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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Survivor All-Stars: The Complete Season
Survivor All-Stars: The Complete Season
Paramount // Unrated // September 14, 2004
List Price: $49.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted September 11, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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SPOILER WARNING: This review is full of spoilers, although so is the packaging for the DVD.

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 the finale.

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 take?

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 Rob.

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 cop scenario?

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 is ruined.

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.

VIDEO:
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.

AUDIO:
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.)

EXTRAS:
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 Rupert.

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.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
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.

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