Survivor: Caramoan Preview (interview with #RTVF330 All Star Ali Lasher)

As an educator, I take pride in my ability to completely screw up young people’s lives. Though I would never admit this to the members of a hiring committee, my pedagogical philosophy is guided by the notion that a college professor’s job is to introduce students to ideas or possibilities that move them to reconsider what they want from school or life. Nothing is more rewarding than watching a student question the path that he or she is on. At Indiana University, for example, there was the student who for his entire life had planned on attending law school, but ended up doing a graduate degree in heavy metal studies after taking one of my classes. At Northwestern there are the handful of students who, after taking my class on Survivor and reality TV, have begun to contemplate careers in reality TV production. One of those students is Ali Lasher. Ali was amongst the first group of students to take #RTVF330 in 2012, having earned a spot in the fully enrolled class by sending me an impassioned email describing her nearly life-long love of Survivor. While I haven’t quite succeeded at convincing her to change her major to Radio, TV & Film, I have planted a seed – let’s just call it a “Russell seed” – in her mind that reality TV could be more than just a hobby for her. Last week I sat down with her to discuss my thoughts about Survivor: Caramoan, which debuts tonight at 8/7 central on CBS. A transcript of the interview follows.

Ali Lasher: Last season wrap-up, what were your general thoughts about last season before we get into this season?

Max Dawson: One of my favorite seasons in recent memory, probably since “Heroes vs. Villains,” a return to form, the one time I felt like the mix of returning players and new players worked out really well when it wasn’t in that “Fans vs. Favorites” capacity where they were equally balanced. I thought the choice of the returning players was inspired in 2 out of 3 cases. I thought that the rest of the cast had some really stellar members in it. And, I felt like the production itself in terms of how the episodes were composed, edited and shot was as impressive as anything in the show’s history.

AL: So do you have high hopes for this season?

MD: I have very high hopes for this season and mainly on a count of the fact that Jeff Probst has been stoking our anticipation with all of these promises that if you liked season 25, season 26 is going to be better. To me that’s such a high bar that’s been set; to hear that it’s going to sail over it makes me think either we’re really in for something exciting or Probst has completely lost grips with reality. So I think that all the indications we’ve received point us to have strong reasons to suspect that “Survivor” is back on a streak and this season is going to continue to bring the show back to its former pre-Hantz era of glory.

AL: I don’t know how much I trust Jeff Probst’s judgment. He said that season 25 was going to deliver and it did, but he also said that he knew when Andrea got voted out he wanted to bring her back. She’s one of the returnees that’s least exciting to me so I don’t know how much I trust him. What are your thoughts about the returnees that they picked? Is it a cast of rejects?

MD: It’s an interesting group, I’ll put it that way. I once, a couple of years back, joked around about how it would be really interesting to have a season where the returning players were people like Coach, Phillip, Shambo, some of the more shall we say, delusional survivors in the show’s history. And I kind of said this as a joke thinking there would be no way they would actually do this and lo and behold, it’s very easy to interpret this season’s line up of returning players as a sort of assemblage of the most loony, goofy and potentially delusional people in the show’s history.

Now this is particularly the case for the men’s side of the equation. You have two people who have given up immunity necklaces very deep in the game, you have Phillip who is either bat shit crazy or crazy like a fox, we have Cochran who is someone that is a personal favorite of RTVF 330 and of myself included, but in his own estimation, in his own words has described himself as being someone who is useless in challenges, bad around camp, known as a traitor and possibly annoying. And the fifth member is the golden boy, Malcolm who sort of, I think, brings everything back into balance with his shear unadulterated magnificence. So I mean, it’s an incredibly weird cast in terms of it doesn’t fit the traditional demographic break down of a “Survivor” season’s cast. Maybe we see it being balanced off, not just by Malcolm’s presence, but also by some of the members of the fans tribe. But it is a very strange thing to consider especially when we see some of the promos for this season. We’re seeing people come back not because they were the greatest heroes or the most notorious villains but because they were the biggest larger than life, goofy characters. People who cried, people who bumbled their way through the game, people who ran around in pink underwear speaking to their spiritual ancestors looking for their shoes. Not the sort of bringing back the Colbys or the Ruperts, people who love them or hate them at least were portrayed in their original season as honorable, heroic contestants.

