Friday, May 24, 2013

Kicking off "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

Today, I'm beginning a new series on this blog in which I write about my 25 favourite episodes of TV ever. I'm hoping that by starting this and trying to stick to a consistent schedule of one post every Friday, I will actually complete this project in 2013 like I've always intended since I thought up the idea back in the winter. I've looked over my list and I'm pretty happy with it, but if anything gets replaced between now and November I'll try to make a note of it. Also worth keeping in mind is that while I'll be talking about why these are good episodes, these are not reviews. I won't be surprised if a few of these write-ups are largely recaps full of funny jokes and moments and me saying something to the effect of "You guys, seriously, this episode" after each one. If that's the case, so be it - I will have effectively laid out why I like the episode. TL;DR: My blog, my rules.

Up first: I believe my only reality episode on this list. I'm probably going to hell. But I had fun on my way there!

Survivor: The Amazon, “Girls Gone Wilder”
First aired on CBS Wednesday, March 26, 2003

“Some people are building a shelter...some people are building alliances. We’ll see if the people building the shelter will be around to use it for more than a few days.” – Rob Cesternino

Through twenty-six seasons on the air, “Survivor” has always stuck to a pretty rigid formula. There are seasons I haven’t seen, but I can declare that with some confidence because I checked back in on the show in the fall for Michael Skupin reasons and “Survivor” was basically just doing the same “Survivor” things that have made it a hit for 13 years. Episodes begin with the tribe who just voted someone out in the last episode returning to camp late at night, discussing in individual confessionals what has just taken place and how awesome/screwed they are (which, of course, continue through the entire episode). The next day, the castaways compete in a reward challenge. The winners partake in said reward while the losers are shown looking sad and defeated back at camp, trying to keep their fire lit and complaining about all the stories they’ll have to hear about beautiful waterfalls and delicious food and hot showers when the winners return. The castaways then compete in an immunity challenge, which depending on the stage of the game, either determines which tribe has to vote someone off or protects an individual player from being eliminated. Last minute scrambling ensues, with viewers always left uncertain as to what’s about to happen. The castaways head to tribal council, and on occasion, we’re lucky enough to be just as blindsided as viewers as the person who ended up leaving the game. Host Jeff Probst delivers a pithy moral to the remaining players, before telling them to grab their torches and head back to camp – good night. Repeat in three-day cycles for 39 days, a.k.a. two seasons of 13 episodes for broadcast on CBS every calendar year.

And then something kind of strange happened. Part way through their sixth season, the producers decided the rules didn’t matter for one episode. Format? Structure? Familiarity? Not this week. We have a special assignment this week. And that’s to humiliate a person in front of a national television audience of 18 million people.

That man? Roger Sexton. Age: 56, the vice president of a construction company from Valencia, California. Married to Diane, and a proud father. Veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps – his luxury item on the beach was his dog tags.

Now granted, Roger was not the most likeable, friendly guy around. His rigid, conservative values didn’t mesh well with the young men on the Tambaqui tribe, leading to a fight with Alex Bell over adoption rights for gay people (in a quote he would later regret, Rob Cesternino claimed that “Roger is a bigot”). Also not gelling with his young tribe mates was his work ethic and focus on survival aspects: Roger would wake up early in the morning and chop wood and coconuts with a machete, an unpleasant alarm clock for the tribe. When Tambaqui won a refrigerator full of Coca-Cola cans, the tribe wanted to use it to keep their water cold, but Roger vehemently protested this because "you waste more calories drinking cold water".

Was Roger right to focus on survival over fun? I’m inclined to say yes, but the correct answer is actually “it doesn’t matter” because in a game like this, the majority rules. Roger had no understanding of the social aspects of “Survivor,” and this lack of understanding can be summed up in the scene where Roger snores through the other castaways staying up late and drinking to celebrate the merging of the tribes.

When Survivor: Amazon began, the two tribes were separated by gender for the first time ever to celebrate the history of independent, society-building Amazonian women who came before them. And because history repeats itself, the women of the new merged Jacaré tribe decided a majority needed to be formed to take out Roger before eliminated players started forming the jury that would eventually vote for a winner.

Deena Bennett succinctly explained why: “Roger will never let a woman win if he’s on the jury. So screw him.”

Roger was blind to the enormous amount of danger he was in, and in order to let the audience take enormous pleasure from his downfall, the editors spent the entire episode setting him up for an absolutely embarrassing exit. They never created any doubt or threw in any red herrings. It was just "Roger's going home, so let's have fun with it". Here’s a dynamite quote from Roger shortly after the merge: “The men outnumber the women and it just seems too easy.”

Want another? Here you go: “Everything seems to be falling in to’s too good to be true!” Indeed, Roger.

Cut to the immunity challenge. It was a contest of endurance, and the last person left standing on their perch won. Because of how certain he was that a woman was going home, most likely Deena or Christy Smith, Roger basically – you know what, I’ll get back to that. Let’s not bury the lead. We have to sidebar for a minute on one of the most memorable moments in the history of “Survivor”.

This is mostly the tale of Roger Sexton and a bizarre editing stray, but overall it’s this episode’s hilarity that makes it one of my favourite TV episodes ever. And the infamous “girls get naked for chocolate and peanut butter” sequence was about as funny as the show ever was (intentionally, anyway). In endurance challenges, Jeff Probst will regularly tempt players with food if they agree to eliminate themselves. Jenna Morasca proposed to Probst that she and Heidi Strobel would take their clothes off for chocolate and peanut butter, a food the pair had particularly been craving.

