Spirituality, Excess, and the Pleasures of Survivor: South Pacific

December 13, 2011
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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.


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7 Responses to “ Spirituality, Excess, and the Pleasures of Survivor: South Pacific

  1. Jonathan Gray on December 14, 2011 at 9:20 AM

    Great post, Jon, thanks. That said, I’m not sure I’m willing to give Ozzy the good guy award when he led a pretty deplorable bullying campaign against Cochran for the longest time. I wonder whether Redemption Island simply allows whoever lives there to seem like the lone moral force in the game — it’s worth comparing, indeed, with the dude (was Matt his name?) who spent the entire game there last season, and whose spirituality really came through. Redemption Island offers a removal from the gamesmanship in a way that allows even bullies like Ozzy to seem noble, and that perhaps encourages players’ spirituality to surface as it did with Matt. I wouldn’t be surprised, therefore, if every season of Survivor seems more interested in spirituality from now on.

  2. Jon Kraszewski on December 14, 2011 at 11:06 AM


    Thanks for taking time to respond during a busy time of the semester. I think your points about Redemption offering some sort of escape from the politics of gaming and some type of reframing of characters are really smart.

    Here are some preliminary comparsions of Matt and Ozzy on Redemption.

    Matt, no doubt, was a religious player. His time on Redemption seemed different than Ozzy’s in several ways. Matt seemed to be a pretty passive player. He always noted that whatever happened was God’s will. Hence, his time on Redemption was usually framed in terms of him suffering. He’ll endure Redemption because God wanted him to do that.

    Ozzy, on the other hand, seems to have some sort of transcendental experience on Redemption. Through nature, he transcends the pettiness, back stabbing, physical, and emotional wear of the game. Also, as I recall, one of the hallmarks of transcendentalism is the ability of nature to convert evil to good, which seems to be happening to Ozzy. Any of his faults seem to have been erased on Redemption through his communion with nature.

    I guess I read Matt as some type of religious figure from the Dark Ages, whereas I view Ozzy as some combination of Emerson, Kerouac, and a surfer dude in terms of his religious actions and spirituality.
    I think another key difference between Matt and Ozzy is that Matt played with a “whatever God wants” philosophy when he was off Redemption. I remember his love interest (her name escapes me) looking horrified when Matt came back from Redemption and had second thoughts about aligning himself with Rob. Matt seemed to be a pretty weak player apart from Redemption challenges. But I think this season frames Ozzy as someone who is getting stronger on Redemption and will come back and defeat everyone (of course, we are told in a preview he might lose to Edna tonight). Also, Ozzy seemed to always think about the strength of his tribe off Redemption. Matt seemed to be some bumbling fool who couldn’t align himself with a group strategy.

    Finally, I think one of the differences between Ozzy and other religious players is that Ozzy’s spiritual journey is occurring more through actions and deeds (i.e., climbing trees, swimming with fishes, offering up his immunity idol, taking Cochran’s place on Redemption, etc.) instead of through talk. Players such as Matt, Coach, and Brandon talk about their spirituality, but I haven’t seen them be charitable at all. Their spirituality becomes some sort of hyper-visible oration, which is often hypocritical or bad gaming. Ozzy doesn’t talk about his spirituality. But he seems to be on a spiritual journey, and he seems to be the only charitable one around.
    I can see your points about Cochran being bullied by Ozzy. In my own opinion, I think Ozzy apologized and did save Cochran from Redemption for the good of the tribe. Survivor is odd terrain because it is a game. Cochran was a lousy player, physically and mentally. We see athletes flip out on each other for bad play. It’s tough to draw the line between bullying and calling someone out on Survivor. I think Ozzy’s anger after that one physical challenge wasn’t any different than Tom Brady getting angry at a receiver who blew a route or dropped a ball. But, yeah, there’s a whole social element to the game that you don’t have in professional sports. I can see your points.

    Like you, I think religion will become more of a part of Survivor. The redemption ideas plays into that. Also, the show really goes with what seems to be working. Religion seems to work now—just like Hantz’s do. Much like we saw a nephew of Hantz, we’ll see more religion on the show.

    Again, thanks for the great, thought-provoking comments.

    • Jonathan Gray on December 14, 2011 at 12:24 PM

      “I view Ozzy as some combination of Emerson, Kerouac, and a surfer dude” — I love it! 🙂

    • Dan on December 15, 2011 at 9:50 PM

      More superficial religion and i’ m out. It is disgusting to see Coach “praying” for pizza and having Jesus ” tell” him to vote off Brandon.

      Worst Survivor ever.


  3. stacy on December 18, 2011 at 11:01 PM

    Love this post, sums up what I was thinking exactly. Crappy final 3 tonight…

  4. Jon Kraszewski on December 19, 2011 at 2:08 PM

    Thanks, Stacy. It was a very bad final three last night. Coach became pretty boring once Brandon left. And the season seemed to deflate once Ozzy got voted out. All the excess vanished.

  5. mongo on December 21, 2011 at 10:06 PM

    Ozzy was a bully, through and through, a poor loser and an equally poor winner.
    Always posing for the camera and thinking about making “epic” moves for the sake of his ego.
    I hated the guy…. huge fake.