Survivor Characters: An Essay


Monday features time is upon us as we bring you your Monday reading fix! This week our Norwegian Ozlet extraordinaire Ferdinand Joppe sits down and gives you an academic essay which he wrote for his University course and gives you a look into the dynamic character performances through editing! Sit back and bring yourself some intelligent writing that will give you the best possible start to the day!

Since the emergence of reality TV in the early 2000s, a great deal has been written about the impact reality TV has had on society and the media industry for example by Biriessi (2012 p .1), but there has not been much written about the performance of the contestants in the shows. I will here look at how one specific reality-show, Survivor which was rated number one in American Network Primetime with 27 million viewers (Hill 2013, p .2), produces dynamic characters through the use of character-performance, mise-en-scene and editing. Through these dynamic characters the show is able to screen interesting storylines to the viewer that are not unlike it’s scripted counterparts.

An important aspect of Survivor’s success within the world of TV is that it incorporates the best of reality-TV and while still utilising techniques from scripted TV, whereas the most important technique would be editing. This is one of the reasons the show kept, and still beats, unedited reality shows such as Big Brother (Andrejevic, p .195). In the book “Reality TV: The work of being watched” M. Andrejevic further stresses this point by saying that “Survivor neatly epitomises the paradox of reality TV by offering a well produced version of reality” (p .196).

Reality TV is often viewed as it’s own genre in the same league as comedy, thriller, drama etc, but I would say that doing this is injustice towards both reality TV and the established concepts on Genre and Affect. Affect is the sensation you receive from watching different genres such such as laughter from comedy (Del Rio 2008, p. 3). A reality show such as Survivor certainly delivers laughter from time to time, but the narrative structure of it is far from that of a comedy. If one looks at established genres and the bodily sensations one derives from watching it while still staying true to established narrative structures one could possibly look at Survivor as a thriller which usually produces suspense. The narrative, or molar plane, of Survivor is about which individual will survive 39 days and claim the million dollar prize, which is not an uncommon story found in many thrillers. Saying that Survivor could possibly be viewed as a thriller does not mean that it does not include comedy, laughter and melodrama, which it certainly does, however the affective sensations you receive from those genres are certainly secondary to the thrill of ‘who will be voted out this episode’. Many of these comedic or romantic moments in survivor could also be viewed as what Elena Del Rio (2008) calls spectacle. A spectacle on the screen is a performative moment which does not add to the overall narrative, but is still important to the overall enjoyment of the show.

An aspect of Survivor made popular by fans on forums such as SurvivorSucks is edgic. Edgic is a way predicting the winner of a season by looking at the editing of the contestants of a specific season. There are four edit-archetypes are Under-The-Radar (UTR), Middle-Of-the-Road (MOR), Over-The-Top (OTT) and Complex-Personality (CP). These archetypes could be linked to the theory of the molar and molecular plane and how the characters relate to them. The molar-plane is the narrative of the story, while the molecular-plane is what disrupts the narrative. The reason for this disruption is to showcase interesting and entertaining moments outside of the narrative, these moments are usually referred to as the “spectacular”. The disruptive moments in Survivor is usually not events, but the characters themselves.

A character who is UTR is usually not important to the narrative as well as not being spectacular enough to take away time from more important or spectacular characters. An OTTP character is often not necessary to the molar-plane, but is so spectacular in their own right that they receive screen-time either because of their confessionals or the way they act around camp. MOR characters are often the narrators of the show. They often tell the viewers that the food-reward was delicious or they inform us about the actions of other characters. Most characters have a couple of MOR-episodes throughout a season and in well edited seasons they are the most common edit-archetype. These characters are harder to pinpoint in the spectrum of molar and molecular-plane as they could swing either way, however they are usually somewhere in “the middle”. A CP character is usually the most interesting characters as they are “complex”. We usually get strategy talk as well as personal info from these characters. Winners, at least male, usually receive end up as a CP* character through most of their season. They are important to the molar-plane of the narrative, wether it be short-term (Sarah in Cagayan) or long-term (Kass in Cagayan). Most of the time they are also interesting enough to have a couple of disruptive molecular moments. “Tone” is also incorporated into these edit-archetypes, the tones are Positive (P), Negative (N) and sometimes M (Mixed). An example of this is Tony and Kass from Cagayan who both are generally viewed as CPN – complex personality negative.

3 (2)

It’s all about the relationships sometimes

The first way the characters are shown to the viewer is through filming the contestants as they go about their daily tasks, such as collecting food, competing in challenges or discussing alliances. This fly-on-the-wall way of showing the contestants might seem like the more fair way of portraying someone, e.g: if someone is working hard around camp they must be nice, but if someone is laying around all day they must be lazy. That however does not take into account all the different editing techniques, voice-overs and other non-diegetic sound which can be added later on to enhance or simply distort what actually happens.

