Friday, February 29, 2008

Surviving Fans And Favorites

I should be putting my full effort into writing a book review or two. Instead, here’s an essay on the opening episodes of Survivor: Micronesia – Fans Vs. Favorites I wrote out while at work this morning. You’re welcome.

Four episodes into Survivor: Micronesia – Fans Vs. Favorites, I can say that it’s a slight improvement over the previous season (China). Even though players from both tribes (Malakal for the “favorites,” “Airai” for the “fans”) have shown a lack of brainpower, and there’s little to suggest that this edition won’t be a colossal fuck-up like any other “all-star” season on CBS, at least there’s some game-playing going on, misguided as it may be.

In last week’s episode, Malakal suffered a loss at the immunity challenge, and somebody had to go. At this point, there were two factions: a loose-knit coalition between couples Pavarti & James and Amanda & Ozzy, and the foursome of Jonathan, Yau-Man, Eliza and Ami (the latter two having zero business posing as “all-stars,” but that’s a gripe for another day). In the middle: Cirie, the couch potato-turned-power player from Exile Island two years ago. She got wooed by both sides for her votes. She talked with Amanda and Pavarti, and soon there was a move on her part to boot Yau-Man.

Let’s pause the action to reflect on this. Yes, Yau-Man is dangerous. He’s not at all big, but he’s wilier than any cartoon coyote you’re likely to meet. He managed to last 38 days on Fiji and came within one bad deal from winning the $1 million prize. But at this point in the game (nine days), wouldn’t you need somebody like that on your camp, winning challenges and making camp life bearable? To me, Cirie was thinking too far ahead. She dreaded the idea of Yau-Man going to Exile Island and retrieving the sole hidden immunity idol, a feat he pulled off in his first season. Here’s the problem: he would either have to be picked to go by Airai when they won a reward challenge, or selected by his tribe If they won. In my head, both were scenarios nobody would explore if they were smart.

So what happened? Jonathan took Cirie’s wavering as an insult, they had a verbal battle, and Yau-Man got five votes out of nine to get sent packing. One genuine fan favorite was gone, and the other two had a backlash against them over on the forums at Television Without Pity. Like I had posted there on that night, it was like a holiday dinner at your house where your favorite aunt and uncle from separate marriages yelled at each other, and the beloved granduncle keeled over into the mashed potatoes. And it didn’t help matters to see Eliza sick in the following episode, and a few tribe members realizing they got swept up in Cirie’s zeal. It was a hangover without alcohol (“We did WHAT to Yau-Man last night? Really?!?”) But at least Cirie was trying to play the game; if she had been passive in Exile Island, she would’ve been the first person off, and she’d be rooted to the couch today, watching this season with the rest of us.

Moving on to the latest episode, we had Malakal winning the reward challenge. For the third time, they sent Kathy to Exile Island. This was a smart move, since there was less of a chance a weak-looking player such as her would find the idol. And if they knew she was on the outs along with Chet and Tracy, she could be handed the idol and be sent back to make things go awry at Airai (I’m prouder of that phrase than I really should be). But the rub was that somebody from Malakal had to join Kathy . . . and this time, it was Ozzy.

Pause. As I write this at work, where I’m wide awake and haven’t done jack this morning aside from handing in my timesheet, I remember reading in the episode thread at TWoP where somebody had found out that Malakal had a system where there was an order as to who would go to Exile Island. The only way this is a good idea is if the person who retrieves the idol tells everybody else in the tribe about it, with the understanding that it would be played if the wielder was threatened. In exchange, the idol would be easy to track after the obligatory tribal shakeup, and it would be used as a weapon to take out any perceived power player from Airai. Hey, it makes sense in my head. Then again, I’m not actually there, and I can play “armchair survivor,” trying to figure out strategies in a week while the actual players would speculate over a few hours. So I understand why taking turns going to Exile Island might be a good idea.

However, this is a flaw in the system, and its called “Ozzy.” This guy is half-man, half-fish, all-amazing. If there is water involved in a challenge, Ozzy will rock it. In the reward challenge, Ozzy had the presence of mind (or instructions from his comrades) to stay underwater and move coconuts closer to the edge of the cage in order to make it easier for his teammates to retrieve them. Bottom line: Malakal had voted off the biggest threat to find the idol . . . and they sent the biggest threat to find the idol.

