Season Seven of Survivor keeps the wind in the sails of CBS’s long-running franchise. Set in the Pearl Islands near Panama, this season’s theme was pirates, a nod to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. And while the breakout star is more like a cross between Grizzly Adams and Jerry Garcia than Jack Sparrow, make no mistake, matey, Rupert Boneham is all pirate.
The pirate analogy is apt, as Survivor has always rewarded the corporate raider mentality. As epitomized by Season One’s winner, Richard Hatch, the prevailing ethos is that unethical behavior helps you win mega bucks. When competitors assert, “It’s just a game,” they might as well be justifying capitalist inequities and a global underclass. This doesn’t preclude ethical qualms—Rupert talks about being torn between upholding his morals and playing dirty in the way the game requires—but each season introduces the same conflicts between those who love to lie and those who feel bad about it. The only innovation is how the stealing and cheating goes on.
Survivor Pearl Islands - The Complete Season offers more of the same, with emphasis on the key narrative structure in this machine: the opposition between heroes and villains. The home run of this season is the hero. Bedecked in a tie-dyed tank top, scraggly beard, and mustache, Rupert became, as host Jeff Probst notes on the reunion show included on the new DVD release, “the most popular Survivor ever.” A teen mentor from Indianapolis, he combines savvy competitiveness with the spirit of a gentle giant, the outsider-underdog determined to “help others.” And oh yes, Rupert pours his heart out to the camera.
So open and genuine-seeming, he had America at “Argh.” When a coup votes him out, Rupert alternately glowers and tears up when he says, “I’m shocked.” We hear him on two of the five illuminating commentary tracks included in the DVD extras, where he again expresses his surprise at how former alliance mates betrayed him. Like everyone else, he knows it’s “just a game,” but says he doesn’t “check his moral compass at the door.” Which is funny, because in the first episode, he goes for the jugular: saying “pirates steal,” he takes some of the supplies the other tribe has gathered.
The contradictions are obvious but Rupert keeps viewers on his side through the sheer force of his bear-hug personality. He’s the tribal provider and a crack fisherman. At the reunion, he explains his vote for eventual winner Sandra Diaz-Twine with what sounds like bedrock common sense, stating simply that she “played hard.” In his “pre-island” interviews, included in a “Game Strategies” featurette, Rupert says, “I was just trying to be myself.” And yet, snarky little villains plagued Rupert’s well-intentioned adventure. Among this season’s standouts is snaggle-toothed, blond moppet Jon Dalton, otherwise known as “Jonny Fairplay.” We hear him on the commentary tracks cackling about how he’s playing a character and fools everyone else in the cast.
Dalton wants to push the envelope, to seem risqué and transgressive in his unethical behavior. Instead, he seems trite. For his stupidest stunt, he pulls off what he gleefully calls “the dirtiest thing ever to be done in this game.” During a reward challenge in which competitors compete to spend time with a family member or friend flown in from home, Jon gets his friend to lie and say Jon’s grandmother has died. Feeling sympathy for Jon, his team lets him win, and he bounces off to party with his pal. In his self-amused direct address interview during that episode, Jon laughs: “My grandmother’s sitting home watching Jerry Springer.”
The only thing surprising there is his poor taste in jokes. Dalton makes it easy to love Rupert. Survivor allows cursory insights about human behavior (mean people suck), but apparently, the franchise will stick around as long as it can manufacture big personalities.