I've written about Survivor before and how much I love the show. In my review of the Survivor All-Stars season, however, I talked about some of the moments where the producers betrayed the purity of a show where there are few real rules. For the first six seasons of the show there were few times when the integrity of the game could be questioned: All players knew was that they needed to "Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast" their tribemates and opponents, while maintaining some weird web of interpersonal relationships that would allow them to hopefully win the game. In the game's heavily touted seventh outing, Survivor: The Pearl Islands the producers finally snapped the rules in a way that the show hasn't really recovered from since. They set the game up in a way that took those three alliterative objectives (which the show proudly prints on every merchandised surface available) and threw them out the window. But even so this season offers some of the show's best gameplay.
If you've never seen Survivor: The Pearl Islands before and you want to watch without knowing any of what happens, skip to the end of this review. Otherwise, get ready for some venting.
Survivor is at its most exciting when the game consists of a mix of people, from clueless hangers-on and loudmouth alpha players to devious silent threats and brilliant social masterminds. Because of the unique mix of players, challenges, and environmental circumstances it's never the same game twice. A player like Thailand's Brian may excel at the mental, physical, and emotional aspects of the game, but more often a serious contender will possess some, but not all, of those characteristics. So Amazon's Rob Cesternino had a brilliant mind for swinging votes but couldn't conquer key physical challenges. And Australia's Colby Donaldson dominated ever facet of the game except the cut-throat decision making that could have guaranteed him victory.
In all the previous seasons audiences had the chance to warm to players and build support for some unlikely characters. Pearl Islands, however, was the first (or most blatant, anyway) example of the network hyping a particular player to the point where there was absurd side-taking on the part of CBS (in regards to their hype for the show) and maybe even on behalf of the producers. And, perhaps as the yin to that yang, the show offered up a villain who they seemed to suggest was not only rotten to the core, but someone worth booing and despising. They got it wrong on both counts. Luckily, true fans of the show can find plenty to analyze for themselves.
Looking for some new twists to the game, the producers start off with a doozy. The first episode kicks off with always manly host Jeff Probst introducing the theme of the show the hard way. This Survivor is all about pirates and the pirate lifestyle. And the first step the players take is over the side of a ship, with none of their backpacks and luxury items (a staple of previous seasons) and none of the meager supplies the show usually provides. Probst only arms the contestants, who are dressed entirely inappropriately to begin their adventure, with a few bucks in local Panamanian currency and tells them to swim to a local village where they can buy some stuff to hopefully make their lives a little less miserable.
This opening turns the show upside down in a really exciting way as players show whether or not they can deal with confusion and split-second decision making. It's also an interesting way to meet the players, a batch that includes some duds but also some real beauts, including enormously muscled Osten, slick-suited lawyer Andrew Savage, drawling southern gal Darrah, stoned-sounding Christa, studly Burton, and alpha frat boy Shawn. Boy scout-suited Lill seems to fill the typical Survivor role of older woman voted out quickly. Except that Lill takes clueless anti-strategy gameplay to dizzying new lows. Sandra perfects the "smarter than she appears" role to a tremendous degree. In fact, it's many episodes before Sandra, whose sharp wit and no BS attitude is at odds with some other players, begins to emerge as a serious contender.
The two most noteworthy players in Pearl Islands, however, are the two players who the show seemed to editorialize on most noticeably. On the one hand you had Rupert, the big cuddly teddy bear of a player, dressed in hippie tie-dye and enthused about all things island-livin'. He fished, he swam, he won challenges, he wore a skirt. He was dubbed, by the show early on, as "America's Favorite Survivor." And then there was Jon Dalton AKA Jonny Fairplay, a self-induced nickname. Evil, scheming, conniving, untrustworthy, self-centered and an all around asshole, the show's vibe seemed to be that Jon was the worst of Survivor all wrapped up in one sleazy package.
