On last week’s episode of Survivor: Worlds Apart, Yahoo executive Shirin Oskooi was voted out by her tribe, finishing in eighth place for the season. As she walked over to have her torch snuffed by host Jeff Probst, her fellow tribe-mates clapped and smirked and hooted their approval. Boston contractor Rodney Lavoie made faces and hand motions behind her back. If fire does indeed represent these players’ lives in the game, as Jeff Probst says every season, these guys were dancing on Shirin’s grave. Because she was a vanquished villain? Because she was a huge threat they were happy to have dispatched? No, it was because they hate her for talking too much and being a big super-fan weirdo. Welcome to Survivor Season 30: the least likable cast in history.
Schadenfreude and glee at a well-executed elimination aren’t rare on Survivor, nor should they be. The harsh elements and psychological pressures of the game would be enough to put anybody off their best behavior. But no cast has ever been as deeply unpleasant as this one.
I brought this up with my friend (and former Season 11 Survivor contestant) Brian Corridan last week, when Worlds Apart reached its lowest moment (so far). After an argument about insufficient gratitude for food-sharing, bartender Will Sims unloaded a nasty verbal barrage on tech product manager Shirin, all while fellow tribe-mates Rodney, Tyler, and Siera looked on and said nothing:
Nobody even likes you! I can guarantee right now there is nobody back in the United States that misses you. […] We all have loved ones that love and care for us. You have nothing. […] You have no family. You have nothing. […] God don’t like ugly, and I’m exposing ugly to him right now. So go on with your little bitch Mike and get the hell up out of here.
As Shirin explained, in interviews and at tribal council, this insult landed particularly hard with her because she comes from a broken home with a history of domestic violence. Will’s outburst, which he has refused to back down from even one inch at two subsequent tribal councils, joins Rodney’s early-season sexist tirade (about holding women to higher standards of behavior than men)—and any number of condescending, bullying conversations and interviews from postal worker Dan Foley—to form a kind of Bermuda Triangle of personal ugliness that has nothing at all to do with the game. These are just rotten people being genuinely rotten. And after the rather efficient dismissal of the few remaining players who seemed like decent people (Joe, Hali, even snarky Jenn, whose smack-talking belied a genuine moral compass), this season seems to have settled on six players who are either jerks or jerk-abettors lined up against oil driller Mike Holloway, who himself began the season as an overbearing loudmouth before recently emerging as the least objectionable player left.
Mike, by the way, has been on the receiving end of a classic Survivor “winner’s edit,” but even if he ends up running the table on these jerks and taking the game, it won’t redeem the cast from being the series’ worst yet.
A word about reality TV villainy: it’s great. While I don’t exactly subscribe to the theory that you can’t have good reality TV without villains, they often do help make these shows watchable. Villains can galvanize an audience and give them reason to tune in every week, hoping the villains get what’s coming to them. Villains can even—especially in competition shows—end up preferable to the so-called heroes by embracing their villainy and playing the most cutthroat game possible. Survivor’s 20th season (subtitled “Heroes vs. Villains”) is considered by many to be one of the series’ best, and it’s my own personal favorite, and not because the heroes vanquished the villains. It’s because the self-righteous “good guys” got snaked by the players who didn’t have any problem playing the bad guys when it gave them a competitive advantage.
The gimmick of this season was that players were divided into tribes based on their status as White Collar, Blue Collar, or No Collar. I guess it says something about the American melting pot that blue-collar Dan and Rodney, white-collar Tyler and Carolyn, and no-collar Will can set aside their class differences to be awful people regardless of collar. (Less cynically, after white-collar Shirin was lambasted by Will, she was comforted by blue-collar Mike and no-collar Jenn.)
But generally speaking, there are two types of Survivor casts that get criticized among fans: the boring ones and the bad ones. The least liked casts tend to be the ones where the majority of players don’t make big moves, instead just standing pat and waiting for the small handful of good players to steamroll them. Season 22, when Boston Rob returned for the fourth time and rode to an infuriatingly easy victory over a bunch of patsies is a good example. Season 5 was mostly just a charisma void. But a bunch of dull players can make a season with one or two awful jerks seem that much worse, since there’s nothing to counterbalance their awfulness. One thing’s for sure: the key to good reality TV is variety. An island-full of jerks is just as bad as an island full of bores.