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.

Last Man Standing S02E01: Revealing Why the Right Wing is Falling Down

I recently discovered that one of my favorite new sitcoms from the 2011-2012 season had already aired five episodes this fall. Last Man Standing starring Tim Allen follows Mike Baxter, an intelligent, hardworking, sarcastic father of three daughters and head of marketing for a chain of outdoor sporting goods stores. The plots and production are pretty standard, but Tim Allen's Baxter is enjoyable to watch for two reasons. First, his sarcasm is handled well by the writers and Allen. It demonstrates his enjoyment of life and frustration with others around him, not a hatred for the world that usually accompanies the character quirk. Second, he is a right-leaning football-loving guy with a caring streak that doesn't cause him to contradict what he believes in. Usually in sitcoms of this type the Baxter character would learn his lesson and do a 180 on his beliefs. Instead, this character usually just learns how to let other people, mainly his daughters, live and experience their own successes and failures.

Browsing over the summaries of the first five episodes I'd missed on Hulu made me immediately concerned. The first episode was called "Voting" and was about Baxter trying to convince his daughter Mandy, the shallow 18 year old party girl daughter, to vote for Mitt Romney. Uh oh, this was the perfect opportunity for Hollywood to undermine the character by making him do a 180 and vote for Barack Obama. I started the episode and my concern grew. The producers had recast Baxter's oldest daughter, single mother Kristin, and her infant son Boyd, increasing their age so Boyd is now 5, and recast and reintroduced Boyd's father as a regular character whereas last season he had been a one episode guest spot for Joe Jonas. Even more worrisome, Kristin and Boyd's father were both extremely vocal Obama supporters who demonstrated open disdain for Kristin's father's Romney support. Most worrisome of all, this pieces were put in place in the first three minutes of the episode.

Immediately I paused the video and Googled the casting change. Apparently it was the choice of a new showrunner. A change in that position, especially for such a young show, generally means a change in direction. Accepting that this would be the last episode if Last Man Standing I would ever watch, I glumly pressed play and awaited Mike Baxter's execution. I was promptly surprised by the stay he was granted. The lesson he learned was a reminder that what makes America great is you're allowed to make your choice without fear of persecution for it and he drove Mandy to the polls even though she decided to vote for Obama because he deserves a chance to finish what he started. I will continue watching this show. It's joyful simplicity is comforting, always finding a way to make me smile. The writing seems to find a way to break down contemporary cultural issues into easily digestible essentials that ring true, and the obvious reality these simple scenes revealed shocked me even more than the preservation of Mike's character.

The main source of humor in the episode was the quips Mike and Kristin hurled back and forth. The retorts were boiled down representations of both sides' arguments that built to a scene where each presented his or her case to Mandy. Mike told his daughter about the inheritance tax and how Democrats wanted to take what they earned. Kristin explained, using the example of her son Boyd and how his father was losing his job, about how Obama's universal healthcare was intended to help struggling workers. Though the differences in the two arguments seemed to be couched in the same subjects the media harped on during the election (self vs others, money vs people), and the writers were probably echoing that intentionally, what it unintentionally revealed is a much more compelling difference:

Mike's argument was abstract. We earned this money and the government wants to take it from us.

Kristin's argument was concrete. Obama's universal healthcare is to help workers who are suffering due to the economy.

The issue here is accessibility of understanding. When something is concrete, it is easier to understand because the connection is direct, immediate, and apparent. When something is abstract, it is more difficult to understand because it is indirect, distant, and obscure. To state it another way, concretes refer to things that are directly perceivable by our five senses. Abstracts refer to evaluations that refer to things are directly perceivable by our five senses. Understanding statements that involve a concrete is easier because it requires less reasoning ability. You only have to understand what is being referred to. In contrast, statements that involve an abstract are more difficult to understand because it requires reasoning out why the thing being referred to is being evaluated in that way. Admittedly  I am being extremely abstract here, so let me ground this discussion in the concrete I've already presented.

Mike's argument was based on ideas of "earning" and "taking." These are extremely important concepts, as are most abstracts, but they raise a whole slew of question. What does it mean to earn something? What does it mean to take something? Does anyone have a right to earn something? Does anyone have a right to take something? There's are just a couple of questions off the top of my head. Many men with greater minds than me have written complex philosophical analyses of these concepts...and that's exactly my point. Mike's argument assumes a large amount of knowledge and understanding of philosophy (and other subjects) on the part of its audience. To get to his concrete--quality of life--you have to choose to exert a lot of mental effort.

Kristin's argument was based on the ideas of "universal healthcare" and "workers who are suffering due to the economy." Both of these items are defined perceivable existents in reality. The universal healthcare bill is written on a limited number of pages that can be accessed and read. Workers who are suffering due to the economy can be observed and interacted with easily. Kristin's argument assumes no knowledge and understanding of philosophy (and other subjects) on the parts of its audience. To get to its concrete--quality of life--you don't have to exert a lot of mental effort.

My point is not to say that Mike's argument appealed to the educated and Kristin's argument appealed to the uneducated. There are many educated people who struggle with the intricacies of the philosophical complexities of earning/taking and many uneducated people who understand them very easily (and this is just one issue in the vastness of the human experience). Rather, the higher accessibility of understanding by arguing with concretes creates a lower barrier to agreement, and if an argument has a lower barrier to agreement, it is more likely that a higher number of people will agree with it.

With all that is made about the differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties' approaches to government and elections, little if any attention is paid to this observation I am making. This simple difference in rhetorical approach makes the Democratic Party more accessible to more people. I'm not saying Democrats are wrong and Republicans are right and rhetoric is confusing people. There are far too many issues that are far too complicated to make such sweeping generalizations and both parties are very often wrong at different (and sometimes the same) times.

I am saying that the actual points of disagreements are often missed because the sides are talking past each other and thus people aren't presented with a real choice. They're presented with "think about this" vs "look at this" and when they're basing their decision on who can do things, they're always going to choose the side that is saying "look at this" because that is the side that is identifying a problem rather than asking you to identify it yourself. 

If the Mike Baxter's of the world want more people to stand with them, they might find it worthwhile to focus their arguments on concretely identifying the problem(s) they want to fix. Otherwise, they'll continue to fall.