Instead we have this sort of goon squad of, I hate to say it, lunatics and nut jobs and I alluded to that promo. They have created promos in which the background music is Ozzy Osbourne’s song “Crazy Train.” It seems to me that they’re coming right out and saying it, “Listen, we’ve got the craziest nut jobs that we’ve had in the last five or six seasons, we’ve thrown them all together and we’re gonna see what happens.” So it should at least lead to interesting television. Whether or not these people will play the game differently and surprise us and show us they have different sides to their personalities and to their games, I think remains to be seen.

AL: Let’s talk a little bit about Malcolm –he’s the second player to come back [for back to back seasons] without the rest of the cast having seen him play. But at least the first time they knew Russell was on the villian’s tribe. Probst has said the positives and negatives for and against him even out. Dalton Ross observed that he doesn’t get to connect with people before coming back and make the alliances that you don’t see on screen. What’s your take on him coming back?

MD: Yeah, it’s difficult to tell whether or not this is a tremendous advantage or a tremendous disadvantage for Malcolm. Just for starters we know that he had something like two or three weeks between concluding his first season and commencing his second season. So physically, it’s going to have taken a toll on him. He was a fairly dominant physical competitor in the Philippines season and whether or not he’s got it in him to continue to dominate in “Caramoan Fans vs. Favorites,” that’ll be interesting to see.

But in terms of the social game if it was anyone other than Malcolm I might worry about him, and if it was anyone other than Malcolm playing with any other cast I might worry about him. We have a number of attractive young women on the fans and favorites tribes and there isn’t exactly a wealth of eligible bachelors who are in the game at least on the favorites tribe. Not that “Survivor” is won or lost by how attractive you are or how good your flirt game is, but I think that Malcolm’s sort of level headedness and general charisma is going to be thrown into relief when he’s standing next to fifty-something year old guy in pink tighty-whities and you know Brandon Hantz…Malcolm’s going to look reassuringly normal. I think people on that tribe will gravitate to him as someone who’s level headedness and athleticism they really need. So at least I think through the merge Malcolm will find himself in a good situation.

AL: From watching the CBS preshow interviews, I didn’t really get the sense that any of the fans seem to know the game at all. Most of them seem to have a vert cliché knowledge of the game. How much of a real fan season do you think this is?

MD: I don’t think anyone takes the designation fans versus favorites at face value. It’s nice alliteration, it sounds good, but as little of a chance as there is of any of these people actually being “fans” there’s as little a chance of any of the favorites being anyone’s favorites. So, it seems to me counter productive to interrogate their credentials [as fans]…because we know the way in which reality shows and “Survivor” as much as any other program to this point, their cast are comprised largely of people who have been recruited on account of their story, their appearance or their fitting into some sort of interesting demographic. So it’s not really fans versus favorites it’s people who have played the game before of slightly dubious mental stability versus people who haven’t played the game before and may or may not be aspiring models, actresses or pageant queens.

But that’s not to say that this won’t make for a great season. Quite frankly, I’m of the opinion that the most boring season of all would be one in which all of the players were hardcore fans, especially in a season with returning players. I don’t want to see people get star struck and just roll over in front of their heroes exposing their soft underbellies [and] allowing them to march to the end of the game as we’ve seen so many times with people like Boston Rob. I love the fact that one of the fans is this guy Shamar Thomas  who if you haven’t seen his Youtube video, you totally need to check it out. [It’s] him standing and staring down and baring down on five, ten, fifteen NYPD cops in his full military fatigues during the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York and standing up to these cops who were roughing up a group of protesters and basically demonstrating…This is a guy who doesn’t necessarily get star struck or bow to authority…He’s a guy who thinks nothing of getting in the face of a group of armed cops who’ve got pepper spray and batons at the ready to beat the crap out of him in order to defend the right of a bunch of people to protest. I don’t think he’s going to have any problem standing up to Phillip Sheppard and saying, “You’re completely full of shit, I’m not listening to you.” So I like that, I like that if they’re going to go out and pick people, go out and pick people with attitudes, people who will stand up to some of these [favorites] and who will not allow there to be that sort of you know preordained coronation that we’ve seen in the past where sometimes some of the new players will be a little unwilling or just lacking the resolve to play their own game in the face of some of their heroes.

AL: Andy Dehnart commented that this is a new era of “Survivor” consistently using returning players, but it’s also a new era in terms of who the returning players are. Most are from the last 5 seasons and all are second time players. Who do you see as having star potential this season?

