The Rules of the Game

Why does Survivor: All-Stars make experienced contestants look like amateurs?

The more you play, the worse you get

The immunity challenge on last week’s episode of Survivor: All-Stars (CBS, Thursday, 8 p.m. ET; season finale, May 9, 8 p.m. ET) should have been a real nail-biter. In a reprise of the “Fire & Rain” challenge from Season 2’s Survivor: The Australian Outback, the six remaining castaways had to tame the “fire scale,” a wooden contraption that resembles a giant teeter-totter. Without going into too much detail—the task basically requires building and managing a fire on one end of the scale while pouring water into a bucket on the other—“Fire & Rain” is one of those rare Survivor challenges that doesn’t favor the strong or the swift. Everyone had a shot at immunity.

And yet, with the exception of Big Tom, the eventual winner, every contestant failed miserably. Despite being provided with a box of matches, dry tinder, and plenty of wood—not to mention insight into how to succeed courtesy of the previous season—half of the contestants couldn’t even get their fires to smolder, while Shii Ann and Boston Rob couldn’t keep theirs lit. One by one, the players ran out of matches and lost by default. I’m sympathetic to the castaways—I’m sure this is all a lot harder than it looks—and a fan of the show, but still I have to ask: You call these all-stars?

Survivor: All-Stars had so much promise. Starting with 18 contestants culled from previous seasons, the cast featured four third-place finishers, one second-place finisher, and four sole survivors including the demure yet wily Tina, the hunky and capable Ethan, and Richard Hatch, the man who (literally) wrote the book on being naked and winning money. The season thus had the potential to be an orgy of tricky deals, power grabs, and mental manipulation—a master class in Survivor strategy, less an all-star game than a World Series.

Instead, Jenna M. and Susan quit (admittedly both had their reasons), while the remaining players have demonstrated a knee-jerk adherence to the alliance strategy pioneered by the aforementioned Hatch in Season 1. With the exception of Boston Rob, who presides over the camp with the potent calm of a silverback gorilla, the castaways all exhibit what might be called a second-place mentality. The consensus among the group seems to be that Boston Rob is assured a spot in the finals and the best anyone can do is tag along for the ride. According to a “tribal tidbit” on CBS’s official Survivor site, 10 of the castaways (including all four sole survivors) have been voted out earlier than they were during their first time around. In most games, experience makes you a better player, but with Survivor it seems that the more you play, the worse you get.

My initial instinct was to blame the castaways, who seem content to outlast rather than to outwit or to outplay. (Where are you when we need you, Jonny Fairplay, last season’s scourge, who faked a dead grandmother in order to stay alive? Or Sandra, that season’s sole survivor who hid in the bushes and spied on people like a fourth-grader?) But the real fault lies with the nature of the game; the All-Star version has revealed the original show’s inherent flaws (which we didn’t notice since we were caught up in the drama). Granted, the producers have tried to shake things up—starting with three tribes instead of two, for example—but the changes have been largely cosmetic. Now that we are familiar with the characters, we can focus more on the game, and it’s hard to escape the realization that Survivor is less complex than it once seemed; it’s not the ultimate test of will, spirit, and political acumen, but a big roll of the dice—Yahtzee with some camping thrown in.

The producers naturally have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion that Survivor is a content of wits. At tribal councils, host Jeff Probst, that khaki shaman, repeatedly invokes the “The Game” and all of its intricacies. The castaways have bought into this idea, speaking reverentially of The Game as if it were a dangerous mythological beast. The subtext is that you can master this beast, but in fact, the contestants are largely at the mercy of circumstance. A player is only as strong as the alliances he or she happens to make in the first few days, long before it’s obvious who will dominate.

If Survivor were truly a game, there should be some way to orchestrate a comeback, and there isn’t. This season, several castaways have actually been told Dude, you’re next but have been powerless to change their fate because they’ve been unable to sever alliances formed early on. Even the vaunted immunity challenges are starting to look like a crapshoot. If a player is about to be voted off and happens to be met with a challenge that is not his or her forte—say, for example, you’re not great at memorizing facts—has he or she failed as a player or just run out of luck?

There’s still a chance that this season will redeem itself. In a parting shot, Shii Ann called out Amber as the person who is stealthily making her way to victory. Until now Amber has been under the protection of boyfriend Boston Rob, and hopefully Shii Ann has sowed some dissent between the two of them, thereby undermining Rob’s power. (Boston Rob has fallen for Amber, and while her affection also appears genuine, there’s a chance she’s enjoying a vacation romance that also has great tactical advantage.) But what about future seasons? What Survivor needs is a new voting scheme that makes alliances disadvantageous. Perhaps requiring that people can only vote for one person one time, or maybe ending voting altogether and negotiating who gets booted each week. Something has to change. Right now, the only game that’s being played is inside the producers’ heads.