The second way of showing us the characters on Survivor is through the use of confessionals. A confessional is when a contestant is talking directly to the camera about their gameplay, their life back home or about other contestants. How confessionals are distributed between characters are often the cause of much controversy and discussion as it is usually through these that contestants are transformed into a character for the viewer to cheer on or hate. The reason audiences are often so critical of reality show contestants is the fact that they are portraying themselves, and if a contestants comes of as mean then they must be a mean person in real life as well. Francis and Taylor talks about this in their book Reality TV (2013) and mentions that “when an audience is watching reality TV they are not only watching programs for entertainment, they are also engaged in critical viewing of the attitudes of ordinary people…”

Episode seven of the 28th season of Survivor which aired earlier this year (2014)  revolves around two key contestants of the show, Kassandra “Kass” McQuillen a 41 year old lawyer and Sarah Lacina a 30 year old police-officer. At this point in the game the competing tribes have merged into one tribe consisting of the 11 remaining players and it turns into more of an individual game than before. There are however still alliances in play and at this point both Kass and Sarah are in the majority alliance consisting of six players against a minority alliance of five. The episode starts out with the two women collecting firewood when Kass informs Sarah that she is afraid that the police-woman might swap to the other alliance as it consists of several of her friends and former tribe-mates. We observe this interaction while the two women are ‘not-acting’ and they both promise each other that they will keep working together. Right after this exchange we get confessionals from both of them where Kass tells the audience that she does not trust Sarah. We are then shown Sarah saying that if she wants to she can swap and that she holds all the cards. Which is the first sign we see  Sarah being untrustworthy. Framing and non-diegetic music also plays important roles when showing the contestants while they are not-acting around their camp, e.g: while Kass is talking to another tribe member we zoom in on a close-up of Sarah as we see a reflection of the camp fire in Sarah’s glasses while sinister music is played as an underscore to the scene.

These two women have been given a very different edit up until this point. Kass who started out on the “brains”-tribe has been portrayed as being willing to take risks, sarcastic and witty, but overall she has been mostly under the radar compared to other players. Sarah on the other hand started out on the “brawn”-tribe where she was portrayed as being a leader who excelled at both strategic and physical challenges and who also read other players well. Due to this Sarah had been given a very positive edit which is easy for the audience to cheer on which is in contrast to Kass’ more mixed edit. This completely swaps around this episode where Sarah is being shown as power-hungry, mean and unable to deduce information.


Sarah had one interesting storyline

The sudden change in how Sarah is portrayed through confessionals is emphasised further by showing Kass, her by now nemesis, being right in most of her assumptions. Kass is now being shown as an underdog who is being bullied by Sarah and ignored by the rest of her alliance. Body language and gestures plays a huge role in portraying not only the characters to the viewer, but also how these two women view each other. After Kass and Sarah’s second fight another alliance member, LaTasha Fox tries to find out what is wrong and help them sort it all out. While Sarah tells LaTasha her side of the story she suddenly bursts out that Kass is giving her a condescending look. For Sarah this is might be what she felt Kass was giving her, however for the audience it looks quite ridiculous as Kass is known for having a stone-face that never changes. In the end Sarah decides to stay true to their alliance, but at this point Kass has decided to flip to the other alliance. So the woman who thought she held all the cards ultimately ended up being blindsided because of her poor social performance.

It is hard to know when watching a reality show if what you are seeing is the true reality and often we just accept what we see. This time however some of the audience was left confused and angry over the downfall of Sarah Lacina; as although the production did their best to make her unlikeable in her last episode to minimise the sadness of her abrupt departure the audience could feel that something was wrong. Creating an interesting and dynamic character from a real life person is necessary to create archetype character for the audience to either cheer for or against. This is where Survivor has done wonders since its first season and something they will hopefully keep doing for many years to come.

What do you think of Joppe’s essay? Comment below to let us know!



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7 Comments on Survivor Characters: An Essay

  1. Big deal, so he wrote an essay on Survivor. I wrote a speech on the psychology of a Survivor Jury and how to win a FTC for an Academic Decathlon competition and received a gold medal for my speech.

  2. Great Essay :), dont listen too the haters *coughs* Daniel 🙂

  3. I owe Ferdinand an apology. I honestly like your essay Ferdinand, I just got jealous because I never got notoriety for my speech outside of my academic decathlon competition. I just saw it as unfair because you just happened to write a college paper on Survivor and you got notoriety for it. I apologize for my comment Ferdinand.

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