“Get the girls some chocolate and peanut butter, Probst!” demanded Rob. And sure enough, the girls took off their bathing suits and jumped into the water. Knowing his wife would be watching when the show aired, school principal Butch Lockley covered his eyes saying, “Oh why me? I’m not looking, all the kids at school I’m not looking!” “I’m looking!” said Dave Johnson, among others. "Survivor" was a big enough show back in 2003 that this stunt alone landed Jenna and Heidi the cover of Playboy.

Shortly after the girls went wild, Roger decided to basically make a deal with himself to jump off the platform. He didn’t make anyone promise him safety or wait for a temptation of food after 19 days of eating nothing but small portions of manioc rice – he just decides he’s out because he doesn’t think he needs immunity. “With little fanfare, Roger is out of the game,” Jeff said, even though he was technically incorrect. Roger would be out of the game soon enough, but there was much, much fanfare when it finally happened.

From then until Tribal Council, it was basically just the six or seven players who were in on the plan making fun of Roger. “The only way Roger was gonna win immunity was if it was a contest of ‘Name That Perry Como Song,’ or perhaps, ‘What Type of Prune Is This?’ or some sort of other thing that only an old man like Roger would be able to determine,” said Rob, gleefully. Alex also joined in celebrating not just the fact that Roger willfully eliminated himself from the challenge, but that he didn’t get anything to eat. Much like the pizza that tempted Alex off his perch, it was cold – but the game makes you do things you wouldn’t do in the real world.

Making the editing of this episode even more bizarre was the inclusion of double confessionals, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in another episode of “Survivor”. Future Playboy centerfolds Jenna and Heidi, along with centerfold-less Alex and Matthew, used this time to even further take pleasure in Roger’s impending doom. Beyond being an interesting editing choice, the double confessionals added further hilarity to an episode already bursting with comedic moments (if Rob Cesternino ever plays “Survivor” again, I am THERE), and also offer unique strategic points of view. In Alex and Matthew’s joint confessional, Alex mentions that Roger is ignorant to his fate and Matthew says that Roger is second in line to be voted out. “No, he’s first on the list now. The list has changed. He was being an ass earlier today,” Alex informs him. It was Matthew’s ignorance of the game’s true wheelings and dealings that led him to eventually lose 6-1 to Jenna in the final vote.

And then it was time. Finally time for everyone to put the nails in Roger’s coffin. Except for Roger, who had the nerve to vote for Christy and say that she should have stayed in the immunity challenge longer. Anyway, Deena got in one nice final jab at Roger: “Reality check, and mate. Never underestimate the power of a woman.” But his harshest critic had yet to step up to the urn.

In every video game, you get to points where you have to fight some sort of "boss" in order to continue playing. They usually have an Achilles heel that when targeted enough, will eventually leave the boss defeated if not dead entirely. It’s hard not to think of this type of attack as the castaways each made their way to the urn to leave their vote and speak their peace (well, not exactly peace in this case). Leave it to (who else) Rob to deliver this final blow to poor Roger. Watch:

In a perfect Casey Kasem impression: “Here comes tonight’s, long distance dedication. It goes out to Rob, from New York. He writes, ‘Dear Casey – there’s a mean old man in my life, that’s about to leave. Could you please play something appropriate for me?’ Well Rob, here’s your request. ‘Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, good-bye!’”

(Fun fact: it's not in the video above, but as Rob heads back his seat, he looks up at Jeff because Jeff is talking to him, even though we can’t hear him. What’s Jeff saying? According to Rob, Jenna, and a number of other people who were at that Tribal Council, it was something along the lines of, “Nice job, smartass. Like hell that’ll make the show.” Guess even in whispers, Rob was a little too loud in his celebrating.)

Just for the record: the person who was voted out that night? It was Roger.

Yes, it was cruel and unusual. Yes, the blame lies with both the castaways and the editors for treating a fairly harmless guy this way. But the forty-minute build up to Roger’s exit is so well mapped out, entertaining, and masterfully handled that it’s hard not to root for his torch to be put out by the end. Did we need 26 seasons of “Survivor”? Absolutely not. But having seen an episode like this, I refuse to let anyone tell me that reality television is entirely stupid or worthless. They’re not the nicest people in the world, but it’s a fascinating examination of human behaviour nonetheless. In 2003, there was still nothing on TV that had ever been quite like “Survivor,” and episodes like this proved it. I regret nothing!

Epilogue: We can’t end things like that, though. If you haven’t seen this episode, the preceding write-up sounds pretty bleak and mean. So you should know that Roger is doing just fine and holds no ill will to anybody. For an edition of his video podcast, Rob reunited the cast of “Survivor: Amazon” back in February for the season’s 10th anniversary, and Roger was nice enough to join him in-studio. Everyone confirmed their peace and lack of hard feelings, and Roger mentioned that he had shown the season to his grandchildren, with no embarrassment or shame to be had - just a lot of fun and reminiscing. “Survivor”: bringing people together, for better or worse, since 2000.

Next week: I walk out of hell and into the light with the series finale of one of my favourite shows ever