MD: In terms of returning players with star potential, we have Phillip and Cochran, two of the most dominant personalities in the history of the game in terms of shear number of confessionals given. I think Cochran has a vanity license plate that says, “JC” and then the number of his South Pacific confessionals but it’s something that I think he has a right to feel proud of because apart from Redemption Island [with] Phillip and Boston Rob, rarely have we seen someone come so front and center as the narrator of the show. I think that Cochran is going to have a chance to show the audience a different side of his personality, a different side of his game because he’s not in a group where he’s been obviously shoved in amongst really hot chicks and big studly guys who are going to ostracize him and push him out of the group. So I think that there’s obviously a chance for Cochran and Phillip to continue to have that sort of narrator role.

I think that in terms of the women who we haven’t really spoken about, Dawn is someone who impressed everyone during her season with her strength, her athleticism and her resolve. I mean in terms of great stories dawn is up there with Troyzan for having spent so many years wanting to play the game and then when she actually got the chance, like Troyzan, [she brought] to it a sort of passion and enthusiasm that unfortunately a lot of people who were recruited…they just can’t match that. Christina Cha, god love her, is not going to play the game as hard as someone like Dawn who first sent in an application for the Australia season, so I love the fact that Dawn is coming back.

I am not at all impressed by Brenda, I think that Brenda’s game is vastly overrated on a count of the fact that she’s an attractive woman. I think she’s lazy and I was quite frankly turned off by the fact that on her season when the threat arose that she was going to be voted out, that she refused to scramble, as if she was too cool to be bothered to play the game.

Francesca seems to be on there solely for the fact that Phillip couldn’t pronounce her name…it’s mind boggling that they’ve wasted one of five spots on her. There are so many more big personalities who are interesting who would fit into that slot…I would prefer to see Alicia, Chelsea, Kat, anyone from “One World” which is a season that quite frankly was horrible but had people who were much more interesting and deserving at a second shot than Francesca.

Andrea Boehlke, and I know this isn’t going to make you happy but, I knew from very early on in that season that she would be coming back. She has a striking look. She looks like a Japanese animation character with eyes the size of saucers. She’s a good athlete, she’s a Christian, she’s down for flirting with other likeminded Christian youth and, she’s kind of a perfect sort of female “Survivor” contestant considering that Jeff Probst is not a huge fan of female “Survivor” contestants. At least she’s someone who will hold her own in a challenge and isn’t just out there because she faired well in the Miss Teen America contest a few years ago.

Corinne is the most badass, hilarious, bitchy, awesome killer that you can ever imagine. Short of having Colton as one of the women, she brings that sort of snark and uncompromising critical attitude. I love her. She was a huge villainess on her season but I just was so into it and I’ve always wanted her to come back. I thought she was great, I loved her on Rob Cesternino’s podcast and I’m thrilled that she’s going to be back around. I hope that she gets very angry and cranky and has lots and lots and lots to complain about with the knuckleheads she’s been put out there with.

In terms of the fans, obviously I feel a strong affinity towards Matt “The Beard” Bischoff who is super bad ass, BMX bilker and who has the most glorious beard in “Survivor” history.

AL: Is there beard envy?

MD: No envy because when my beard gets about one-eighth that long I start to feel like a caveman or something like that, so I don’t think I have it in me to go that all out but I definitely respect that he does. And he just has been great on social networks so far, he has been super with fans, he definitely seems to be a real fan of the show.

Lets see, there’s a real cute pageant girl, there’s two other blonde girls who if you spun me around three times and put a buff on my eyes and then took it off I would not be able to tell them from one another. Um, there’s the older woman Sherri who is super fit, and MILFy looking. There’s an older guy who seems to be really smart and I liked the fact that in his interview he mentioned Cirie and Rob Cesternino. Anytime someone does that, you know that they’ve watched the game and that they have good taste and they’re going to play in an interesting way. There’s a couple of those other guys that are just sort of there. As dopey as the male favorites are you’ve gotta have these studly fans…to offset the lack of pectorals on Cochran you have to have Reynold and Eddie with their rippling biceps.

It’s tough to say whether or not the fans will have a shot. I think it will ultimately boil down to whether or not they’re able to get over any sort of that sort of star struck response that we saw in someone like ice cream scooper Erik or Jason Siska where they were just so blown away by the fact that their hero Ozzy was there. If these people want to win they need to kill their heroes and if they can do that, I don’t see why they can’t win.

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About fymaxwell
Max Dawson is a Los Angeles-based media consultant and professor.

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