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HIGH BROW, LOW BROW: Game Theory in Paradise

Miranda Smith is the sole survivor of watching this show

Wake up, Jeff
Wake up, Jeff
Wake up, Jeff

For any of the twenty ‘castaways’ routinely washed up on the shores of some far-flung island paradise, a working knowledge of game theory might help them win the cool milli.

In its twenty-sixth incarnation, CBS’s Survivor: Caramoan has proved a fruitful season for the Survivor diehard; in it’s pitching a group of ‘Favourite’ former players against everyday ‘Fans’ of the series, the show plays like astronomers against astronauts in a race to the moon. One by one, as players vote each other out of the running for Survivor’s million-dollar prize money, the question looms as to how spitefully spurned former players will treat those left standing. Had Walter Benjamin lived to watch Survivor (which he certainly would have loved) he would have praised Caramoan’s literary montage: history is incomplete, forever brushing the present. In having the loose threads of seasons past wefted into Caramoan’s narrative – with the ongoing distrust between contestants Phillip Shepherd and Francesca Hogi, in Shepherd’s continual pantomime as ‘The Specialist’ CIA operative, and in Dawn Meehan’s unlikely alliance with John ‘Cochran’ Cochran (considering his selling her out in Survivor: South Pacific) – this serves to enrich the show’s self-referentially ritualistic nature.

But Caramoan’s real triumph is in its articulation of the prisoner’s dilemma: to shaft or share. How does one negotiate the desire to get (and stay) ahead of fellow contestants by knifing them at the Tribal Council vote, while struggling to maintain even a scrap of personal integrity? How does one remain chummy enough with a player whom one has personally ousted? It is on those relegated to the otherwise impotent Jury panel that the final three Survivor contestants rely on to determine who should ultimately be crowned ‘sole survivor.’ Is it better to play Survivor with a bloody-minded autonomy, commanding the respect of deposed castaways?

This is the problem faced by Corinne Kaplan and Malcolm Freberg, core members of the ‘Stealth R. Us’ alliance – the most successful alliance of Caramoan. In covertly making plans to defect from their numbers-heavy Stealth associates, Kaplan and Freberg attempt to unite with the dilapidated but dogged Reynold ‘n’ Eddie, former members of Gota tribe’s short-lived and creatively named ‘Cool Kids’ alliance. The impetus for Kaplan’s and Freberg’s action is just that: the desire to act, to display key Survivor virtues of wit, playfulness and lastingness.

It’s a move that does not pay off for Kaplan, but illustrates how preferable it may be to go for the win and lose by ten points rather than lose by one point while playing it safe. For observers of Survivor’s politics, the schema of alliance systems routinely defies common sense notions of how we might play the game ourselves. When those on the bottom of an alliance continually agree to vote in line with their party, ignorant of the fact that they’re merely cementing their sixth or fifth place in the show, the audience’s experience is usually one of frustration and disbelief. How Caramoan pans out for Cochran in particular – who has played Survivor like Hamlet by way of Woody Allen – will attest to the wisdom or ignorance of this back-seat strategy. The law student of diminutive physical prowess has relied largely on his conservative social game and good humour to win friends and influence people. However, with “Tubby Lunchbox” Shepherd, now relocated to the Jury in an unexpectedly bloodless coup, one gets the sense of Cochran’s imminent thrusting under the spotlight.

But, of course, there is only one true Sole Survivor, the man who’s played every season and come a way with the million every time: its host, Jeff Probst.

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