How Survivor is Outwitting, Outplaying, and Outlasting American Idol

“Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.”

Survivor’s motto has been part of our pop culture lexicon for nearly 14 years. The long-running reality competition is now in its 28th iteration, with at least two more on the way. Survivor airs head-to-head on Wednesdays at 8pm with another reality TV titan, American Idol, now in its 13th year.

In this battle of the time slot, the two shows occupy opposite sides of the entertainment spectrum. Survivor is firing on all cylinders, delivering what could be its best season with Survivor: Cagayan, while American Idol is a train-wreck and a snooze-fest all at once.

How has Survivor managed to outwit, outplay, and outlast American Idol? Let’s break it down.

OUTWIT:
Survivor has dynamic characters…

This season, the Survivor producers divided its 18 castaways into three tribes, each tribe embodying an aspect of the game used to win: Brains, Brawn, and Beauty. But it doesn’t matter how many twists producers can throw out there, if there isn’t an engaging cast of characters maneuvering those obstacles, the show suffers (I’m looking at you, One World cast!).

Survivor_Tony_Vlachos

Tony Vlachos

Luckily, the Survivor gods have bestowed upon us a casting bounty with Cagayan. We have everything from larger-than-life personalities, to sympathetic underdogs to root for, to hotheads, to boneheaded decision-makers.

Cagayan‘s standout character is Tony Vlachos. Tony. Tony. Tony. He is a mad scientist, constantly scheming new ways to best his opponents, and even his allies. He is a shark. He needs to keep making big moves or else he’ll die. “I like big moves, bro,” he admits. Tony’s gameplay compares to the infamous Russell Hantz, but unlike that Survivor troll, Tony’s gameplay never devolves into spiteful personal attacks. Tony is a master of deception and his childish glee exudes from every pore. While he’s far from the perfect player (see: the “Top five, baby!” slip that came back to haunt him), Tony is above all, damn entertaining to watch.

It wouldn’t be Survivor without underdogs, and Cagayan has them in spades with Spencer Bledsoe and Tasha Fox. These two survived a near-decimation of the Brains tribe and survived their former Brains ally, the emotionally charged Kass #ChaosKass McQuillen, flipping on them and their majority alliance.

Spencer is making the right measured moves at the right measured times. He maximizes his opportunities and shows a great deal of patience in his execution. Who didn’t cheer when he found the hidden immunity idol during the #MadTreasureHunt? Tasha’s social connections and physical prowess makes her a threat to win, even if she does get #StoodUp by the charming and rugged LJ McKanas. Their strategic wheels are always turning and make it easy to root for them.

Are you ready for an #UnpopularOpinion? My favorite castaway this season is Trish Hegarty. Let’s be real. Trish is playing a cunning game. She finds her targets and she executes accordingly. She engineered Cliff Robinson’s ouster behind her fellow Brawns’ backs and she slyly convinced #ChaosKass to flip, even after Tony patronized her and told her not to. You could even argue that she pushed Lindsey Ogle out of the game. As an astute social observer, Trish is silent (endearing laugh aside), and deadly. The best part, she’s not making any real enemies. However, she’ll need to pull out an amazingly articulate jury speech to convince her peers of her strategic acumen. It’ll be an uphill battle for her, but I trust Trish is up for the challenge.

These are all memorable Survivor characters, and I haven’t even mentioned the #NinjaStealthMode master Yung “Woo” Hwang, the fierce police officer Sarah Lacina, and Boobs McGee herself, Morgan McLeod.

American Idol doesn’t.

Perhaps I’m just a crotchety old man now (at the ripe ‘ol age of 26), but boy are this year’s American Idol contestants young. The oldest singers, CJ Harris and Jessica Meuse are 23 years old. When you have a theme of 80’s music and not a single singer was born during that decade, that’s saying something.

Idol_Alex_Preston_Sam_Woolf

Alex Preston & Sam Woolf

Quite honestly, all this youth and inexperience shows. Aside from the piano pop-rocker Jena Irene (see: “Decode”) and the retro-rocker Caleb Johnson (see: “Dazed and Confused”), none of this year’s finalists have been ready for the big stage. Yes, they’re talented. Yes, they can sing. But their passion doesn’t fill the television screen, let alone reach through and grab us the throats. It’s as if they don’t understand or even care that this is a competition. Listen up, kids, you need to IMPRESS us! You need to fight for our votes.

