The Jack & Jill Episode of Survivor Should Be Studied by Scholars

Survivor is one of the greatest reality shows of all time, next to Tool Academy, 90 Day Fiance, and that one season of The Real World called The Real World: Skeletons in which they brought back random people from the housemates’ past (almost all of them were exes except for one girl whose petty frenemies came and told her to be more “namaste”). It’s no surprise that Survivor is definitively the best as it essentially reinvented reality TV and paved the way for much more audacious shows like Big Brother, Temptation Island and, of course, Joe Millionaire. It even sounds stupid or redundant to state plainly and unequivocally that Survivor is so good. And yet I am doing it right now, in November 2020, because I watched Survivor for the first time EVER this year.

Did you guys know this show is good?

Watching eleven seasons of a reality show in a few months is a crazy feat, but due to the Coronavirus pandemic it’s just my way of describing September.

We started our Survivor journey in my own personal tribe (my apartment consisting of my boyfriend and my two cats) by watching two of the best seasons, as suggested by a friend. After all, there are forty fucking seasons of this thing. It’s daunting to start chipping away at Survivor, especially when you consider the first several seasons weren’t even in HD (yuck). Our first two seasons were Heroes VS. Villains which brought back several Survivor all stars in the form of a “good tribe” and a “bad tribe” and Cagayan which divided the tribes into nerds, hot people, and athletes (amazing season). Then after watching other fan favorite seasons Caramoan, Millennials VS. Gen X, Micronesia and even David VS. Goliath, we found ourselves watching Survivor: South Pacific.

I am shocked that Survivor: South Pacific is not talked about more. In fact, it should be studied by anthropologists and sociologists (I do not know the difference between these two, but I think one has to do with like…bones?…and what bones say about civilizations???…and the other is like staring at the Amish for an extended period of time idk, academics, do not @ me). This season of Survivor should be discussed at the nation’s highest educational institutions. Classes should be taught on Survivor: South Pacific. And yet? It is pretty much cast aside. Well, no more. Let me tell you exactly why everyone — EVERYONE — should know about and watch Survivor: South Pacific and what it says about humanity as a whole.

This season brings back two previous cast members that people “enjoyed”. Enjoyed is a loose word in my newly-appointed-expert opinion. One of them is a former dreamboat that acts like he is Mowgli from The Jungle Book named Ozzy, a dude who catches tons of fish and climbs trees for breakfast. The other returning play is a white dude who is a little *too* into Asian spirituality, doing Tai chi on the beach, calling himself “The Dragon Slayer” (a nickname HE GAVE HIMSELF), and wearing Native American feathers to Tribal Council. I am talking, of course, about Coach. Coach and Ozzy have played the game before. Viewers loved Ozzy and disliked Coach. Personally, I don’t care too much about either of them. Coach is a dick on the show (I’m sure he is lovely in real life and is given a villain edit — I’ve been on reality TV before, so I get it. I was on a ghost hunting reality TV show and was edited to make it look like I was SO terrified of a teddy bear that I had to leave the abandoned asylum. That did not happen! I was in there for another hour! I was brave and true and strong AND I saw a Shadow Person!!!) Anyway, I have to say all of that so he will not be offended because he is 100% the kind of guy who likely has Google alerts for his name.

So they are the Wise Ones who have played before and are brought back to share their wisdom and Survivor prowess to a bunch of total newbs. Except! Big Twist! One of the newbs is the nephew of renowned Survivor psychopath Russell Hantz, an absolute lunatic in the game who manipulated everyone and burned their socks in the fire. Not only is this kid Evil Russell’s nephew, but they have the same last name and the nephew, Brandon, has this last name proudly tattooed twice on his body in enormous font. Brandon is a sweet kid who is out to reclaim his family name by proving Hantzes are not manipulative psychos. He is also a born again Christian, so this mission to be the Good Hantz kind of morphs into being “Christ-like” — whatever that means on Survivor.

This…this is where it gets interesting.