The only problem with this press release view of the show is that it's completely backwards. In reality, Rupert is the worst kind of Survivor player: Physically adept enough that he's a real force in the game and can affect outcomes (he single-handedly wins quite a few team challenges) but mentally and emotionally incapable of understanding the nature of the game. It's almost no fun to see him blather on about how it's his game, his island, his fish, his spear, etc etc etc… He's a bully and a bore. When Jon casts a vote against Rupert early on (and, surprisingly, confesses when angrily confronted by the big man) Rupert actually puts a hand on Jon's shoulder as if he's ready to throttle the snake, a man literally half his size (physical violence will get you bounced from the show right-quick). Rupert screams directly in Jon's face as if this weren't a game where people had to vote other people out at one point or another. In many ways, Rupert is the worst player to ever set foot on Survivor. I don't know what's worse: his rageaholic hissy fits or his "me so happy" grin when things go his way.
What's worse is that the viewing audience gobbled it up, somehow swallowing the farcical Rupert-as-gentle-giant ad campaign and turning him into a Survivor everyman hero, as if there was a need for such a thing. Now Survivor fans have to deal with Rupert popping up all the time, from handing the check to recent winners to mugging at live finale shows to roaring in commercials. It's a nightmare. Even weirder is the Rupert-centric DVD release schedule, which jumped from season 1 to 8 (Rupert in All-Stars), then back to 2 and now up to 7 for more Rupert. I don't know what they'll do next. Maybe a Rupert's Greatest Fishing Moments compilation is in the works: Rupert steals shoes! Rupert finds the spear tip! Rupert cries like a baby! Rupert! Rupert! RUPERT!!!
Jon, on the other hand, is actually one of the best players to ever play the game. Sure he lies (sometimes when it's not even necessary) but regardless of what people think of him he engineers nearly every move in the entire game and on many occasions actually convinces players who have sworn to never listen to him again to change plans midstream and vote his way. Along with Rob Cesternino from the Amazon season, Jonny Fairplay actually has the most nuanced, manipulative gameplan in Survivor because he, like Rob C., was on the defensive so often and yet he always twisted things back to where he needed them to be. Unlike the ridiculous Rupert lovefest (which is what lesser reality shows are for) it's Jonny Fairplay's scheming that makes Pearl Islands a memorable season.
Jon also seems to be doing something that no other player had done before or has done since, which is to specifically play to the cameras in a way that he hoped would get him a new career once the show aired. The Jonny Fairplay persona (an obnoxious alter-ego caricature of his own fairly obnoxious personality) was designed as a wrestling character and it's easy to see Jon playing certain cards just to improve his own notoriety. In fact, fans of TNA wrestling (whatever that is) may have seen him on there for a while.
But this scheming goes beyond auditioning for a third-rate rasslin' league. Jon and his cohorts take the game play in smart directions, like throwing reward challenges specifically to prevent big Rupert from getting extra food and feeling the rush of joy that comes with succeeding. In fact, Jon engineered one deception – something the producers call "The Big Lie" – long before the show even began. In the traditional "visit from a loved one" reward challenge, Jon conspired to drop some information on his tribemates pretty much just to see how they would react – and to keep them from spending a spirit reviving night with a spouse or parent. That Jon uses this and other deceptions to his advantage at key moments may have contributed to his ability to sway the vote when he needed it. He only really falters near the end, when he faces the traditional Survivor obstacle, the point where most of the best strategists (like Cesternino) bow out.
The one thing that hurts the season most, however, is the truly big twist: After six expulsions a third tribe, the Outcasts, is introduced. This tribe, consisting of those voted off in the show's first six episodes, is introduced to the game to compete against those remaining in contention. Now, I don't have a problem with this part. In fact, bringing back the scorned, bitter players (another pirate-inspired twist) is great since it forces the other players to rearrange their plans. I'm for any twist that separates those who can think on their feet from those who pick a plan and plow straight ahead. Where things go awry, however, is that two Outcasts are actually allowed to re-enter the game as contenders, with a second chance to win. This is a massive betrayal of the most basic concept of the show. No player should have a second chance. Remember the slogan "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast?" Nowhere in there does it say "Outcast." Returning Outcasts could have been used in a number of ways without putting them back in play for the prize. But this decision on the part of the producers shows a willingness to corrupt what was otherwise a pretty consistent show concept, something they've done two more horrible times since. (Awarding a fan favorite million to a rotten player after All-Stars and allowing two Palau losers to return in Guatemala.)
