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'Survivor' turned into a powerful salute to veterans

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Ben Driebergen and Chrissy Hofbeck in “Survvor.” Photo: Robert Voets/CBS

Wednesday night’s three-hour Survivor finale brought the so-called “Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers” season to a close, and I was glad to see it end. It wasn’t a very exciting season overall; it lacked momentum early on, and was populated by mostly uninteresting or unappealing players. (Anyone remember Patrick? Was anyone rooting for Joe? Nope, didn’t think so.) But the season redeemed itself in its final, live-broadcast hours on CBS, when it turned into a poignant salute to the sacrifices made by our military veterans. (SPOILER ALERT: The winner of Survivor is revealed below.)

I remain convinced that Chrissy should have won. In the end, there were only two possible winners, really: Chrissy or Ben. Both had played the game ferociously, if very differently. Both had compelling backstories. Both made their cases well to the jury. I was rooting for Chrissy for a couple of reasons. The first is that, as a 47 year-old woman, she had triumphed over not only a series of grueling physical and mental challenges but also over the ingrained ageism of all TV reality-competition shows, in which “the olds” — i.e., anyone over the age of about 32 — are deemed too out of it and dull to be kept around. And, of course, there’s baked-in sexism, because — well, look around you at the year we’ve had in this culture. I definitely had the feeling that, among the jury’s comments, Desi and Ashley strongly implied that they knew Chrissy had to survive being discounted by most of the others because she was a strong woman. I also thought Chrissy’s explanations of her “game play” (oh, how I dislike that overused phrase) were clear, articulate, and persuasive. I thought she had a win secured.

I was wrong. Ben’s more physical game — ceaselessly out there on the island, searching for immunity idols and finding them; gutting his way through so many competitions and excelling — brought him into the final rounds. But more important to the jury members, I believe, was Ben’s backstory as a Marine veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. The subject of Ben’s PTSD had come up a few times over the course of the season, most notably when he was unnerved by sudden loud noises. Survivor had to handle this subject very carefully, so that the show didn’t seem to be either exploiting or neglecting his condition; for the most part, the show handled it well. And Ben himself handled it exceptionally well: The way he was edited, at least, it didn’t sound as though he was emphasizing his service record in the military in an overbearing way.

It’s always interesting to see working-class people featured prominently in shows like this, because they are so rarely represented on the rest of television. Ben, with his clamped-down cowboy hat and gruff manner, was a stark contrast to the polish of Chrissy or the meticulous precision Ryan or Dr. Mike brought to their explications of how the game ought to be played. But Ben brought his own sort of eloquence to the final moments of the season, and when the producers brought out three Marine buddies of Ben’s, it was both manipulative (the cameras couldn’t wait to zoom in on the emotional moment) and very moving (there was nothing faked in either Ben’s surprise or in the affection with which the veterans greeted each other).

So in the end, Survivor closed out this season on a classy high note. The player who I think deserved it didn’t win, but she came in a close second. And who could deny Ben his moment of victory?

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