Survivor – Episode 26.05 – "Persona Non Grata"

courtesy of Monty Brinton/CBS

     I usually don’t review episodes of reality television, but the latest episode of Survivor has brought up a discussion that needs to happen.  In its 26th season, Survivor has once again brought back returning players under the pretense of giving the public what they want.  It worked last season when they brought back three players who had been evacuated from the game for medical reasons to play against 15 new contestants, mostly because they were all genuine, complex individuals.  The editing allowed us to get to know every single contestant, and though some were given more air time than others (former child star Lisa Whelchel) there was the right combination of characters and true players.  When it was announced that they would bring back the Fans vs. Favorites concept, there was some excitement, given the popularity of the original Fans vs. Favorites.  However, when the cast was announced, it became clear that who the producers considered “Favorites” was a combination of outrageous personalities, under-edited strategists and a first boot.  Only one or two of them could genuinely be seen as favorites (Malcolm, maybe Cochran).  One of those outrageous personalities in this cast of “Favorites” was Brandon Hantz, the nephew of the show’s most notorious villain, Russell Hantz.  In South Pacific, Brandon went through the emotional wringer, often often indicating that he was not right in the head.  And here he came back to go through the whole traumatizing experience again.  Let me make myself very clear, I know that viewers don’t see everything that happens on that island.  However, with the footage we’ve received, it has become clear that Brandon Hantz is not well.  As a hardcore fan of Survivor it pains me to see one of my favorite shows of all time exploit psychological disorder for ratings.  

     This episode was advertised as “that one moment” we see every season that “no one will ever forget”.  What we received in this episode was the nervous breakdown of a psychologically damaged man.  Brandon’s anger had been building with each episode, and in “Persona Non Grata” he finally reached his breaking point.  Most of his anger was directed at Phillip, whose “Stealth-R-Us” schtick led Brandon to accuse Phillip of being a dictator and treating the rest of the tribe like they were children.  When Brandon caught wind of Phillip plotting to vote him out, he proceeded to dump out all of the tribe’s rice and stomp across the beach in a psychotic rage, stating that he was “giving them a reason to vote him out”.  When the tribes converged for the immunity challenge, the Favorites tribe announced that they would be forfeiting the challenge in order to vote Brandon out.  Brandon then faced both tribes to discuss his feelings, focusing most of his attention on Phillip.  Brandon repeatedly stated that he was “the author of his own destiny” with the conviction of a man thoroughly convinced by his every thought.  Jeff Probst then told the tribe there was no need to go to Tribal Council and Brandon was unanimously voted out of the game.  As he confidently walked away, the Favorites tribe showed visible signs of relief at having rid themselves of the negative energy.

     Keep in mind that this episode was the most-watched of the season.  If anything, the hyping of this episode and the sick voyeuristic curiosity of viewers salivating at the idea of witnessing a nervous breakdown on national television does nothing to dispel the perception of reality television as one of the most vile forms of entertainment.  Viewers watch “strange addictions” and sexed-up toddlers and teenagers trying to get pregnant to get on MTV and snicker at their misfortune.  So many of my peers watch these “guilty pleasure” shows for the purpose of “feeling better about their lives” but have any of them actually thought critically about these shows?  Doubtful.  These shows prey upon the psychologically-ill and package them as “outrageous”.  In his show, Extras, Ricky Gervais has an extensive speech where he rants about the sick culture we’ve become.  Discussing reality television, he states: 

You can’t keep going, ‘Oh, it’s exploitation but it’s what the public want.’ No. The Victorian freak show never went away, now it’s called Big Brother or X Factor where, in the preliminary rounds, we wheel out the bewildered to be sniggered at by multi-millionaires.”

     For a long time I thought Survivor was above these base-level reality shows but with this recent edition I fear they’ve taken a page out of TLC’s book.  Yet much like how TLC used to be The Learning Channel and now features such filth as Toddlers & Tiaras and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Survivor has now apparently become a circus.  I will continue to watch, but with a much more cautious eye.


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