Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Call Me Casual (Not an Apostle of Tyson)

Survivor: Blood vs Water threw me for a loop. The season was the tale of the pain brought about by bringing deeply personal relationships into the game. The players who suffered the most became the focus of the story, yet the player who turned his pain into the fuel for victory was relegated to a footnote, especially in the finale.

Each episode was "these two are struggling because of their love #bigbadwolf." Yes, #bigbadwolf was an actual Twitter hashtag the editors put on screen. If you used and followed that hashtag, you would've been right in the middle of a conversation about how great of a game eventual winner Tyson Apostol was playing. Yes, it's almost like they were leveraging the "superfan" community to write that part of the story.

Or were they letting them write their own?

I'm not a fan of Tyson. It's nothing personal. I don't know the guy, only his edited character on television. I've followed him on Twitter since Heroes vs Villains and felt the same way about most of his tweets that I've felt about his confessionals. Every once in awhile I chuckle, usually I shake my head and appreciate the intent.

As a communicator, the way Tyson says things intrigues me. He works hard to create an ethos of nonchalant investment through subtly deriding some absurdity of what he's doing or likes. His favorite target of these quips is himself. The day of the finale he tweeted, "Pretty sick on the day of the #Survivor finale. Similar, I would suspect, to Michael Jordan during the '96 NBA finals." Surely it's meant to be taken in jest because there's no way he'd be calling himself the Michael Jordan of Survivor...except he is calling himself the Michael Jordan of Survivor. Saying it in jest makes it easier for the audience to accept it. It's a clever approach that I enjoy a lot more than the content inside of it.

My favorite moment from the finale was when Tyson broke down and cried after the vote reading. Most winners whoop and jump around. The moment is the realization of a joy they knew was possible and made happen. For Tyson it seemed more like a release. He openly admitted at the Final Tribal Council that he didn't think he had a chance at winning at the start. Many of his confessionals echoed that belief, as he discussed the game getting away from him in previous seasons. As he wept, he seemed to let go of all the frustrations and apprehension that I'm accustomed to seeing from him. I enjoyed the moment because I finally understood and appreciated what the victory meant to him, I just wish that I was told the story of him building to that release.

The story I was told was a Culpepper sandwich with the Morretts and Baskaukases between the bread. Early on, we saw Brad Culpepper struggle to become the shield he promised Monica he would be (and surely has been during their entire marriage). His aggressive play and claim on a leadership position thrust Monica into the spotlight until he left. Similarly, Vytas Baskaukas excelled in letting others take the spotlight and the axe but it was his brother Aras' strong leadership skills and history of success in the game that did him in. Post-merge, Laura Morrett saw her game end when her daughter Ciera decided she couldn't win as long as her mother was there attracting attention to the two of them.

At the end of their games, each pair was given a catharsis by the editors. The Brothers Baskaukas seem to have worked through their rivalry to a new found respect. Laura witnessed her daughter blossoming into an independent and confident woman. What happened to the Culpeppers? Their dynamic became the subject of the finale.

As the numbers whittled down, Monica became the swing vote and only player who could possibly stop the Big Bad Wolf from blowing houses down. Over and over she asserted that she was playing for Monica, sometimes following up that claim with a contradictory assertion of selflessness. All her posturing culminated at the Final Tribal Council when the jury forcefully confronted her with a seemingly basic question, "Who is Monica?" In her own way, Monica admitted that she didn't know. It was truly compelling, and sometimes difficult, to watch.

I completely felt for Monica. I wanted the jury to lay off of her. I didn't understand what more Laura wanted when she asked for "vulnerability" after Monica had just bared her soul about her role in her husband and son's lives. I was relieved when Hayden had the class to explain to Monica what they were all confused about (and pained when Monica took it as another attack when it wasn't). At the end of it all, I wanted Monica to win so she could have the title of Sole Survivor to start building her independent identity on, but she was never going to. Regardless of my feelings on Tyson, this season was his and the story should've been his too.

Many of the "superfans" (a self-ascribed label that seems to mean a much-deeper-than-typical engagement with the show) did see the story as being Tyson's from early on. Similarly, they saw One World's story being about Kim and Redemption Island's story being about Andrea early on. Two out of three times now, they've correctly uncovered the winner. Zero times have they done it by taking the show as it is.

Tyson's win, like Cochran's the season before, is a superfan's dream come true. The game has had a huge impact on his life yet he never thought he'd win it. Hell, host Jeff Probst never thought Tyson would win it. He said as much pre-game, asserting people wouldn't respect Tyson enough because he is mainly about having fun. That persona is exactly what he cultivates to belie what it all means to him.

Just like superfans, Survivor means more to Tyson than I suspect we'll ever know or understand. It's why they wanted him to win. Before this season, he wasn't a historic Survivor legend like Boston Rob Mariano. His inclusion in his second season Heroes vs Villains was curious and his performance in it short lived. Now after his third season, he is a legend and a victor--and it took him one less season than Rob to become the latter. That fact is what the superfans will remember this season for.

Me? I'll remember Aras and Vytas' parallels with Jacob and the Man in Black on LOST, Laura's struggle to balance her desire to win with her desire to see her daughter win, and Monica's tears that came with her fight to assert herself. All of it taught me what helped Tyson win--you have to make sure your relationships in life fuel you, not cause you anguish.

That was the story of Blood vs Water. Maybe I'm a superfan for analyzing the editing on such an in-depth level to uncover themes (and for meeting players like the tall-as-fuck Aras). Maybe that means I'm supposed to be happy Tyson won. Though I tip my hat to and congratulate him on the feat, I'm still glad I'm not glad. Maybe that means you'll call me a casual derisively under your breath (or in secret Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms groups).

Say what you will. I love the balance I've found. Twice a year I'm told a story that enriches my life on a professional and personal level--a story that shows me what it truly means to survive.

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