You see, Coach is one of those dudes who is super interested in World Religions, but he is also a Christian (born again??? Unclear if he was simply born to begin with, but read a bunch of books on ancient religions or something). I went to a Christian college so I know approximately 10 Coaches. They seem like chill bros up top, but then you realize they just studied all of those other religions in order to feel that theirs was superior and to better convert those who believe in other things. AKA: intolerant douchebags parading as cool guys because their hair is longish and they smoked hookah once. I love studying and learning shit, but this phenomenon is weird and anyone who knows a bunch of Cool Christians can attest to it. They also all love doing either Tai chi or Ultimate Frisbee or BOTH. Athleticism proves you are in harmony with God or something. I don’t know. I’ve read the Bible (I was required to for school, but got a B in that class because I did not flirt with my married professor who wore blazers over U2 T-shirts) and Jesus literally never bragged about how much he can bench press.

For what it’s worth, Coach is a big Tai chi guy.

So Coach and Brandon bond a little over the Christian thing, but Coach, being a manipulative narcissist (who is probs nice IRL, this is just the edit!!!) seizes the opportunity to use Christianity to control Brandon. Having watched Coach’s previous two seasons I know that loyalty means EVERYTHING to Coach in an almost Trumpian way. He sees any slight questioning or attempting to take a leadership role as a disrespect which is why he did so poorly on Survivor: Heroes VS. Villains, an incredible season in which all of the great Survivor players played against each other including Brandon’s uncle Russell. Coach simply could not hold his own up against that season’s players because they see through other people’s bullshit too well. That’s why they are Survivor villains: they did what he did already. Coach cries in one episode to one of the other male villains (he looks down on women) about no one respecting him and the dude advises him to knock off wearing the feathers at Tribal Council. It’s glorious.

Anyway, Coach did not fare well with other Survivor vets, so he’s back where he’s comfortable: controlling the newbs. He and Brandon start praying ALL THE TIME. It gets out of control. The manipulation actually works though. He creates one of the strongest alliances that I’ve seen on the show, likely because faith helps the adversity created by being on Survivor. Well, that and the promise of a million dollars, so people fall in line with the dominant alliance in order to avoid being chopped. This is also why cults work. People don’t want to be excommunicated from the community cultivated around them, so they blindly follow the “leader” who uses words like “God’s will” to make them do what is actually “cult leader’s will”. Or in this case, Coach’s will. This works until the alliance makes it to the end and they have to start voting each other out which Coach insists is not the group doing it, but rather a decision that comes from God after he/they pray on it. This literally happens. What the fuck. He weaponizes prayer to make it into the final three. AND IT WORKS.

This brings me to the single greatest episode in the season, in Survivor, and in reality TV history. This is a hill I will die on and you will soon see why. And you will agree with me…cause it’s God’s will >:)

At one point, Coach and Sophie find an idol (quick explanation about Survivor real quick: the tribes compete in challenges and the losing tribe is forced to vote someone off, but if someone finds an Immunity Idol then they can use it to spare their life at the Tribal Council. Got it? Cool! Welcome to this 20-year-old cultural institution.). In order not to lose Brandon’s loyalty, Coach knows he has to somehow let Brandon know about the idol. How does he do this? By hiding it again and then praying to God to help them find the idol. He then lets Brandon finds it who looks as if he literally saw God. Brandon smiles, wide-eyed, and says that he can’t believe they just prayed for the idol and then they found it. He’s overjoyed, confirmed in his faith: prayer works and God is real!!!

Exactly one person in this Christian alliance (Albert) expresses concern over what they have done. Hey, maybe manipulating Brandon’s faith was actually super morally wrong??? Nah, everyone decides. That’s a great lesson I’ve seen exemplified over and over again in Survivor: people do NOT speak up against what is wrong. God, this show is so fucking good. It exposes human weaknesses, biases, and patterns. One thing I see over and over again on the show is that people love to follow an unspoken leader and then never question that person. Speaking out against the “leader” (or the leaders in some cases) risks your ranks in the tribe. Going against the grain in any way at all, even to question their motives, might mean you suddenly find yourself next in line to go home. Do you want a million dollars? Then shut up, join the prayer circle, and exploit this kid’s faith.

That is exactly what the person who winds up winning the season does. They play a quiet game, committing to the religious aspects of the game play despite not ever expressly believing in any of it. It was all to win.

