SPOILER WARNING: This review is full of spoilers, although so is the packaging for
Every time I review a DVD that has anything to do with reality TV I always end up
comparing it unfavorably against Survivor. That's because Survivor
creator Mark Burnett knows what most of his colleague don't, which is how to take
something that at its most basic is completely silly and pointless and turn it into a
seemingly life-or-death struggle with cataclysmic consequences. Nearly every episode of
Survivor feels like an epic battle with overtones of ancient gladiator matches
and legendary tests of endurance. At the same time, the show keeps a sense of humor and
winking self-awareness that let's you know it's in on the joke with you.
In the seven regular seasons that led up to the all-star season (a liberal use of the
term "all-star," by the way) the show only ever made one serious error in judgement,
which was the "outcast" tribe in the seventh season (where those who had been voted off
had a chance to return to competition.) It was a blatant betrayal of the whole survival
aspect of the game that, while resulting in intense and interesting situations,
ultimately was a mistake. (The notorious "purple rock of doom" that resulted in the
arbitrary dismissal of a strong contestant in an earlier season was actually a canny
test of strategy that worked in retrospect.)
This is obviously a very dorky way to begin this review, but the reason I bring it up
is because the all-star season found the show making two huge blunders. The first was
built into the concept of the show and the second was a wholly unnecessary addition at
Survivor is a test of a number of things: How well you can thrive in a group,
how well you can manipulate that group, how well you can perform in physical
competition, and much more. No one of these traits will guarantee a win (or even a
serious shot) but at the same time no two winners can use the same strategy. It's a
different game each time, with the only thing ultimately that truly matters being how
badly you want to win. The money (a million dollar prize), while a motivating factor,
is a carrot on a stick. It's of no value to the viewing audience. The interpersonal
relationships and physical and emotional pain of isolation make the show great. The
problem with all-star is that everyone already knew everyone else, seriously inhibiting
the contestant's abilities to form surprising new strategies. Many players who were
sympathetic the first time around came back as craven know-it-alls who thought they had
it on lock only to find that they were in over their heads. While it was fun at first
it eventually turned punishing to the viewers: How much whining can we possibly
The big disappointments here were Kathy and Lex. Kathy provided one of the most
intriguing turnarounds in Survivor history back in the fourth season when she
went from clueless non-starter to the most deserving player after finally realizing the
nature of the game. She was such a compelling player for the second half of that season
that when she was bumped off in third place (a traditional finishing slot for many of
the best players) it was a huge disappointment. And Lex was a strange and endearing
player in the third season who grew increasingly paranoid until his own third-place
finish. But in the all-star season these two embarrassed themselves with greedy
strategies and hypocritical behavior. They may moan and justify their actions with all
sorts of qualifiers but unless the show grossly misrepresents what happened (something
no one claims) they were just simply outsmarted.
What's so interesting is who outsmarted them: The most compelling player in all-star
was shockingly Rob Mariano, the guy who opened Kathy's eyes to the duplicity at play in
their original season. He didn't make the final rounds then, thanks to obnoxious
behavior and a slack work ethic, but something changed in the years since and the
Robfather (who earned that knickname thanks to some bizarre statements about basing his
strategy on classic gangster flicks) came to win. He dominated nearly all the
challenges (both physical and mental) and played the strong, confident, unimposing
leader. He also fooled self-satisfied players like Lex into somehow thinking that what
transpired during the game wasn't always geared towards the game. His mind-tricks and
slick-tongue earned him the ability to call all the shots up to the point that he had
to answer to those he snaked.
Which leads to another key Survivor skill: The ability to play people without
making them feel played. "Flying under the radar" is a popular phrase on
Survivor but there really is no such thing, especially once the game enters the
home stretch. You either put yourself in the firing line or you play smart enough to
keep yourself out of it. (Neither strategy is inherently correct.) Amber, a complete
non-competitor from the second season who really seemed like a space-filler in the
all-star lineup, jumped on the opportunity to play the game cunningly while shielding
herself from the anger she saw others developing towards the much more visible
She was able to play this role thanks to a little romantic gamesmanship the two played
on each other. While there's obviously sincere affection between the two at a certain
point, they clearly used their mutual attraction at the beginning to further their
individual games. And there's nothing wrong with that. Remember, there are very few
rules in Survivor. Other players who deride Amber for hiding behind Rob are
foolish. They don't realize that what she did was very smart. They both benefitted from
a dominating position but Rob had to manipulate every player in the game to get there.
Amber only had to manipulate Rob. Who doesn't want to be the good cop in a good cop-bad
Which brings me to the player with the least true strategy of all, and the other reason
why all-stars was a major setback for the Survivor competition: Rupert. First
appearing on the seventh season, Rupert was plugged by CBS as the player that America
would fall in love with. And in his first episode it looked like they might have had
something. Looking very much like a pirate and fitting into the pirate theme of the
season, he pillaged a bunch of stuff the other team left unguarded. It was an amusing
moment (although not even close to being the best Survivor moment, as was voted
by foolish viewers in a poll during the all-star finale) but Rupert's behavior quickly
became annoying and then disturbing. He turned out to be the most simple-minded,
immature, self-centered, egotistical, moronic player to ever play the game. His
incredible satisfaction at every little thing he did grew extremely wearisome and his
psychotic behavior grew a little scary. At one point he physically attacked that
season's villain, the hugely entertaining Johnny Fairplay, simply because the guy voted
against him. That was a move that should have gotten Rupert bounced from the show (the
only real rules are no hitting another player and no colluding to win the money
together) or at least seriously reprimanded. Instead, Rupert's cult of fame only grew.
