Amazon Strategy #9:  Attack of the Vee Clones
Written by Mario Lanza on 04.11.03

"Don't get too cocky, no matter how good you are. Don't let them see you coming. That's the gaffe, my friend -- make yourself small. Be the hick. The cripple. The nerd. The leper. The freak."
- Al Pacino, The Devil's Advocate

The Rob and Matt Show reached new levels of amazingness this week, as the greatest comedy duo on TV put on a fine show for us. I don't care what anyone else says, those two are the heart of the season. And it is fitting that they are the stars, since neither one of them is really "the good guy" or "the bad guy." There are good things and bad things about both of them, which (and this is why Amazon is so awesome) is something you can say about most every single player left in the game. Survivor: Amazon is breaking the mold in terms of Survivor tradition, because we don't really have clear-cut "good guys" or "bad guys" this time around.  I don't think anyone would really be able to agree on who the big hero is this season. Or who the big villain is.

Heidi as the big villain? Sure, fans seem to dislike her, but she really hasn't done anything that is all that awful. She is a bit annoying, true, but I think most of that is probably just editing. I suspect the people in the game don't really have much of a problem with her. And I would probably put Jenna in the exact same boat. Sure, the editing wants us to dislike her, but she has pulled out some decent strategic moves lately and she seems perfectly likeable from what I see of her. In fact, next week, if the previews are any indication, we will get a lot of nice backstory about Jenna's relationship with her sick mother. It is going to make it tough to dislike her after seeing something like that.

Rob? Is he the villain? Well, I don't really know. It is tough for me to judge that since he plays the game so similarly to how I would play. When I watch the show, I am rooting for Rob all the way, but I could see how some people might view him as a villain. Still, he hasn't done anything all that nasty or all that sinister. Besides, I don't see how anyone could hate a guy who is this entertaining. A villain is generally somebody you -don't- like.

As for Matthew, I don't see how anyone could view him as a villain, or as a hero for that matter. He is entertaining, and he is wonderfully bizarre, but I don't think people really think about him enough to draw any sort of a strong emotional response. He is just sort of a mascot at this point.

I am bringing this up because of a great column that Michael Skupin wrote this week, about why this season has failed to capture his interest. He pointed out that the location is great (I agree), and the cast is great (I agree 100%), and the challenges are good (also agreed). But his problem with this season is that the game is no longer life-changing to these people. He claims that they get so much food now, and they play so hard from a strategic sense, that it isn't the same as it was a couple of seasons ago. If you haven't read his column yet, I highly recommend it.  It raises a lot of interesting discussion questions.

I agree with Mike's conclusion in some ways, in that yes, the show doesn't really draw me in as much as it used to. And I won't fault the episodes itself, just like he doesn't. Survivor is as well produced and it is as masterfully edited as it has always been. This is a great season of Survivor, as they all are. There has never been a bad season of this show.  But as to Mike's reasons why he "just doesn't care," I have come to a little different explanation for it than he has.

The reason I think Mike (and people like Mike) don't care is because there are no longer good guys and bad guys on Survivor. This trend really started with last season, and I commented on it when I was writing my Thailand columns. There was no great villain last season, or great hero.  The majority of the players last season would best be described as "neutral."  This was based on no fault of their own, of course, as they all had pretty good personalities.  I mean, you don't get cast on Survivor in the first place unless you are charismatic.  Instead, their character was more dependent on the way that they played.

In short, everyone is playing like Vecepia now.

When Vecepia won Marquesas, I was overwhelmingly praiseworthy of her. I thought she did a great job. In fact, I think her strategy of laying low, avoiding drama, and always shifting into the power alliance is just about the most flawless strategy you can find when it comes to Survivor.  I don't see how ANYONE could be voted out pre-jury if they played like Vecepia. But as we found out, it doesn't make for great TV. Vecepia was not the hero of Marquesas. She was not the villain of Marquesas. She was smack dab in the middle, invisible, just like she wanted to be. And I have always maintained that she was one of the best players of all time, simply because that strategy is flawless. True, Vecepia needed luck at times, but at other times she made her own luck. She knew exactly what she was doing every step of the way.