Back to the action: Kathy didn’t feel up for an idol hunt, perhaps still worn out after she and Cirie slogged through the water two episodes ago. At worst, she feels singled out by Malakal and only two people like her at Airai. At best, it’s like she’s at a Survivor fantasy camp, and she’s paid five grand extra to receive private sessions from former cast members. On more trip to Exile Island might bring her a romantic package with James . . . emphasis on “package.” Ozzy said he wanted to look for food, and she bought it. He read the clue. Swim, swim, swim, clue. Swim, swim, swim, clue. Swim, swim, swim, clue. Swim, swim, swim, idol. Now one of the strongest players in the game had even more power. I’m not saying Ozzy cliched a total victory, especially after dumbass James got voted off last season while carrying two idols last season. But Ozzy does seem to have a few more brain cells than the gravedigger. And in a salute to Yau-Man’s discovery of an idol two seasons ago, Ozzy crafted a dummy idol and put it in the hiding place. It would have been every better had Ozzy went into a giggling fit and flicked his tongue like Yau-Man, but you can’t have everything. It’s hard not to like Ozzy right now, even if he does have Jeff Probst hanging off his jock.

Fast forward: Airai has lost the immunity challenge – their fourth defeat in the last six challenges – and somebody had to be sent off. All common sense pointed out Chet as the obvious choice. He had been following Janu’s path from Palau with the lack of effort in challenges and camp, and the accelerated disintegration of the body. His only allies: Kathy and Tracy. Chief amongst the majority was Joel, a very large and tattooed firefighter who looks like he lives on a diet of puppies and orphans. Two episodes prior, he got it into his head that Mary and Mikey B. were a power couple, and he got Mary voted off, passing up a chance to oust Chet. He still had it in for Mikey B., even though the guy’s greatest sin was making people call him “Mikey B.” Reality fans with a masochistic streak already put up with a “Mikey B.” of sorts (Mike Malin, a.k.a. “Mike Boogie” from Big Brother), so why watch another? Getting back to the point: again, Chet seemed to be the correct choice to boot. Of course, we had somebody say that Chet was going home in the episode’s first act, so the seed of doubt was already planted in my mind.

Enter Tracy. Right now, I can’t tell her from Alexis and the other woman whose name I can’t be bothered to remember. In retrospect, you can understand her fear of a vote against Chet; if he got voted off and Kathy – a potential loose cannon – had retrieved and kept the idol, she’d be the next to go. So she came up to Joel and played on his loathing of Mikey B. The obvious move was to keep the tribe strong, especially when there was no obvious timetable for a merge or shakeup. But Joel listened to Tracy, nodded his head . . . and managed to talk a few allies into voting for Mikey B., who went out 6-3 and didn’t even think to punch Joel in the mouth for the change of plan. Also, Airai had Chet for seemingly the next few days, a loose wheel ready to pop off the axel in challenges. You can understand why Jason voted for Chet, looked into the camera and said, “Please leave the island.” But Chet is still in the game thanks to Tracy . . . and I’ve decided to think of Joel as “Mongo” from here on out, because he would so fall for an exploding candygram. Also, I wouldn’t put it past him to punch a horse.

Whatever beefs anybody has with no obvious weak links getting voted off so far have been rendered moot by the teaser for next week’s episode, where Jeff orders everybody to drop their buffs for a tribal shakeup. Now Cirie and Tracy will be seen as smart for getting rid of potential power players that could have gone against them. And maybe things will pick up for a franchise still reeling from the strategic vacuum that was China. At the very least, whomever wins this season will look like a saint compared to the winner from Big Brother 9. And no contestant has insulted the mentally handicapped . . . but the season is still young.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Axis Of Ass: Then & Now

In 2003, I was recapping Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Gauntlet, and I was furious. I had made the mistake of staying emotionally attached to Sarah Grayson, and I took exception anytime her teammates sent her into the Gauntlet. I had followed her since Road Rules: Campus Crawl. I had occasionally written to her, especially after she posted on the RR thread at Television Without Pity. I even met her at a reality event at Calico Jack’s in Manhattan, even as I was suffering through a nasty cold. It was a good night . . . I got to meet some of the saner stars of the Challenge, and I witnessed Antoine dancing on the bar before getting pulled down by management. Good times.

Anyway, whenever Sarah got sent into the Gauntlet, I got pissed. Eventually, I came up with a term to group the jerks together: the Axis of Ass. There were three members: Adam, the douchy ADD case with the stupid beard; Rachel, the butterface lesbian, who should go down as the single most overrated Challenger ever; and Veronica, a bitch whose bitchy actions before and after Gauntlet are still talked about. There was also Darrell (a cast member on Sarah’s season who had wanted her gone from the start), Laterrian (who had knocked her out a rolling log and refused to take responsibility for it in order to avoid the Gauntlet), and Abram (more on him later), but the Adam/Rachel/Veronica troika was the main Axis. In the end, they stayed on the winning Road Rules team and got their shares of the $150,000 prize. Happily, none of them has won a Challenge since, and Sarah managed to go out with her money, as well as her dignity intact.