He's a stain on an otherwise excellent show and his behavior in all-star is no
exception. He physically intimidates female players much smaller than his own Grizzly
Adams size, he whines and cries whenever things don't go his way, and he falls for
every psychological trick thrown at him. Plus, his much touted survival skills cause
his team to lose their shelter and nearly every physical challenge.
That America fell in love with Rupert is one thing: It's never an easy thing predicting
pop culture. But what's annoying is when the show plays along, actively turning Rupert
into some sort of home-town hero even when he doesn't perform. The biggest mistake (and
the worst decision ever made by the Survivor producers) is the addition of something
called "America's Tribal Council," a second finale episode where a second million is
awarded to a player based on votes taken at CBS' web-site - a poll that didn't filter
for unique users. This ridiculous addition was designed to play specifically to the
cult of Rupert: It should have been called "Who Wants To Make Rupert A Millionaire?" I
don't want to make too big of a deal out of this but this shenanigan betrays the
basic premise of the show. If players play to the tv audience and not to what makes the
best interpersonal strategy, the show is finished. They need to never have a public
vote again and they need to make sure that the players know that. Otherwise, the show
That's what's annoying about the All-Star season: Having a cast that
consists of people who all know each other definitely changed things but all it really
did was ramp up the drama and stakes (you aren't just risking a prize, you're also
playing with your friendships) but throwing in the "America's Favorite Survivor"
nonsense showed a certain disdain for the principles of the show. That's the beauty of
Survivor at its best: It does operate on a set of very firm principles, even if they
include some unsavory tactics. And even the all-star season contains many fantastic
moments of endurance, strategy, betrayal and humor. I just hope that CBS starts
releasing other seasons as well.
The full-screen video looks similar to the way it did on tv: very colorful and bright,
sometimes murky (thanks to unpredictable weather and locations) but overall very nice.
There is some slight artificial sharpness visible at times but in general it's fine.
The Dolby Digital Stereo Surround is also fine. Sometimes the location shooting causes
some of the voices to be a bit tough to make out but again it mostly sounds fine.
Credit goes to Russ Landau and David Vanacore for the fine musical score, which adds to
the excitement of the show (and sometimes creates it.)
The best extra by far (and the sole reason that this set is truly worth owning) is the
commentary track offering, which covers ten episodes . There are three groupings of contestants divided up into
pretty good categories: Some of the smarter players who didn't last long and look back
at the whole thing with amusement - Rob C., Jenna M., Tina, and the amazing Rudy; the
cry-babies who are so filled with bitterness it drips out their ears - Lex, Kathy,
Alicia, and Shii-Ann (who actually doesn't quite fit this category); and the real
contenders who reached the final stages of the game - Amber, Rob, Jenna L. and
Each of these groupings provides its own set of pleasures. Hearing Rob C.
and Jenna M. sit back and totally mock some of the stupider playing styles is very
entertaining, especially the way Jenna keeps telling Rob how great of a player he is.
And cantankerous Rudy (still my favorite player ever), only says a couple of sentences
each episode, each one of them pure gold. The Robfather and Amber really have a blast
pointing out the ludicrous behavior of Lex, Kathy, Alicia, Big Tom and some of the
other crybabies. Their track also has a fun, easygoing vibe (Rupert refers to his
hapless Saboga tribe as "Sabogus," Rob tells the notoriously chatty Jenna to shut up).
Frankly, the commentary track for the finale is the only place I've ever found Rupert
to be personable at all.
But the standout track for sheer guilty pleasure is the
middle one. Lex, Kathy and Alicia sound just as deluded as they did during the game. No
amount of distance will apparently give them perspective. It's really hysterical. They
are so aggressive that they barely allow each other to speak. It's really something.
Shii-Ann comes off as the voice of reason, the only one who has any sense that the game
is actually a game. And the fact that Alicia actually tries to pick a fight with her
during the commentary track is pretty spectacular. Classic.
In addition to commentaries each disc is loaded with bonus footage sequences and more
complete versions of the final thoughts that losers get to speak over the closing
credits. The bonus sequences are edited and scored and play more like bits that were
cut from the show for length. Over the course of the set there really are a lot of
these sequences and I can't summarize them all. But it's a nice addition. Also, I don't know what overlap there is, but it's good to have this bonus footage since the filler flashback episode that aired about midway through the season is not include on this set.
As if all that weren't enough, the seventh disc is all extras: "Behind the Dream Team
gives a look at some of the show's creators, including the designing of the challenges.
"Anthology with the All-Stars" is a somewhat disappointing montage of highlights from
all the seasons (it feels choppy and could have been much better.) "Casting the
Castaways" covers the process of picking players for the regular seasons as well as
deciding on who to bring back for All-Stars. It, of course, includes some funny looks
at application videos. "The Big Night" looks at the production of the live Madison
Square Garden finale as well as some footage from the afterparty (although apparently
not the cast trip to Scores.) There are also profiles for each contestant including
interviews taken right before All-Stars, which are fun considering so many of the early
rejects think they've got a chance. Finally, the disc includes promo clips from every
season of Survivor.
Obviously Survivor is one of my favorite shows. It's not a guilty pleasure: It's
a real glimpse into the inner depths of how people operate. There's no guidebook for
how to play and there's no guaranteed way to win and that still makes it an excellent
show to watch. While flawed in some fundamental ways, the all-star season is still
great fun. Whether you're watching it for the first time or rewatching to catch things
you missed there are just so many details and twists that it keeps you coming back. And
the commentary tracks here are indispensable. And even the mistakes made by the
producers don't have to be fatal: The beauty of Survivor is that it doesn't ever
need to really wear out its welcome since each new season brings a new cast and new
challenges. And when the 9th season starts soon, it'll be day one all over again.