DVD Review: Survivor Pearl Islands - The Complete Series
by Rachel Jaffe
Published: February 7, 2006
Arrrr, maties! Gather ye 'round, and I will tell ye about the seventh voyage of the good ship Survivor. For six years, Survivor went out as a merchant ship, and faithfully transacted business under the guidance of producer Mark Burnett. But in its seventh year, Burnett transformed Survivor into a pirate ship -- and, as this DVD set shows, brought back a true treasure.
To carry forth on the pirate theme that Burnett planned, he needed a crew. (The position of first mate, of course, belongs to host Jeff Probst.) Casting was paramount, and Burnett lucked out with this season. From Scoutmaster Lillian Morris to WWE-wannabe Jon ("Jonny Fairplay") Dalton, from Captain Kurtz-ian Andrew Savage to Captain Blackbeard-ian Rupert Boneham (the most popular Survivor in Survivor history), from never-say-die Tijuana Bradley to never-shut-up Sandra Diaz-Twine, this was one of the most distinct casts since the very first one. Even the alpha males and sweet young things could be identified one from the other within the first couple of episodes.
But a diverse cast does not a pirate crew make. One tribe member spontaneously stealing the other tribe's shoes, as Rupert did in the first episode -- that is when you start having a pirate crew! "Pirates pillage. Pirates steal. Pirates take advantage," Rupert growled to the camera. And with this audacious move, Rupert stole not just shoes, but hearts all across America. And, at the same time, this was when Survivor started feeling like, well, it could be fun again. Even the production crew got in on the sense of fun. At one point in the first challenge, the Morgan tribe had several pantsless competitors (don't ask!). After identifying the Drake tribe as "leading," the production crew eschewed the traditional designation of the Morgan tribe as "trailing," opting for a more pointed "Morgan Behind."
Of course, ultimately we needed to move on to game play and alliances and suchlike, and for those who like to play "what-if" games, this season provided rich fodder for "what-if." This season's major "twist" was one of the most controversial in Survivor history. Six of the evicted Survivors were brought in and competed in one challenge against the standard two tribes. Two of these "outcasts" were then allowed to return to play in the game. That crossroads alone sparks multiple possibilities -- what if two different outcasts had returned? Or what if none had? What if the outcasts had returned to different tribes than they ended up at? While many fans (not to mention Survivors!) objected to the return of the "outcasts," upon a second viewing there's no doubt that this was one of the most effective ways Burnett has come up with to shake up the tribes. Returning a limited number of players who felt a bond with each other and who each bore some animosity to selected groups of current players guaranteed that alliances would be tested.
Beyond the piracy theme, Season Seven provided several firsts. This was the first season when there was a Survivor who officially "quit" the game. This was the first season with a Big Lie that had nothing to do with alliances. This was even the first season when the normally authoritative Jeff Probst blew a call on an immunity challenge and had to take immunity back from one player and have a second competition.
But of course, while there were series firsts, this was not the first season of Survivor by any means. One advantage of looking at the season all at once, knowing how things turned out, is the ability to appreciate gamesmanship without worrying about how that will affect the status of favorite players. Of course I remembered Jonny Fairplay from his Big Lie. But it wasn't until I saw the season again that I appreciated the extent to which he had mastered the strategy used by Rob Cesternino in Survivor: Amazon to advance, in which greed is used as leverage to continually work small groups for short-term alliances. On the other hand, sophisticated game playing could be -- and sometimes was -- short-circuited by players who did not "understand" how the game works, and thus were outside the experts' paradigm.
In some ways, I enjoyed this series even more the second time I saw it. I loved being able to enjoy the personalities and watch how the game developed without having to yell at my screen. I found myself truly appreciating players I had seen as threats and rooted against the first time around.
So hoist the black flag and pour the rum -- it's time to be pirates one more time!
There are five commentary tracks provided. Rupert, Sandra and Christa Hastie comment on two episodes, and Jon, Ryan Opray, Burton Roberts and Andrew comment on three episodes. The commentary reveals that animosity still runs deep between certain of the players (poor Lill got slammed in both commentary tracks!), and confirms what we all had a chance to see during Survivor: All Stars -- as much as we love Rupert, he's as human as any of us, which unfortunately means that he, like other commentators, has petty moments. Still, the commentary tracks are interesting, even though it's hard keeping the voices of Ryan, Andrew and Burton straight without concentrating. I was astounded to find out exactly why one of the least likely outcasts was chosen to return to the game. And (another "what-if"!) there was an alliance idea floated at the time of the merge that I think would have taken the show in a radically different direction if the parties had followed through.
There are also two featurettes. "Pirates' Tales" is a half-hour discussion of the season, conducted via interviews with Burnett, Probst, and the seven Survivors who did commentary tracks (hmmmm, what a coincidence). I had been afraid that this would be a straight highlights featurette, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was an informative look back at the season that was not bogged down by showing every challenge and every elimination.
The second featurette is called "Game Strategies," and consists of portions of pre-show interviews intercut with scenes from the show which either emphasize or undermine what's being said in the interview. This, too, lasts about half an hour, or approximately a minute and a half for each Survivor. These are mildly interesting, but there was very little "strategy" discussed.