Flanked by Harry Connick, Jr. and Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez has become an astute judge this year. Last week, after one of the many country performers Dexter Roberts phoned in one of the many country performances, Lopez warned him, “These performances need to be spectacular… The room’s got to RATTLE. It’s got to SHAKE… You need to PUSH yourselves.” Really, this critique was an impassioned plea for all the contestants. And just like that, America eliminated Dexter the next night. Nothing distinguished him from any other country dude performing in bars across the country. He failed to stand out and make us remember him.

That’s the story with nearly all the singers this year: adequate, but not remarkable in the slightest.

OUTPLAY:
Survivor has unpredictability…

Survivor_Cagayan_Tribal_CouncilNever has there been a more unpredictable season of Surivor than this one. Just look at the picture above. Look at those seven players with seven different facial expressions.

In the first post-merge Tribal Council, Tony surprises the tribe by giving LJ a hidden immunity idol before the votes were cast, causing the other alliance to scramble. LJ dropped another bombshell when he whipped his out immunity idol and gave it to Tony. Let’s look at the picture again. Observing left to right, we see Jefra’s joyous relief, LJ’s smooth confidence, Sarah’s stony bitterness, Tony’s beaming pride, #ChaosKass’ smug glee, Spencer’s sheer disbelief, and Tasha’s simple appreciation for the daring move.

But that’s not all the crazy! After all the idol dust settles, #ChaosKass blindsided her alliance and flips to the other side. Sarah goes home in a shocking elimination. #ChaosKass’ controversial move of flipping from presumably the top of a majority alliance to the bottom of a minority alliance sparked much debating among fans: Did #ChaosKass make the right move?

Now, two weeks later, we’re discussing a new power move: Did Tony make the right move? Was turning on his loyal alliance partner, LJ, brilliant gameplay or deranged? Both? Did Tony get one step closer to becoming a millionaire or did he fall prey to unnecessary paranoia? By blowing up his own alliance, he creates many possibilities for everyone to make it to the end, including himself. He’s down (under Spencer and Tasha, if the two of them get to the finals) but he’s not out (mend that relationship with Trish, stat!).

Speaking of unpredictability, who could have foreseen these once odds-on favorites to win the game fall from grace? Sarah’s tantrum-throwing and abuse of her swing vote power took her down. LJ’s false sense of security and slow-moving strategy allowed his fellow players to get the best of him.

Survivor players have evolved into savvy gamers who make their bold and brassy moves at Tribal Council, keeping viewers on their toes for the entire hour. Typical protocol once saw players enter into Tribal Council with their minds already made up, but now we watch big power plays unfold at Tribal Council. Following a one-two-three-four punch of PhilippinesCaramoan, Blood vs. Water, and now Cagayan, we are living in a time where risky moves and blindsides are the spectacular norm. What an embarrassment of riches.

American Idol doesn’t.

This year’s American Idol contestants are sorely lacking a drive to push the creative envelope. For the most part, the contestants are content with songs from their coffeehouse and bar show set-lists. Sure, it’s simpler to do songs already in your repertoire, but that doesn’t make them entertaining to watch. No matter how much constructive criticism the judges give, there’s still not much charisma onstage. All this indifference is wearing thin. (Could you look anymore dead behind the eyes, Jessica Meuse?! Do you even want to be here?)

I favorably reviewed the contestants after their Rush Week performances. Where did all that promise go? Where are the #moments?

Idol_CJ_Harris

CJ Harris

Contestants were first allowed to play musical instruments back in 2008 during the show’s seventh season. The first couple seasons following that introduction heralded a musical reinvention renaissance. The guitar was a sign of fresh-sounding departures. Think Kris Allen’s “Heartless” or Phillip Phillips’ “Volcano.” This year, however, the guitar is a crutch. Six out of the top ten have played a guitar at some point this season. The bland guitaryness of each contestant’s songs blend together, a little acoustic jam there, a little country twang there.