I would feel the need to invoke “Axis of Ass” several times in my recaps and on the TWoP forums. The Inferno gave us a Road Rules team hellbent on eliminating weak link Katie, but four teammates took center stage. Veronica was in on it, of course. Holly and Christena emerged as stealth bitches whom I had once liked. Finally, there was Abram, the knuckle-dragging Bozo from Bozeman, whose throwing of a mission was one of the most sickening acts I had ever witness. Down the line, there came other Axes: elder assholes Mark and Eric in Battle Of The Sexes 2, the “Mean Girls” trio of Veronica, Rachel and Tina (a discount version of Coral) in Inferno II, and Beth, Wes and Nehemiah in The Duel (I had posted that Aneesa belonged with them, but I think it was more about buddying up with members of The Real World: Austin – one of the suckiest seasons ever – and not wanting a piece of Beth after she bailed out of a Gauntlet date two seasons prior).

As the Challengers devolved into a cesspool of media whores, where sanity and manners were increasingly out of fashion, I didn’t feel a need to lump two or more people together. But now, I do. Out of the darkness of Gauntlet 3 rides four supreme dicks. Two of them have telltale Boston accents, and you have to take delight that they were probably crying in their beer when the Patriots lost the Super Bowl. Two of them are products of the Fresh Meat season, and neither one of them are as funny as they think. You can tell them from the others by their repeated interview loop: “Trim the fat, trim the fat, lose the girls and trim the fat.” They are the all-new Axis of Ass, and in the latest episode, they came dangerously close to getting rid of a Challenge legend and keeping somebody who’s about as malignant as they are. Let’s meet them, shall we?

Evan Starkman

Basically, Evan is the Canadian version of Challenge veteran Theo Vonkurnatowski, in the “I used to love you, but now I have to kill you” sense. He came off well enough during Fresh Meat, and he and his partner Coral tore through their share of missions. But he wound up with a hernia, and he and Coral ended up getting sent home early for their injuries. Over time, he’s become less funny, and the latest Challenge has revealed him as an unredeemable jerk. I’m hoping he’ll stay north of the border following this season, but I doubt it.

Kenny Santucci

Unlike Evan, I’ve known Kenny as little more than a punk from the start. He’s always coming off as fake in interviews, always trying to be clever and funny. Basically, he’s a knockoff of Veteran teammate Brad. Before the season started, he had the gall to say that Coral faked her severe allergic reaction to a spider bite at the end of Gauntlet, during the preview special, Physically and Mentally Challenged: 25 Most Unforgettable Challenge Moments. It was bad enough when his ex-Fresh Meat teammate Tina said the same thing, but Kenny wasn’t anywhere near Telluride when that went down.

Danny Jamieson

If not for RW: Las Vegas, Danny would have had a huge part in the worst season ever. I mean, when you act like such a dick that you erase any sympathy people might have when you got your face smashed into pavement, that is bad. Danny is another gung-ho alpha dog who insists that the women on his team are a huge weak link. Of course, if the Rookies had the same philosophy and tried to eliminate his fiancĂ© Melinda, he’d have a huge fit.

Chris “CT” Tamburello

If you look up “Masshole” in the dictionary, you’d find a picture of CT in a sleeveless and stained t-shirt, a cigarette in his mouth, a can of beer in his hand, and a Patriot or Red Sox cap cocked at an angle on his head. This evolutionary throwback has taken to the “trim the fat” philosophy like fair-weather Bostonians jumping on the Celtics bandwagon. Interestingly enough, the Assembly Required mission wasn’t the only time CT helped throw a mission. Back in Inferno, he played a huge part in getting his close buddy David win the Aztec Lifeshield in order to escape a date in the Inferno and put Leah (CT’s ex-roommate in Paris) in his place. In retrospect, David was just as much dead weight on the Real World team as Katie was to Road Rules, and it was fitting that she defeated him in the final Inferno, as badly designed as it was. There was also the time CT tried to pick a fight with Dan (Inferno II), the time he lost to Brad on a disqualification in the final Duel and proceeded to lose all of his shit, and the time he got kicked off Inferno III for punching Davis. Following that, CT’s replacement for the Bad Ass team – Derrick – went on to win his first Challenge in six attempts. I honestly think CT doesn’t believe in karma; otherwise, he’d try not to be such a big-haired prick all of the time.

