I hope you don’t have a problem with me poaching part of this from last season’s “Previewing the Finale” post. My attitude on Survivor finales hasn’t really changed in the last seven months. If you already read that post, just skip down to the first bold headline.
Tonight is the season finale for Survivor: Nicaragua, and even though this has been, by nearly every measure, a disappointing season, I would describe my excitement for this evening’s proceedings as embarrassingly high. Survivor finales have regularly amped me up more than the finales of any other drama. This is for two main reasons. First, they provide closure in a way no other series does, for I think the obvious someone-wins-and-there-ain’t-no-cliffhangers reason. Second, most of the great dramas I have watched recently (The Wire, The Sopranos, Dexter, Mad Men, and Lost), I have watched either online or on DVD, meaning I can watch the finale immediately after the penultimate episode. This is one of my least favorite things about watching shows on DVD.
I love the Survivor finale because, no matter how clearcut it seems going in, you can never rely on the fickle psychology of the jury. You can’t predict which players will graciously vote for the person who caused their elimination because he was the best player, which ones will remain loyal to their alliances long after they’ve died, and which ones will hold long-term grudges. These questions are only amplified by the ambiguity of watching a season of Survivor: We the viewers only see so much, and it’s no secret that the editing plays a big role in the portrayal of different characters.
“King Arthur’s journey is officially ended.” –Coach
“The Heroes built it and the Villains burned it.” –Parvati
“This is how I hustle, this is how I make my money: I come out here and play Survivor. That’s what I’m best at.” –Sandra
“If she can win the game twice, there is a flaw in the game.” –Russell
Perhaps it was because it was clear that one of the two people I thought should win was going to win. Perhaps it was because the voting went almost exactly as I expected,* from five down to four down to three down to one. Or perhaps it was because I wrote those 2,000 fawning words about the euphoria of a Survivor season finale.
*Qualification time: I said “almost exactly.” Even though I said Parvati was the favorite, I thought we would get to a Final Three of Russell, Parvati, and Sandra, and that Sandra would win in that scenario (I thought 4-3-2 before the final tribal and 5-3-1 after it, with JT sticking with Russell. He didn’t.).
But I have to admit, there was something a little disappointing about last night’s finale. Let’s review it (you can also skip down to “The Disappointment of It All” if you think you’re above a quasi-analytical recap):
FROM FIVE TO FOUR
It started with highlights from the players’ previous Survivor experiences, and what struck me most was the difference in the reactions of Colby and Russell when they each lost. I had forgotten just how likable Colby was on Australia; I mean, he jumped up and fist-pumped the moment he lost because he was excited for Tina! What a guy! Russell, meanwhile, looked like the sorest loser in Survivor history–a designation he would add to later.
The night the first Survivor finale aired in the summer of 2000 is oddly salient in my memory. My parents were on vacation, so my cousin was staying with us, and I remember having to go with her to drive my brother to a friend’s house quickly before the finale started–except that I was kind of ashamed of falling prey to this reality TV thing, so I never mentioned it, and we had trouble finding the house on a secluded street, and I was panicking in the back seat because I wanted Rudy to win so badly, and we ended up getting home about two minutes after the episode started. Even today, when I pass that secluded street, I think immediately of that night.
Like I said, oddly salient.
Although the Survivor finale that night didn’t give me the result I wanted, it certainly did deliver. It gave us arguably the landmark moment in reality television and a winner who, while unpopular with many, was probably the best the show could have had for its long-term health.*
*The polarity of opinions on Richard Hatch and how he played the game remains an issue 20 seasons into the game. Does controlling the game and risking the alienation of others constitute playing it the best? Or is it better to lay low, ride coattails, and hope your opponent is voted against? It’s a subjective stance, and it’s what makes the finale so interesting time after time.