Spirituality, Excess, and the Pleasures of Survivor: South Pacific
Religion is a prominent concern on this season of Survivor. In an early episode, returning cast member Coach told Upolu tribe mate Brandon that it will be a struggle to play the game as moral Christian men. How well did these men do with this task? In the last episode, after saying he’s playing for Christ, not a million dollars, Brandon’s mean-spirited attack on Edna brought her to tears. In an earlier episode, Brandon lobbied for Upolu to vote off Mikayla, noting in a criminally disturbed tone and in an accent that resembled Max Cady’s from Cape Fear, that he was a married man, had “bad thoughts” ( i.e., sexual fantasies) about Mikayla, and wanted her gone. Coach isn’t doing any better. He backstabbed Cochran, a wimpy Harvard law student on the Savaii tribe, who, when both tribes had six members at the merger, gave Coach a seventh vote so Upolu could carry on with numbers. As soon as the merged tribe voted off all the original members of Savaii, Coach promised to save Cochran because his generosity let Upolu take control of the game. A few scenes later Coach voted off Cochran. Earlier Coach said he should shoot Brandon in the head since he can’t focus on strategy, but then couched his violent decree by noting that it would be similar to killing Lenny in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Does quoting canonical literature make murder less of a sin? One could easily write off Coach and Brandon as immoral louses who abuse notions of religion to fool other cast members into voting with them. In fact, Cochran and Upolu tribe member Sophie have picked up on this. But such easy dismissals miss a central pleasure of this season of Survivor.
I tune in every week for the joy of watching Ozzy’s genuinely moral, selfless, humble, and spiritual game contrast with Coach and Brandon’s hypocritical one. Both gaming strategies involve aspects of excess, but the different ways to bring excess into the game speak to the split between Ozzy’s genuine game and Coach and Brandon’s phony game. Coach and Brandon’s excess ultimately comes through over-the-top performances of religious faith, which humorously and ironically point out Coach’s ego-centered motives and Brandon’s mentally unstable personality during moments when they claim to be charitable. Coach’s numerous prayer sessions are less about serving God and more about rallying the tribe to put faith in him as a leader who dictates what cast members to vote off, with the end goal being to put Coach in the final two with someone who would receive fewer votes in the final tribal council. While Coach tries to bring his tribe members together through prayer—a gaming strategy of unity, he strategically plays the game just as much through one-on-one or two-on-one secretive meetings where he manipulatively plots out whom to send home, how to blind side the competitor, and how to have the numbers always work to make him least vulnerable. The tensions between Coach’s ego-centered goals and ego-less claims come to a head in excessive moments, such as when the cast members had to paint themselves for a challenge. Coach painted a cross on his face, prayed during the physical competition to serve God properly, and then quickly gathered his team together for a prayer after they won, making sure he was in the center of the prayer circle.
On the other hand, Ozzy is a servant leader, which is central to many religions. Ozzy’s leadership comes through not in making sure that the numbers will serve him to advance to the next round but by sacrificing his body and potentially his place in the game so that his tribe can continue on successfully. At the first tribal council after the merger, Ozzy offered his immunity necklace to Savaii tribe member Whitney so that she could be saved and so the tribe wouldn’t be hurt. Ozzy also came up with the brilliant strategy to send himself to Redemption Island instead of the tribe voting for Cochran, which it wanted to do, so that he could win the challenge at Redemption Island and then later rejoin Savaii after the merger and give them a numbers advantage. (This worked out, but the merged tribe later sent Ozzy back to Redemption because Cochran turned on Ozzy and others.) A moving moment on this season occured when the members of Upolu sent Cochran to Redemption Island, and Ozzy greeted Cochran with kindness, charitably offering him a space in his covered sleeping area. Most people would have shunned a rat like Cochran who ruined their tribe.
Ozzy is the most moral and ethical competitor in this season of Survivor, but the series delightfully packages him in epic scenes of transcendental religious communion with nature. Ozzy’s been on Redemption for a while, and he’ll probably play his way back into the game. Episodes with Ozzy on Redemption show him communing with nature, swimming with fishes, and climbing to the top of hundred-foot high trees. Long haired and long bearded, Ozzy looks like Jesus. He constantly offers tribe members and people on Redemption Island fish, a symbol of Christian faith. Ozzy is so excessively coded as a Christ figure that his fans are awaiting his resurrection from Redemption to the game.
There are often religious people on Survivor, but there have never been so many of them offering us so much viewing pleasure. For instance, last season when several tribe mates joined together for prayer and Biblical interpretation, eventual season winner Boston Rob looked at them like an alligator calmly waiting in the water to attack his prey and noted that, even though he’s religious, religion has no part of this game and he’ll send them packing. He was right for that season. But things change between seasons. Last season I cheered for Boston Rob’s cunningness; this season I’m rooting for Ozzy. His selfless, humble, packaged-in-excess spiritual style has won me over.