What's interesting about listening to Jeff Probst talk about Survivor, as he did during an hour-long media conference call today, is that after fifteen seasons have aired and sixteen have been filmed, he remains enormously conflicted about hosting Survivor. In one breath, his manner is impossibly moist as he insists that the show is compelling because -- seriously -- everyone goes out there and experiences what he calls a "spiritual death," in the form of either being voted off or otherwise broken down. In the next, he is so reluctant to seem like a humorless stiff that he freely chuckles that the show is "corny" in that he does indeed intone the same things -- "want to know what you're playin' for?", "Immunity -- back up for grabs," and especially "the tribe has spoken" -- over and over. "That's the show," he insists, a little defensively.
He's hard to read, in this way.
Part of Jeff Probst wants to watch Survivor like a commentator. He is outside it, observing it, explaining how in Survivor, as in life, lying and cheating only goes so far, and then karma comes for you. But he can't not watch it as a fan. The same contestants you saw him drool over during their original seasons -- Ozzy and James, in particular -- come up over and over, no matter what the question. A question is asked about how the ten "fans" were chosen, and the answer meanders back to the imposing awesomeness of Ozzy and James. Whether the fans or the favorites have the edge winds up as a discussion of how hard it is to be Ozzy and James, and to be already recognized as such remarkable players. A question about the turnaround time that James and Amanda had between seasons fifteen and sixteen leads to an astonished retelling of how James was even more muscular than he was during his original season. Someone asks about whether the fans and favorites were initially divided, and Probst can't wait to tell the story about how this one guy couldn't wait to match up against James, and this other guy couldn't wait to match up against Ozzy. He's asked about Exile Island coming back, and eagerly explains how someone makes an even bigger blunder with an idol than James did last season. And Jeff knows that James was really happy not to have the record any more. And James James James Ozzy Ozzy Ozzy.
This becomes, at some point, a little embarrassing. You realize that he doesn't know he's doing it -- at least not as much as he's doing it. The way a girl will talk about a guy she has a crush on, and somehow, he is the answer to every question, and the twentieth time, you kind of want to tell her, but you can't? It feels like that. He loves these guys -- not like a producer, and not like a host, but like a fan. He wants their pictures up in his locker, and he wants to be them a little bit, and when you see it laid out to this degree, it becomes clear why he acts the way he does, dropping his thumb on the scale in ways that sometimes seem designed to subtly favor one player over another, but are probably not intentional. This is why he made a clumsy effort to cast Yul's simple gesture of returning Jonathan's beloved hat as a cynical play for votes, even though no one would even have known it was Yul who returned it if Jeff hadn't told them. He liked Ozzy better. Ozzy is probably Jeff Probst's favorite player in the history of the show; he can't stop telling you so. His bubbly enthusiasm for his job is infectious, honestly, more than it is off-putting. Like the girl with the crush, you kind of have to think it's cute, even though you cringe a little for him.
He's so torn, because he wants to just make it a game of men, a game where big guys wrestle each other and fight to the death and tear at buffalo hides with their teeth. This is where his heart is. He isn't much interested in strategy at all. He doesn't like diplomatic maneuvering; it doesn't move him. He considers the entire Fiji season a failure -- he says so in so many words -- despite the fact that it had an enormously likable winner (if not a physically overpowering one) and contains perhaps the greatest and most satisfying episode in the game's history, in terms of pure strategy. He shrugs that it was the show's decision not to have excellent strategist Yul in the cast -- Yul being the most popular winner in recent years, and possibly the most popular winner ever, in one of the show's most popular seasons. His only mention of most of the women cast as "favorites" comes from discussing the fact that Parvati (whom he still calls "Poverty" in what's beginning to feel like a passive-aggressive slight) might or may not ever go beyond "flirting," and Ami probably will go for another -- his words here -- "girls' alliance." Getting by on your wits instead of your muscles simply isn't interesting to him, and he can't fake it.
There's part of him that wants to just admit this -- he wants to tell you that it's entertainment, and for his money, gladiators are more fun than politicians. He wants to just talk about it like a sport -- it's okay that it's corny, and it's okay that it's silly, and it's okay that it's kind of about dumb people part of the time, because it has action and amusement and who in their right mind wouldn't want to watch Ozzy swim and dive and climb trees? He's very likable in these moments, and he's very good-natured, poking fun at former contestants (by suggesting that an all-winners season could only happen if they "wait for Hatch to get out of prison") and gamely volleying back a question about a "celebrity version" by suggesting that perhaps Survivor: Young Hollywood could act as a partial substitute for rehab.
But Jeff Probst is hamstrung, always, by a Significance Paradox in which everything he says about how Survivor is entertainment and has nothing but its entertainment value to answer for eats away at an equally sizable part of his mind that fears that this is not enough of a legacy. Telling people not to sweat the tropes because "that's the show" makes it seem like that's the show, and that doesn't really sound right to him either, which is why he gets all philosophical and serious about the profound and life-changing experiences that people have on the show -- after that "spiritual death" we discussed earlier, "You dig deep and you rebirth [sic], and you're a new person!"
He is eager to stress that he doesn't want Survivor lumped in with other reality shows, a question that arises after he's asked to comment on the moment when Jon Dalton (known to some as "Johnny Fairplay," in a rather revolting example of allowing nitwits to give themselves nicknames) was thrown on his face by Danny Bonaduce. Probst seems to think that this incident was part of some inferior reality show -- Survivor, he insists, is not that kind of show. But that, of course, didn't happen on an inferior reality show. It happened in real life, to a guy who's famous because Survivor made him that way. Somehow, Probst seems to think he can distance himself from this incident, as if his show -- his show about spiritual death and rebirth -- didn't both (1) make this guy famous; and (2) just make this guy famous again after everyone but TMZ had forgotten him.
He eagerly serves up weirdly prurient details of the upcoming season, not just telling us that there are romances this season (which he somewhat prissily calls "love affairs"), but promising "some of the most intimate footage we've ever had of a love affair developing and consummating." ..."Consummating"? When he goes on to brag about the lengths that were gone to in order to (apparently) capture secret footage of people having sex while trying not to be seen, it seems like we've traveled an awfully long way from spiritual death and rebirth, and a long way from what he will later call "the gold standard" of reality shows -- by which he means his own. But he's positively giggly about this stuff. He loves teasing people about how they're kissing behind trees. He wants to just be a fan. He wants to just have it be about giggling over who's kissing whom, and about what big guy body-slammed what other big guy into the sand. He doesn't really care about strategy, or death and rebirth.
But it's not quite enough to be a ringmaster, and he seems to feel like he has to explain it more. Sure, it's got wrestling challenges and "intimate footage of a love affair consummating," but it's not a "reality" show, you know? It's not, as he says when asked about the writers' strike, an example of just filling the air with "more stuff" that takes away time from scripted shows. Because if it's a "reality" show, then he's now committed to eighteen seasons as a reality show host, and that's what he is, and that's it. He has a hard time just saying, "The show is good and fun and I love physical combat and I love people kissing and I love gossip and I love that you don't know what might happen next."
The Significance Paradox dictates that every step he takes to embrace the entertainment value of the show appears to make him feel more like P.T. Barnum, and Jeff Probst wants you to know that he is not P.T. Barnum. This is the gold standard. And it is significant.
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