So what do we have now? Well we have people trying to emulate that strategy. People do not take stances and have showdowns as much as they used to. Think back to Elisabeth and Rodger in Australia. Would they have ever voted against one another? No way. Would they ever have aligned with Jerri? No way. Even if it would have made strategic sense, that simply would not have happened. You had a classic sense of the good guys against the bad guys back then. It made great TV, it was wonderfully entertaining, but at the same time I wouldn't say that the players were all that creative back then. People picked their friends and they rode that alliance as long as they could. Up until Marquesas, that was simply the strategy.

Last season I wrote that the players are getting smarter and smarter, and that pretty soon, EVERY player will be playing the Vecepia strategy. Call it natural selection if you will, but in time people figure out the smart strategies in Survivor and they gravitate towards them. I said that once that happened, it would make for an emotionless game, but on the flip side it would eventually also produce better players. And that seems to be what we now have this season. There are no heroes. There are no villains. Right now we have seven people left who are most definitely there to play. They have no allegiances to one another.  They have no mortal enemies. No one is there for "the experience." Anyone will shift sides at any point if they need to, as long as it in their best interest.

Is this the smartest cast we have ever had?  Heck yeah. Every cast will be smarter than the ones before it, that is just the way that Survivor works.  One season will always lead into another, people watch and they learn from what comes before them.  But do you find yourself drawn to any one of the players in the Amazon in particular? Probably not as much as you would have in past seasons.

And I want to reiterate again that this is NOT the fault of the players or of the casting department. This is a great cast, personality wise. It is just the nature of the game. Every single season will be like this in the future.  The players will be great for unpredictability and for strategy discussions, but they will be tough to ever get attached to. I don't think we will ever have over-the-top heroes like Elisabeth anymore, or smarmy evil bad guys like Jerri anymore (and Jerri yes, we know it was editing, I am just using you as an example.)  Those archetypes just don't exist anymore. Everything on Survivor is in shades of gray now.

And of course, this leads us in to our dearly departed bootee this week, Deena. Deena was truly one of the good ones. She was a wonderful player, she was full of fun sound bytes, she had great strategy.  And she had that amazing tragic sense of hubris that eventually brought her down. And you could see it coming, too, she was just powerless to stop it.  Deena went for the backup plan when the primary plan would have worked just fine. So I would like to take this moment to salute Deena Bennett.  She was one of the fun ones, she was one who very easily could have won this thing had she not gotten so cocky.

But did you particularly like Deena or dislike her? Nope, I didn't think so.

As Deena herself might say, I rest my case.

Weekly notes:

* Quote of the week: No question about this one. When Rob and Deena brought the reward challenge items back to camp, and Rob was worried that they shouldn't be bringing new weapons to give Matt: "Matt's gonna orgasm when he sees this."

* The spy music in the background at the start was very funny, particularly when Rob was leading Matt on "the wild goose chase of the day." That was definitely a first for Survivor. It almost sounded like the theme to Spy Hunter.

* After Jeff announces the reward, he always asks "Worth playing for?" Just once, I would like to hear the players say no. I wonder what he would do. "Sorry Jeff, but I don't drink coffee. Can I just go back to camp and take a nap?"  In fact, I think Brian would have done this last season if he had been able to. "You mean if I win, CC comes out and she lives with us? Uh, can I sit this one out, Jeff?"

* Okay, here is a great horror movie reference. Matt really brings this stuff upon himself, he makes it far too easy for people to think he is creepy. After he shot his arrow in the reward challenge, Matt stared at the target for a second, and then he cocked his head slightly, as if he were confused. Well if you are familiar with the Friday the 13th films, Jason Voorhees does the exact same thing. If he can't figure something out, he cocks his head to the side just like that. And then Michael Myers does the exact same thing in Halloween! Right after he stabs Bob and he impales him to the kitchen cabinet, Michael steps back and he cocks his head to the side, out of either awe or confusion. So what am I saying?  I am just saying that Matthew, you make it far too easy for people to call you a psychopath.

