Survivor: Cook Islands episode two recap

by guest contributor Jeff Yang, columnist and blogger

survivor cook islandsThe first taste is always free, right? Then comes the downward spiral of shame and self-destruction. That’s what was running through my mind as I flipped through the recordings on my ever-faithful TiVo toward the second episode of Survivor: Cook Island. I watched the first installment rationalizing that it was for work, every penny goes to my son Hudson’s college fund, yessiree, but episode two? Lurid fascination, no excuses.

It struck me that it felt very much like sneaking a peek at, say, Playboy’s “Girls of the Ivy League” issue. One might reason that you’re just, uh, checking to see if there’s anyone you know in there– HOLY CRAP, THAT’S MY SECOND COUSIN!–but it’s mostly just prurience, isn’t it?

And this season’s Survivor is essentially pornography–the pornography of race. Fetishized situations, featuring idealized, archetypal and stereotypical performers, coupling and decoupling, and, well, people screwing each other. Figuratively. But probably, given the humpity-humpity flashes we’ve seen of the Caucasian Team, literally as well. (Burnett’s got footage, no doubt. One of these days, he’ll unleash an uncensored library, Survivors Gone Wild, and he’ll be rich, beeyotch! Oh wait, he already is. Beeyotch.)

So, anyway. This week is between columns for me over at SFGate, and yet, now that I’ve watched episode two, I figured I might as well froth about it somewhere. Thanks to Carmen and Jen for the temporary digital lodgings on the (presumably, by the time this hits) redesigned site–love what you’ve done with the wallpaper and drapes, guys.

I’m not a hard-liner against this show, as those of you who’ve read the results of my column last week, wherein I and a clutch of friends groupblogged the initial episode. As misguided and exploitative as the show is, I felt it at least had the possibility of forcing the American mainstream to address and debate aspects of race that all too often get swept under the rug. Like racial stereotyping, for example (although its M.O. seems to be framing entire story arcs around the depiction of stereotypes, then giving contestants five-second soundbites to testily repudiate them). Or the patent absence of Asian Americans on network TV, underscored by the recent release of the Asian American Justice Center’s latest annual primetime audit. Survivor: Race War essentially doubles the number of Asian lead roles on network primetime (this, counting Sandra Oh on Grey’s Anatomy, Ming Na on Vanished, and the Puka Puka Tribe’s spiritual godparents, Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim of Lost ).

In short, I think the show is dumb and crude, but potentially useful–if it makes people think-talk, and not just trash talk. And…well…it’s kinda fun. Measured against most of the rest of network TV, Survivor: Cook Island is far from the first show I’d vote off the island.

So what gives for episode two?

Cao Boi throws his mojo again by curing Jenny Guzon-Bae of her headache with his massage/ritual scarification technique, but pisses off his teammates through his constant barrage of bad Asian jokes. His point is that Asians have to be able to laugh at themselves. Which I don’t disagree with. But Asians also have to know how to shut the hell up and let other Asians sleep. The nighttime scene, with the four younger Puka kids miserably huddled on the floor as Cao Boi regales them with dumbass fake accents and a crusty avalanche of “What do you call…” jokes, made me deeply and profoundly sympathetic. You know he’s going to go as soon as the Asians lose a challenge.

Which may be never: Puka won another immunity challenge again, or “co-won” it (the white Raro Tribe protested to Probst that they’d finished the challenge at the same time and he threw them a collegial bone), and given the short-staffing of the black Hiki Tribe and Latino Aitu Tribe, the good money’s on Puka to sail through the early rounds. (In fact, betting sites have Puka favored to be the team to produce the season’s winner, at 2:1.)

Meanwhile, seeds were planted–and in one case, blossomed–for a dark aspect of this season that has been largely overlooked. Cook Island isn’t really Survivor: Race War yet: The real tension, struggle, and competition is still occurring within each of the groups.

There’s a Korean-Korean thing going on between Yul and Becky, as they form an ethnic allegiance with the intent of making a Puka team member–“especially a Korean”–the game’s winner. Maybe they can recruit Jenny to their bloc; if I’m not mistaken, her last name, Guzon-Bae, suggests she’s married into the tribe. That leaves out Cao, whom Jen at Reappropriate has taken to calling “Mr. Miyagi” (read her liveblog too, it’s funny and smart), and Brad, unless Brad can do a preemptive Pinoy allegiance with Jenny. Ah, the politics of ethnicity.

Meanwhile, Aitu purposely jaked the immunity challenge this episode in order to get the chance to jettison the deadweight of Billy. He claims it’s because he’s “not Hispanic enough” for his teammates: “Even though i’m Hispanic, i don’t feel Hispanic. Heavy metal is my culture.” Cue the Metallica riff. Presumably, Beavis, I mean Billy, will be back next season for Survivor: Wayne’s World.