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‘Survivor’ closes book on compelling season

Four tribes merged into two. Competitors were given the chance to mutiny and join another tribe. A smaller, underdog tribe on the verge of being decimated turned things around and destroyed the larger tribe in challenge after challenge, evening the teams for the eventual merge. A hidden immunity idol was found and used strategically. One of the mutinous tribe members changed sides again. A single player dominated in all but one individual immunity challenges. A final three instead of a final two. A final jury vote of five to four.

Those were the highlights of “Survivor Cook Islands,” the most exhilarating and compelling season of the show since the first.

In part because of its twists and in part because of its capable, telegenic cast, this season is unquestionably a stand-out; even host Jeff Probst admitted during the reunion that it was “one of the most enjoyable seasons we’ve had in quite a while.”

The incredibly physical and demanding challenges helped make “Survivor Cook Islands” exceptionally watchable, from the violent wrestling match in the sand to the challenge that forced the entire tribe to climb and perch atop a small platform in the ocean.

It was runner-up Ozzy who excelled at most of these challenges, winning every individual immunity challenge except one, and helping his tribes win a number of others. In the water, he swam as if he’d sprouted fins and gills, and at camp, he scaled coconut trees as if gravity didn’t exist.

But giving Ozzy credit for his physical game alone ignores the fact that he did an exceptional job of remaining an independent player in the eyes of others, even though he belonged to an alliance of four. Similarly, Yul’s strategizing alone did not win the game; his physical strength contributed significantly to his win. He navigated the game’s twists deftly, from the mutiny that left him on a tribe with just three others to his discovery of the hidden immunity idol, which he used to his advantage but never played.

Racial division didn't last longDespite all of this, “Survivor Cook Islands” may stand out most because of its controversial initial twist: dividing the cast by race. The nation — or, at least, the nation’s mass media — reacted strongly to news last August that the new cast was divided by race initially. While many welcomed the show’s attempt to diversify its cast, the racial division seemed like little more than a media stunt.

It worked. But it also presented a problem unique to the game of “Survivor,” during which alliances are often the key to survival in the game. Since all the players are, initially, strangers, the strongest alliances and tightest bonds tend to be formed immediately, with those people the players first meet. Thus, some alliances were formed along racial lines simply because the players were grouped by race.

After the tribes changed during the third episode, the new tribes remained in alliances that were true to their original groupings. That’s perfectly normal and expected for the game of “Survivor,” as were most of the decisions those tribes made at Tribal Council.

But it was hard to ignore the fact that the alliances were race-based, especially when the players proceeded to vote off non-white cast members for five consecutive weeks, and then after eliminating a single white person, voted off another five non-white people in a row.

Were contestants making decisions based upon smart game play, or was it something more? That question may seem unfair, but it’s unavoidable, as the cast members themselves pointed out. During the reunion, Nate said he’s been called a “race traitor” for ultimately voting against members of his original tribe, who also happen to share his skin color. That unfair characterization and label can only be used because of the race-based twist.

Ultimately, producers regrettably forced viewers to notice race where otherwise it might not have been an issue.

For a while, it appeared as though the four remaining white players were going to vote off everyone else, and the undercurrent of racism seemed to emerge fully when Jonathan told his ally Candice, “Maybe it’ll be us four Caucasians in the final four.”

Ironically, it was Jonathan who switched his allegiance from his original (white) tribemates to join with Yul, Ozzy, Becky, and Sundra, and led to the eventual elimination of his original tribemates and himself.

In its final episodes, then, the initial tribal organization was all but forgotten as two of the most deserving players in the history of the game, Yul and Ozzy, competed against a third player, Becky, for $1 million.

The jury’s majority vote ultimately went to strategically dominant Yul, who was rewarded for his masterful, often subtle game play. While Yul defeated physically dominant Ozzy, a victory for either would have been both deserved and satisfying for the audience.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever felt bad that somebody didn’t win,” host Jeff Probst told Ozzy and Yul during the finale, because “you were so evenly matched.”

Concluding with a final four composed of upstanding, deserving players was the perfect capstone to an often dramatic and intense

39 days. In too many seasons of “Survivor,” one or both of the people who’ve faced the jury have been players who backstabbed, lied, or sidestepped their way to the top.

That’s the nature of the game; rarely does pure physicality and intelligence pay off like it did this season.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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