The fact that the Axis of Ass (along with any other collaborators) got away with throwing a mission is galling. But that lead to a chain of events that along eliminated Coral. For some viewers, Coral is a heinous bitch whose bark is far worse than her bite. To me, she’s an entertaining bitch who gives great interviews, whose ability to avoid elimination is almost magical, and who snipes on those who truly deserve it. This is somebody I want to see from start to finish. I will admit that she did get too prissy when the Rookies revealed that it came down to a coin flip between her and Evelyn (shades of Brad getting drawn to battle Abram in the Inferno) to go into the Gauntlet. Her anger raged even more when the Veterans team went against her wishes and picked Beth to face her. I do understand the team’s need to banish Beth, since she’s usually a drag on team morale wherever she goes. But Coral had a point about the possibility of giving up 50 pounds to Beth. And when the spinner landed on Ball Brawl, I got worried . . . scared, even. I’ve seen Beth overpower Ruthie (who gave up a lot more than 50 pounds) and Montana (who doesn’t make the Challenge her life) in Reverse Tug-Of-War. I’ve seen Beth win a wrestling-based mission in Duel (defeating Diem, Jodi and Robin), and coming close to taking out Svetlana in Push Me. A win from Beth meant that she’d be gunning for the Axis afterwards. It would have been like watching a knife fight between Hitler and Hussein. Who would you root for?

Happily, Coral overcame Beth’s weight advantage to win Ball Brawl. There’s a one-in-three chance Beth will claim to have thrown the Gauntlet, but I don’t care. In a clash of the Challenge titans, good prevailed over evil. However, this was a clash that should not have happened in the first place, and I blame the Axis for that.

I will give the Veteran women credit for not returning the favor and intentionally giving up on the following mission, which would have resulted in the elimination of one of their male teammates. A few of them probably knew about the screw job, nobody would have blamed them for throwing the mission. Katie still has the tire scars from where her Road Rules teammates threw her under the bus during Inferno, and I’m amazed she didn’t try to rip CT’s eyes out during their heated exchange preceding Assembly Required. But whether the ladies were too dim, too cautious or tool cool to throw Walk The Plank, the results were a slap in the Axis’s collective face.

The mission was simple: in separate gender-based heats, one team had to walk down a plank over water, while the opposition hurled tethered medicine balls at them. After the Veteran guys staked the team to a lead, the girls could only afford one fall in order to clinch the win. Casey was the only one knocked off, and not only did she have the presence of mind to not take Katie with her on the way down (shades of Laterrian), she kept her legs together hitting the water. That was the way I was taught to jump off a ship prior to taking a cruise years ago. For somebody whose fear of falling kept her from missions in her first few Challenges, Casey has managed to evolve nicely . . . something no member of the Axis can claim. Speaking of which, Evan and Danny had gotten knocked off, and Kenny drew a disqualification for grabbing a tether.

The ensuing Gauntlet could not have worked any better for the Veterans. After the team picked Derek (a perceived “big gun”), the Rookie chose Ryan, figuring that the stronger Derek would win any contest. But the spinner came up on Sliders, and with verbal help from the Veterans, Ryan pulled off the upset. This left the Rookies with only three men along with Ryan: MJ (a gift from the producers after Tyrie left to be with his ailing girlfriend), Frank (living on borrowed time by flapping his yap over girlfriend Jillian going to the Gauntlet three times), and Nehemiah (got cuddly with Beth during Duel, so you know he’s got mental problems). In contrast, the Veteran guys are seven strong, and the Axis can send in outsiders such as Adam (knocked out in two previous Challenges), Eric (the overweight “Big Easy” who is seen getting medical attention in trailers for the season), and Brad (who has taken over Derrick’s mantle as the hard luck Challenger) into the Gauntlet. And for this, the guys have the girls to thank for the advantage . . . not that the Axis will be quick to do that.

Why should anybody continue to watch this Challenge? Because I firmly believe that at least two members of the Axis will get thrown into the Gauntlet, and maybe they’ll be pitted against each other. I believe that karma will punish as many of the Axis members as possible, even if it’s not as overt as losses in the Gauntlet. Maybe Danny and CT would have to say goodbye to their girlfriends (Melinda and Diem, respectively). Maybe Evan will lose Kenny or vice versa. And while scrubs like Casey and Katie might be sacrificed for a supposed “greater good,” those who whine about “trimming the fat” and “no more free rides for the girls” will be equally at risk to get stomped. Comeuppance and schadenfreude . . . that’s what keeps me going. I hope it’s good enough for you.