* Postscript to the last note: Eating the live grub worm didn't help either. Great ending to the challenge, very memorable, but Matt, you seriously do frighten everyone else out there.

* My wife thinks it is funny that Rob is the youngest guy, the youngest male among female allies, yet no one ever considers him a physical threat. No one ever thinks he will ever win anything.

* Is Christy still in the game? I sometimes forget she is even there. And she is another perfect example of the not good, yet not evil character. The editors really want you to love her, but in truth she hasn't really done much, other than lay low and shift sides whenever she needs to. Hmm, sounds like Vecepia to me.

* On the Survivor: Amazon DVD, I hope we get the director's cut, including the footage that was cut out of this week's immunity challenge. Mainly, I want to see the scene where Jeff says "Okay, take off your tops" and Heidi and Jenna completely misinterpret that instruction. I hear they had to use take two in the episode, after the gaffe was explained to them.

* Rob Cesternino is the greatest narrator the show has ever had.  Jeff Probst even alluded to this in an interview this week, because Rob knows EVERYTHING that is going on at any point in the game. He can sum up both sides of an alliance perfectly, probably because he happens to be ON both sides. He is involved in every single major decision of the game, yet he is never high enough in the ranks to be the visible leader. In short, Rob is involved in every single aspect of every single thing that goes on, and that is how you wind up with a wonderful narrator.

* Am I the only one who thinks the immunity necklace this season looks like a bunch of carrots?


Heidi and Jenna are the only two who will really be safe next week. Everyone else could be in a danger. It is going to be a pivotal episode. And wait, did I say next week? Sorry, I forgot that CBS is whoring out a recap episode next week. The next real episode is in TWO weeks. Watch Friends next week, recap episodes are stupid.

1. Rob Cesternino
I'm keeping him at #1 until he screws up, simply because he is the best player out there. But he could very well go home next episode, cross your fingers for my kid brother.

2. Jenna Morasca
I think she will be #1 or #2 in the rankings all the way to the end.  She is never in any danger. She is never going to be in any danger.  And props to her for catching on to Deena even before Heidi spilled her guts. Jenna mentioned to Alex that she was worried about Deena all the way back at the reward brunch. Jenna is no dummy, she is quiet but she is very observant.

3. Alex Bell
Very strong player, in a solid position for now, but he is still very visible. If Alex doesn't go soon, he will win.

4. Matthew von Ertfelda
"You can't kill the boogeyman!" -Tommy Doyle, Halloween

5. Butch Lockley
Still laying low, probably not in great danger next week. In fact, Butch could make the final four due to people flat out forgetting about him. I don't see him as the winner though.

6. Heidi Strobel
The injury plummets her in the rankings.  If she doesn't heal, she is going to be in trouble. I don't think she will go next week, but I don't see her as the winner either.

7. Christy Smith
Not much of a chance to win. No real allies, weak in the challenges, not that competitive. I think she is even more unlikely to win than Butch, and that is saying something.

Next week's pick to go: Alex. We have an alliance of four (Alex/Jenna/Heidi/Rob) and then a bunch of others (Matthew/Butch/Christy.)  But the catch is that an alliance with Rob is not really an alliance at all.  Rob has a far better shot going with his "chain" of Butch and Matthew, and he wouldn't want Alex around any longer than he has to. I think Alex is an easy pick to go home next week. Matthew is a threat to win challenges too, but Rob needs Matthews around for a while. And we all know that Rob calls the shots.

Mario Lanza lives in Los Angeles and was the head writer for All-Star Survivor: Hawaii and Alaska. He is currently writing All-Star Survivor: Greece, due out in late May.