So a new "Survivor" winner was crowned last night. And even though I didn't watch this season (I kicked the "Survivor" habit after Fans vs. "Favorites"), this was one of those editions where it was impossible to not be aware of some of what was going on. And what happened with the ending has me thinking about the larger question of how the winner of a reality season affects our perception of that season, which I'll talk about (including, obviously, a spoiler on the "Survivor" winner) after the jump...
So Russell, whose apparent dominance of the game - and all the writing being done about that by other TV writers I follow - made me feel like I was watching the season even when I wasn't, did not win. Natalie did. Some people are already calling it a hose job, a lame jury vote akin to Amber beating Boston Rob because the All-Stars were pissed that Rob outplayed them, or akin to Neleh losing in Marquesas under similar circumstances(*). Linda Holmes, who used to recap "Survivor" for Television Without Pity, argued earlier this year that the Russell-as-greatest-player-ever narrative was constructed by the show and Russell's desire to self-promote, and didn't reflect what was actually happening, and she wrote this morning that the jury vote vindicates her take on the guy, and the season..
(*) Anyone want to argue against Vecepia (who beat Neleh) as the least deserving "Survivor" winner ever? She did nothing all during that season, and backed into the win because there was always a bigger fish to try in her original tribe, then because Neleh and Pascal organized an alliance flip, then because the producers screwed up the Purple Rock of Death twist, then because Kathy's chest was too big, and then because the jurors were a bunch of whiny babies. I know some people will argue for Sandra from Pearl Islands, but at least she was a key part of what was that season's longest-lasting, most dominant alliance, and she was going up against a contestant who was eliminated, then voted back into the game through a twist so lame the show has never recycled it. I say Vecepia, all the way.
But whether you believe the Russell hype or not, this season was all about Russell's alleged dominance, only it ended with him not winning. And if you bought into the guy's mystique and aura, I'm wondering whether his loss retroactively makes you enjoy this season a little less.
When I was working on the Best Reality Shows list for my Best of the '00s package, I briefly toyed with the idea of making it a Best Reality Seasons list, mainly because I felt weird about putting "The Apprentice" season 1 alongside the completely body of work for four other series. And while I was thinking about that, I asked a few reality fan friends for their thoughts on what were the best seasons of my respective candidates. When I told Adam Bonin that I was thinking of going with "American Idol" season five - which I felt had the best mix of talented singers, memorable performances and weird things that happened - he objected on the grounds that Taylor Hicks won that year. I argued that the winner shouldn't matter if the rest of the season was good enough, and that I found the David Cook season really unsatisfying even though I liked Cook himself a lot and was glad he won.
But the more I thought about it, the more I saw Adam's point. Taylor's win doesn't taint that "Idol" season for me, necessarily, but there are plenty of other reality seasons I like less because of who won, like Jenna on "Survivor: Amazon" or Hosea on "Top Chef" a couple of seasons back. Conversely, two of my favorite "Survivor" seasons, Palau and Cook Islands, had incredibly deserving and likable winners in Tom and Yul. Had Katie or Becky, respectively, won because of bitter juries, I might think less of those years in spite of all the entertaining things that happened in each.
Now, I've heard from fans of scripted shows like "The Sopranos" or "Battlestar Galactica" who so hated their finales that they decided they retroactively hated the whole series. And I'm sure the "Lost" finale (which simply won't be able to satisfy everyone, no matter what Cuse and Lindelof do) will lead to some of that.
But at least in those cases, the endings were crafted behind the scenes by the people who made you like the show in the first place. Reality producers don't have that luxury. I'm sure the "Idol" producers were tearing their hair out when Daughtry went home and it became clear Taylor was going to win, just as Jeff Probst for years has made his displeasure clear when someone other than one of his alpha male favorites wins. (This was really obvious, and awkward, at the Cook Islands reunion, when Jeff did everything short of beg the jury to do a re-vote in favor of Ozzy.) All a reality show can do is assemble the strongest cast they can and hope that the jury, the judges or the American public votes to keep things interesting and ultimately satisfying.
Anyway, to sum up that long ramble (forgive me; it's my first day back in the office after a week off), I'm wondering whether people who watched "Survivor: Samoa" all the way through are upset that Russell lost, how that impacts their overall view of the season, and how much you all weigh endings in general when judging a TV season or series.