(The craziest thing? In a later episode, Brandon gives that idol to Coach…and then gets voted out. God’s plan???)

Okay, so the idol thing happens on Coach’s tribe, but let’s check out what’s happening on Ozzy’s for a second. This is Ozzy’s last time playing the game. He was a young, energetic dude in seasons past and in this season he seems beat the fuck down. I think because the girl he was hoping to bang on the tribe (a spoken word poet with huge knockers) got voted off first. Damn, dude. I get it. There’s no light in his eyes and he’s kind of a dick to members of the tribe that he perceives as weaker than him, like Cochran. Cochran goes on to become one of the most memorable players in Survivor history, so he has a big redemption that I hope he one day rubbed into Ozzy’s face. Host of the show, Jeff Probst, has even said that Cochran is one of his favorite players. It’s impossible not to like him! He’s a nerdy Harvard law student who is obsessed with the game. Cochran is hilarious, but he’s also physically smaller than many of his tribemates who weirdly start singling him out and picking on him.

Survivor life lesson #2: life is middle school. When stranded in the wild, grown adults will revert to childish tactics of bullying those who seem weak — or worse, intelligent — because it asserts their own dominance in the tribe. And again, if the “leader” does not seem to like the weak dude? Then it’s game over. People never go against the leader. Never. (Fun activity for the class: where does this apply in your own life and community and are you proud of it? Do you feel a moral obligation to change it or will that risk your own standing in your “tribe”? Discuss.)

Anyway, Ozzy and Cochran devise a plan to win the next challenge since the tribe has not been doing so hot at challenges. This is a huge plot in the show that is actually a big deal, but it’s not worth explaining here. I would go into it, but my main focus today is on this episode’s major twist: fucked up product placement as a “reward”. They are all told to dress up in “pairs” as if they are “twins” to go to the next challenge. It doesn’t really make sense…until they get there. Jeff explains to the competitors that the winner of this next challenge will get a very special reward: a private viewing of the latest Adam Sandler film, Jack & Jill.

Holy shit.

I have watched this part 26 times now and I only just saw this episode for the first time a month ago. Please watch this and watch Jeff expertly attempt to describe the message of the movie:

If you don’t remember the film Jack & Jill, let me give you a quick rundown: Adam Sandler plays a guy who has a twin sister whom he also plays. His twin sister visits him for Thanksgiving and he hates it. Hilarity ensues. Katie Holmes is also in the movie.

That is the reward. They are stuck on an island for forty days, forced to eat coconuts and worms while being isolated from their loved ones and all the comforts of home. They have all been pretending to follow Coach and Brandon’s hypocritical Jesus bullshit all to…watch Jack & Jill. Can you even imagine.

(At least there’s candy?)

Coach’s tribe wins the challenge and they are whisked away to a little hut where they watch Jack & Jill. Coach, ever the one to believe full bullshit, talks to the camera about how Jack & Jill isn’t *just* a hilarious comedy. It also has a message about unity and togetherness, stuff they can appreciate as a tribe. This is intercut with shots of Adam Sandler in drag talking in iconic Sandler-girl-voice. Side note: Adam Sandler should 100% be a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race because he did drag in this movie. I am not kidding. @RuPaul, please make it happen.

The best part is that the group can barely even pretend to enjoy themselves while watching the show. Rumor has it a couple of them left the movie and production made them go back in. They all pretend to laugh except for Sophie who simply cannot be bothered which is reason enough to hand her a million dollars.

So what did we learn here? Everything. Religious manipulation. Bullying nerds. Toxic masculinity. The downsides of groupthink. Remembering that Jack & Jill was a movie and acting like that movie can bring a fractured tribe together. All of it is encapsulated in this single season — this single episode! — of reality TV. That is why Survivor is so great. It gives us all of this and more. And The Sand Man. It is hands-down the best episode of reality TV EVER.

The tribe (me) has spoken.

Stephanie is a writer and comedian whose work has been featured on Reductress, Slate, The Weekly Humorist, The AV Club, Mental Floss, Atlas Obscura and more.

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