit guys from dominating, but the problem there is that you're just replacing "guy who can run an obstacle course quickly" with "guy who can run an obstacle course AND ALSO SOLVE A JIGSAW PUZZLE quickly" as the chief dominator. And somehow the producers still haven't managed to work this out. The better hybrid challenges are those that are more mental than physical, but also require a sense of strategy rather than just having players picking up bags of pieces before running Over There. Like this one. Pull the lever too quickly and you could get it wrong. Pull the lever too late and your opponent could steal the point away from you. There's no "best" time to pull it, making the challenge surprisingly tense for something so simple and generic.

Episode 3 Immunity Challenge: Blindfolded obstacle course. Six players are belted in pairs, a seventh guides one pair at a time to a water tower to dunk themselves and get hit in the head with a bag of puzzle pieces. Once all five bags are untied and collected, the guide assembles them to solve the puzzle.

There's nothing particularly wrong with this challenge. That said, there's also nothing in the challenge that makes it stand out too much either. It's just... there. The obstacle course itself is unremarkable and kind of fails to deliver, and the puzzle seems far too easy for a Survivor puzzle. I'm not sure how much of my complete apathy for this challenge comes from the challenge itself, and how much of it comes from seeing the same basic idea -- caller guides blindfolded pairs around to collect things -- turn up in five consecutive seasons (and six out of the last seven) now. They really need to give it a rest, or at least stop insisting on players being tied together. Having the callers guide seven separate people was chaos, but it was so much more interesting than having them guide one pair around at a time.

Episode 4 Reward Challenge: Giant slingshot. One player at a time shoots coconuts at a tribe-coloured 5x5 grid. Knock out a majority of a target with your coconut and it counts. First tribe to get five in a row (in any direction) wins a choice of three possible rewards.

One wonders whether this challenge was designed only after a contestant in the previous season decreed that Women Shall Not Use Slingshots, but here we are. Again, a simple idea executed well, which seems to be becoming the theme of at least the reward challenges this season. Despite the generally poor challenge design used in them, I tend to like the weapons accuracy challenges as it's not immediately clear who's going to do well, and this certainly is one of the better ideas they've had over the years (compared to, say, the very similar but much more confusing slingshot/battleship challenge in the aformentioned Vanuatu season).

Episode 4 Immunity Challenge: Puzzle relay. Again tied in pairs, one pair at a time runs over a seesaw, solves a puzzle and collects a key, then returns. Each subsequent pair's puzzle is farther away and harder. After all three keys are collected, the final player uses them to unlock three locks.

Like I've already stated, it's not the puzzle challenges themselves that are bad. It's the fact that they're often randomly inserted into challenges as the crucial factor in determining success when the puzzle itself is entirely not what the challenge is about. Here, though, it's the puzzles that are the focus, with the seesaw obstacles being completely superfluous and irrelevant. I suppose the closest equivalent we've had in the past is one of the individual immunity challenges from Australian Survivor (which I maintain wasn't anywhere near as dreadful as its reputation suggests, and which I will analyse here at some point in the future), which managed to combine two fairly well-known mental challenges with a maze, an accuracy challenge, high-level strategic decisions, AND a player getting caught in a tiger cage. Unfortunately, this isn't a patch on that. But this is still the best Immunity Challenge of the season so far. By quite a wide margin, too.


So there you have it. I'll be back with another rant about this season's challenges in a few weeks, but next week I'll be looking at the first half of The Amazing Race 20 (I know, TWENTY! For a show that's constantly on the edge of cancellation, it's really doing rather well for itself), and I may even take a look at a particular foreign reality show that's taken my interest recently as well.

EDIT: Added some space in between challenge analyses because Blogger seems to hate the combination of this font and italics.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed this analysis, thanks! Looking forward to the next one!