Now in its 19th season, "Survivor" has been remarkably resilient. There have been ups and downs, but there's never been a season that was a complete dud. Unfortunately, that streak may be coming to an end with this season, which is so far the closest thing Mark Burnett has ever produced to a complete failure.
“Survivor Samoa” has focused, to an almost comically myopic degree, on Russell Hantz, who has been billed since well before the season as the most evil villain the show has ever seen. Long stretches of the first three episodes have been spent showing interviews in which Russell says the same things over and over again: He is in charge. He is running the game. Everyone trusts him. His word is law.
The problem is that there's very little evidence to back him up. The first two bootings, which he supposedly engineered, were of a young woman who got on everyone's nerves and an older woman who was perceived as physically weak. In other words: the same people who are removed first in every other season. The same people everybody else would have wanted to get rid of anyway. These weren't masterful exercises of manipulative powers; they represented early departures by the most likely people, with everyone else on the tribe perfectly happy to vote for whomever, as long as it wasn't them.
Moreover, for all his supposed scheming, there has been no indication that Russell has any sort of viable long-term strategy. In fact, in the first episode, he congratulated himself on the formation of alliances with four of the tribe's women, three of whom he has since tried to get rid of.
It's also perfectly obvious that, despite the hype the show is trying desperately to build, nobody trusts him as much as he wrongly believes they do. There's little evidence that his supposed "trustworthiness" has convinced anyone to do anything, or has the capacity to convince anyone to do anything in the future.
As for his alleged brilliance, he was dumb enough to choose as his first major allies Jaison, an obviously smart African-American guy, and Ben, a widely despised racist. That is not an alliance that is likely to hold. He tried in last week's episode to juggle both men by getting Jaison — who he is sure trusts him completely — to keep Ben around for another week. He failed spectacularly and could not muster a majority, let alone getting everyone to do whatever he says. Ben was voted out, and the loyalty Russell claimed he had from Jaison proved to be worthless.
Remarkably — and indicative of how hard the show is working to push the "Russell is a genius" story, no matter how unconnected it is from reality — host Jeff Probst then wrote a blog post in which he talked about how Russell's abject failure to achieve his objective actually indicated that his game was subtle and sophisticated, because he sensed where the group was going and voted with them. If everyone who has ever gone along with the crowd after being outvoted is to be considered a sophisticated genius, then the show has had many more geniuses than anyone suspected.
Immunity idol was lazily hidden
The one thing Russell has done that appears worthy of some credit is that he found an immunity idol hidden in camp, before he even had any clues. Notable, yes, but hardly the piece of history he'd like it to be. Unlike in past seasons, the idol was in the most obvious place possible: the giant hole in the giant hollow tree in the middle of camp. That does not demonstrate that Russell is gifted as much as it demonstrates that the show is atrociously lazy about hiding idols.
Meet the ‘Survivor: Samoa’ castIdols used to be buried underground or hidden high in trees; now you just have to reach into a giant hole in the tree directly next to where the fire is. The fact that no one during the Cook Islands season dug up the idol that was buried in the sand on Exile Island until there were clues available does not speak to the relative genius of Russell; it speaks to the opacity of sand.
The fixation on the "genius Russell" version of events is problematic for three reasons. First, it crowds out anyone else in the cast who might potentially be interesting. After three episodes, most everyone else remains almost completely anonymous. Second, it operates as a huge spoiler, because there's no reason the show would be insisting that the guy is a genius if he weren't going to go deep into the game. They haven't prepared us to care about anyone else, so Russell is the story not only now, but for the foreseeable future.
Finally, the farther the show's narrative gets from reality, the more awkward and less interesting it gets. Right now, they're straining to make it a story of Russell's supposed dominance, and because there's no actual evidence of that, what you get instead is interview after interview in which Russell tells you it's true. Regular viewers know that if editors had good footage of Russell actually running the show and putting anything over on anyone, there would be more showing and less telling.
But that's not the end of the season's problems. The second episode featured a poorly-thought-out challenge that had a more obvious tendency to injure people than perhaps anything they've ever done. They've had wrestling before, but this wasn't wrestling — it was no-holds barred tackling, kicking, and punching. Measured wrestling is something the show has done plenty of times, but all-out assault challenges with an Ultimate Fighting-like lack of rules are just foolish.
At this point, the season is adrift. Russell, as a character, is a product of show hype and self-promotion. No relatable story has emerged; it's just Russell talking about himself and a bunch of other people shrugging their shoulders. The ratings for "Survivor" benefit season-to-season from a very loyal audience, but this is the kind of season that could begin to erode that loyalty.
Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com
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