I’ll go ahead and say it: guitars are ruining Idol. Not only have the guitars stifled the musicality, it’s also kept the performances physically stationary and stagnant. No amount of lightbulbs, floor lamps, or living room couches can inject excitement into a Sam Woolf performance.

So props to the aforementioned guitar-less Jena and Caleb who bring a breath of fresh air when they work the stage. Their performance of “Gimme Shelter” was KILLER, with nary a guitar in sight. It was one of the scarce highlights this season.

That vital surprise factor is gone. No one is taking risks and turning songs on their head, à la David Cook’s “Billie Jean.” We are no longer shocked or awed by a Jason Mraz-lite performance by Alex Preston. We can predict CJ Harris’ Ray Lamontagne-lite sound. So what’s the point of tuning in anymore, especially if those performances are simply okay? When 80’s week revealed, I jokingly predicted we’d see an “Islands in the Stream” duet between Jessica and Dexter. And guess what? They did! YAWN.

Challenge our expectations. Do something different. We need to be SURPRISED. I’m beginning to sound a lot like J.Lo (sans auto-tune, naturally).

What’s worse is that I honestly can’t recall any of the country songs CJ or Dexter have sung, save one or two. They’re obscure (“Keep Your Hands To Yourself”) and forgettable (“Boondocks”). And in CJ’s case they’re obscure (“Radio”and forgettable (“If It Hadn’t Been For Love”and off-key (“Invisible”). This is a huge problem. Look, if you pick a song the audience isn’t familiar with, make it count. Rattle that room. Shake that room. Make us remember you. Paging Candice Glover’s “Lovesong”!

The broad themes aren’t helping. It’s been a long-standing complaint that we’ve been force-fed the same tired themes year after year (disco, big band, etc.), so this year, the producers dismissed specific themes and aimed more broadly with ones like “Home,” “This Is Me,” and “I’m With the Band.” But these themes have failed as well, by allowing the contestants to stay squarely in their wheelhouse. Specific themes challenged contestants to think outside-the-box, rearrange songs to their own musical styles, and most importantly, to develop their sense of personal artistry. All the producers have done is breed complacency.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the generic themes aren’t stopping any time soon. The next one is “A Little Bit Country, And A Little Bit Rock ‘n Roll.” What a cop-out, Idol producers. Let’s give country and rock genres to the mostly country and rock performers. That’ll shakes things up dramatically…

OUTLAST:
Survivor has steady viewership…

Let this tweet from Vulture’s West Coast editor Joe Adalian sink in for a second. The once-mighty ratings juggernaut came in second place to Survivor. And this wasn’t the first time either; Survivor has bested Idol every week for the past four weeks.

These ratings are just more bragging rights for the four-time Outstanding Host for a Reality Program Emmy Award-winner Jeff Probst. Ryan Seacrest, however: six nominations, zero wins. Still, Survivor: Cagayan is hitting all-time series lows. Unsurprisingly, ratings have declined across the board for nearly every broadcast show.

American Idol doesn’t.

Idol_Ratings_ChartThis sobering graphic courtesy of The Wrap shows that downhill slide that is American Idol‘s ratings. The simple fact of the matter is that the tired and overstuffed reality singing competition genre is past its prime, and this particular brand has been around for 13 years. Idol‘s main rival, The Voice, most recently averaged a 2.7 A 18-49 (2.7% of all homes with viewers ages 18 to 49 tuned in).

Idol‘s highest ratings for viewers ages 18 to 49 was in the show’s fifth season in 2005, with an average rating of 12.6. Now here we are, eight years later, and Idol scored a 2.2 the week of April 16th. YIKES. The Death Star is dead, but its admirable reign was long and mighty.

As long as Survivor keeps introducing vibrant new characters ready to make huge moves, it will continue to keep its fans happy and its head above water. Are you taking notes, American Idol? A blindside this late in the game would be a shame.

Is there anything that would draw viewers back to Idol? My two cents: a farewell season with the triumphant return of Simon Cowell. Those were the good ‘ol days.

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