Thursday, December 20, 2012

Survivor Philippines: The Value in the Story

If you're familiar with this blog over the last few seasons of Survivor, you know it's been a roller-coaster ride of an attempt to focus on the story of the show. There were some glowing moments in the uncovering of the story of Redemption Island and the analysis of Sophie's brilliant Final Tribal Council appearance in South Pacific. There was the major blunder of privileging predictions over episode analysis resulting in an odd fascination with Mikayla's South Pacific edit and a stubborn exhalation of Troyzan in One World (both of which played important, revealing roles in their game's story if looked at in the proper context). The culmination of these highs and lows was my opting out of the ride this season and remaining largely silent. I wrote two early posts, a preseason statement and episode one analysis, before blending into the background. Now that Survivor Philippines is complete, it turns out that the statement is the much more interesting piece.

In explaining why I watch Survivor I wrote:
Survivor is art...I'll be looking at the narrative and what it tells me about life, about the constant mediation between the individual and the group.
Survivor does what good art should--draws our attention to a heightened expression of the human experience. Who wins is less important than why they win (though arguably those two things are inseparable).
What is so compelling about both of those quotes is that, in a season where an underlying theme was a discussion of story, they are exactly the reason Denise Stapley won so convincingly by a jury vote of 6-1-1.

It began in the premiere when Denise said everyone has a story and proceeded to try and figure out Zane. Over the next 39 days she proceeded to figure out everyone else. Around the merge Penner told Lisa that the story would be the evil of Pete, Abi, and Artis vs the good of Malcolm, Denise, and Carter and that the audience would be cheering for her to choose good. She did and as the finale rolled through, each member of the final four (her, Denise, Malcolm, and Skupin) each reflected on their story and how it would earn them the victory if they presented it to the jury. The error that three who weren't Denise made was that they privileged the story over the meaning. To say it another way, they privileged the game over their heart.

In my other early post, I explicated how the first episode set up Skupin's main dilemma.

Skupin is flirting with disaster by holding this game/heart dichotomy in his head because by doing so he is allowing RC’s experience and understanding of the game to hold supremacy over his. In other words, he is allowed her to tip the scales in her favor...You can’t go with the game (that’s pragmatism) or your heart (that’s emotionalism). Winning takes both. Skupin might be on the path to realizing that, and it just might be the theme of the season.
A “healthy” player will make sure his emotions and gameplay are in line because that is the only way HE can win.
Like Brandon Hantz in South Pacific and Sugar in Gabon, this season featured an unhealthy player that suffered mightily on the island because she was unable to reconcile her heart with the game. Skupin's closest ally on the island Lisa constantly bounced between wanting to keep her word and stay loyal to the people she liked the most and wanting to make the best tactical move, often bringing herself to tears. Ultimately it caused her and Skupin to run through the game unintentionally stabbing everyone in the back. At some point in the game they worked with or were allied with RC, Pete, Abi, Artis, Jeff, Carter, Jonathan, and Malcolm. At some point in the game, they worked against or betrayed RC, Pete, Abi, Artis, Jeff, Carter, Jonathan, and Malcolm. Yes, that's the entire jury. In this light, it's no surprise that the jury vote was a slaughter. They went with the game over their heart up until their last decision.

What Lisa and Skupin ultimately unintentionally played for was the right to decide who won the million dollars, Denise or Malcolm. The editors crafted this arc masterfully around the subtheme of going with your game or going with your heart. It began in the first episode with Skupin's dilemma and ended in the last episode with...Skupin's dilemma. After he won final immunity, the editors portrayed it as if he and Lisa had to decide between going to final tribal council with their heart (Denise, the player they were shown to have a closer bond with) or the game (Malcolm, the player that was built up to be more of a strategist and more honorable to beat). They chose Denise, who beat the subtheme into a pulp by steadfastly sticking to her strategy of putting the meaning in the story.

The key word in Denise's strategy was "value." She would constantly harp on showing her value to the other players and seeing the value in them. It remained a major piece of her approach even through the endgame. To the jury she explained exactly what I just wrote, that she was constantly seeking to demonstrate her value to other people. She constantly said she'd rather face the strongest players in the jury vote than take a goat with her and, in contrast to her closest ally Malcolm who turned on her out of fear of losing to her in the jury vote, she remained consistent, telling Malcolm she was willing to force a 2-2 tie with him and compete with Lisa in an elimination challenge. If things had gone that way and she won the challenge, she would have faced two strong competitors and decision makers, Skupin and Malcolm, in the jury vote. That gameplay is what made her story superior to Lisa and Skupin's. Her focus on "value" made it so that for her going with the game and going with her heart were one in the same.

In a recent fit of middle-of-the-night philosophical angst I jotted some story composition theory
Every good story is a progression of change from Point A to Point B that reveals a truth of the human condition. The storyteller's goal is to explain the how of that change by recounting its events in an entertaining and efficient manner that demonstrates their significance so the theme (the truth) is understood.
In Survivor the progression is obvious, the events that caused a player to survive each Tribal Council and go from one of eighteen players to the sole player remaining. Lisa, Skupin, Denise, and Malcolm (if he had made it there) were each prepared to explain their how. It is why the each firmly believed they had a great story. The problem is that they didn't have great stories. A great story has a strong theme, a truth that is revealed about the human condition. That is what Lisa, Skupin, and Malcolm lacked. They hapdhazardly said what they did (the game) without explaining why they did it (their heart). That is what Denise did, explained that she played (the game) based on identifying and offering value (her heart).

For seasons now, players have used the argument "I'm playing the game" or "I'm playing Survivor" to explain why they take the actions, usually deceitful, that they do. It's the perspective that leads to "gamebots" and "overplaying." Players like Albert in South Pacific saw their tower of cards (see what I did there) collapse as they offered no meaning to the jurors they mistreated. Nicaragua was the worst season for this. Everyone over played and the strongest players focused on numbers over people. The Final 3 included Chase who explicitly used the "I was playing Survivor" argument and Sash who tried to recant for "playing the game." It's why the other member of that Final 3 won. Fabio didn't apologize or waver on anything he did. He knew why he did it and explained himself. In other words, he brought his heart or his value and ideas on what value is to the game. Just as with Denise, there was no choice between the two for him to make.

Ten times out of ten the player who argues from this integrated (game and heart) point of view will win because he knows why he did what he did and can state it clearly while his opponents only seem like they made spur-of-the-moment decisions (whether they had an overall plan or not). A large majority of the time the player who plays from that point of view will win because he engenders the other players to support him on his way to and during the Final Tribal Council (and simultaneously minimizes random chance's ability to hurt him).

The editors of Survivor are masterful because they look at the game on this level. They don't merely show what decisions were made (the game), but why they were made (the heart) and trace those major whys throughout the season. That is how they construct their theme which in turns helps them tell a powerful story year in and year in. Uncover that theme and it will not only increase your enjoyment but your understanding of the show and the game.

Though sometimes the technical tactics may parallel between seasons (Denise herself played a very Sophie-like game), no two seasons will ever be the same because no two people are the same. They don't have the same "heart." That is what we learned from Denise Stapley because that is what she meant by "everyone has a story." Everyone has a "heart." The beauty (in her, the game, the show, and life), is seeking out the value in each series of events.

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