As disappointing as this twist is, it still offers viewers a chance to see who can play and who can't. Andrew Savage, for instance, is so bitter over the return of a tribemate that he basically flushes his game down the toilet. Jonny Fairplay, on the other hand, sees the return of a tribemate who he originally voted off as an opportunity to form a new, stronger alliance and actually strengthen his game.
But aside from that betrayal (and the Rupert snow job) Survivor: The Pearl Islands is surprisingly chock-full of great reality TV moments. From the first Survivor quitter to a tremendous endurance challenge involving holding extremely heavy weights, to a player's sneaky spying on secret conversations, it's an excellent season that actually improves on second viewing. Even the winner, who seemed a little underwhelming at the time, turns out to have been far smarter and more perceptive when viewed with knowledge of the outcome. Pearl Islands may be the last truly good season of Survivor (the post-Outcast seasons have been filled with boring casts and stupid twists) but there's always hope that a good mix of smart and dumb people will spark castaway magic and create another exciting season.
The full-frame video is colorful but not that sharp. The transfer shows some compression and the final nighttime shot of the tribal council location is strangely plagued with pronounced scan-lines. (I recall seeing that on the broadcasts at the time.) I just feel like it doesn't look the best it could. There's something kind of chewed up looking about it. Note to Mark Burnett: Please start shooting your show in HD! The locations are spectacular and it would really pay off.
The Dolby Stereo Surround is fine. Some location recordings are virtually incomprehensible from extraneous sounds, but subtitles are usually offered in those moments.
The best special features, as in all Survivor sets, are the audio commentaries (which, it should go without saying, are full of spoilers). In this case there are two commentary casts: Jon, Burton, Andrew and Ryan O. offer commentary on three episodes while Rupert, Sandra and Christa appear on two. Not surprisingly the Jon/Burton track is the more entertaining one, but what is surprising is that Rupert and Christa are far more mean-spirited than Jonny Fairplay and Burton. Rupert and Christa offer stupid, shallow digs at many of their castmates and gleefully brag about nonsense. It's really interesting to hear how little perspective they still have on the nature of the show. Rupert's commentary on the episode when Jon pulled a fast one on him is priceless for how bitter and petty he is. He still can't let it go, even after all the gifts CBS and Survivor have (undeservedly) showered on him. Hilarious. Sandra is relatively quiet and offers up a few choice quips now and then but, like in the show, she hangs back and lets others make fools of themselves.
Jon, Burton, and Andrew, on the other hand, share an easy camaraderie that makes their funny tracks really worth listening to. They really talk about the show, dishing on strategies and errors. They talk honestly about the Outcast situation (some are all for it for obvious reasons, while others bash it) and have a very clear understanding of Rupert's flaws as a player. And even though Jon inexplicably keeps his mouth shut for the episode eight commentary, that one includes some pretty disturbing revelations about how one of the two Outcasts was chosen to re-enter - and ultimately wreak havoc on - the game. Among Survivor commentaries these are some of the best. It's especially interesting to hear how often Jon professes his sincere admiration for Burton. How sweet.
"Pirates' Tales" is a half-hour video on the season that includes lots of redundant clips but also has some excellent interviews where players speak bluntly about their opponents and about the twists of the season. Not essential but worth a look.
"Game Strategies" is a well edited selection of 16 clips offering pre-show interviews and show moments with each player describing their plans and ideas. Surprisingly, the Jonny Fairplay pre-show interview includes him explicitly detailing a particularly notorious lie that when it occurred in the show supposedly caught Probst and the producers off guard. I'm not sure who screened these interviews and how they could have forgotten his plan, but there you have it.
Pearl Islands isn't the best season of Survivor but it is one of the busiest. Like Amazon, the season it immediately followed, it features lots of stand-out moments and larger-than-life characters. But as much as the masses may remember the season as The Rupert Show, he was little more than the exceedingly cranky workhorse who provided fish for some other excellent players, especially Jonny Fairplay, who took scheming and plotting to strange, new places. His game was intricate enough that it even took some of the sting off of the show's worst-ever twist, showing that in this game, even when the game itself cheats, a smart player can turn things to his advantage.