Young people these days watch a lot of television. Some of it is "intellectually stimulating"; most of it isn't. The bulk of the airy stuff is reality programming, where cheaply assembled bands of untalented folks compete hilariously – like “Celebrity Apprentice,” “America's Next Top Model,” or New York Jets games. I, a "young person these days," watch lots of competitive reality TV. But I had never before watched more than five minutes of CBS' “Survivor,” which is somehow now in its 25th season, until this week. The show always struck me as difficult to jump into. But I had to. You see, the most recent castaway eliminated from the show, the Internet had told me, was Jeff Kent.
My understanding about “Survivor” is that there exists a certain generation of people, all of them between 30 and 45 years old, who fell in love with the show when it debuted in 2000 and never quit watching, even as the show's novelty and its place in the popular consciousness faded. Everyone else turned it off or had never turned it on in the first place. Today, “Survivor” resides in a state of managed decline, where a handful of its audience deserts it every year, and no one comes in to replace the departed, like a country club in Detroit.
But if any season could compel “Survivor” agnostics or apostates to tune in, I presumed it would be this one, “Survivor: Philippines.” Former “Facts of Life” star Lisa Whelchel (she played Blair) would be on the show. So would three losers from previous seasons who had to leave their competitions because of injury. And then, right: Jeff Kent would be there. Jeff freaking Kent. The 2000 NL MVP. The five-time All-Star. The guy with 377 homers, more than any other second baseman in history. Jeff Kent!
We immediately imagine, when we see an aging athlete maneuver to earn unexpected time in the spotlight, that we're targeted by a calculated comeback tour or covert advertising mission. Hines Ward did “Dancing with the Stars” and flamencoed his way onto “Sunday Night Football.” Jimmy Johnson did “Survivor: Nicaragua” right after he started hawking penis pills. Sometimes we know we're watching something sadder, as with Lenny Dykstra and Dwight Gooden on “Celebrity Rehab.” Those guys just need money badly.
But then sometimes we get something stranger, damn near Dadaist. We get Jeff Kent on “Survivor.” Why did Jeff Kent want to go on “Survivor?” Jeff Kent just loves “Survivor.” He doesn't need money, and he has nothing to sell us. He wasn't playing for charity, either. He was in it for the love of the game.
The thing is that it's hard to imagine Jeff Kent loving anything, really. When he played baseball he carried himself like a surly highway patrolman, in essentially every way. He wore sunglasses and a tidy mustache. He got around slowly and deliberately – he made no sudden moves, especially when the ball was hit to his left. He was accused of being a casual racist by Milton Bradley, so make of that what you will. He got in a motorcycle accident and lied about it so that his bosses wouldn't come after him. And Kent, who spent six years with the Giants, feuded constantly with Barry Bonds, which isn't particularly characteristic of highway patrolmen but assuredly characteristic of U.S. law enforcement as a whole. This is all you really need to know about Jeff Kent: He grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif. ("Surf City, USA"), went to UC-Berkeley, and then decided as an adult that he really wanted to live in Texas.
So what was it that Kent loved about "Survivor"? I watched a whole show and tried to figure that out. (Yes, I missed the first seven episodes, but I can probably guess what was in them: backstabbing, lagoons, arcane challenges and shirtlessness.) The jungle looks pretty and remote but probably hot. The medical care seems substandard, even compared to what Kent had when he played on the early-'90s Mets. Kent tore an MCL on the first week of the show and didn't even get a diagnosis until he was voted off. Kent's hair did make him look friendlier than usual – he had gone past crew-cut length, and he had developed a healthy scruff; perhaps he was proud of it? – but once he was eliminated he shaved it back off and went with the “CHiPs” 'stache.
Maybe Kent just really likes tests of physical endurance that mysteriously and necessarily result in spent, sweaty castaways needing to solve large puzzles. In one, they had to hoist sequential pieces of fabric up a wooden structure that looked like a very large guillotine. How did they get the pieces of fabric? By swimming out to fish traps with buoys atop them, releasing the fish traps and then being tugged back to shore, of course. The strips of fabric were in the fish traps. But you couldn't open the fish traps until you had dug in a pit of sand and found the buried key to the fish trap. This is all very practical islander knowledge. Kent's team won this challenge. The next challenge involved an every-man-for-himself race in which each competitor had to undo complex knots before the competitor could crawl under a hurdle, at which point he could undo some more knots. Kent finished in the top three on this challenge, so he moved on to the next round, which required the three competitors to race to see who could solve the wooden snake puzzle first. (The puzzle kind of resembled the "Join or Die" cartoon that everyone studies in high-school U.S. History.) Kent lost, so he didn't win the immunity necklace.
This took us into the "scheme, backstab, vote" portion of the program, which is about half of the show's runtime. If you like Jane Austen novels, you'll love this bit. Oh, I do find Mr. Kent quite droll. But his countenance portends unease. When people schemed against Kent – with lines including, but not limited to, "He's a nice guy, he's played a good game, but he's a big threat and I want him gone” -- Kent happened to be walking right behind them, out of focus yet looking into the camera's lens, like an inexperienced extra on a movie set. Kent walked behind one too many of these conversations and he decided to intrude: "Is there something going on around here? What the hell?"
But the intrusion, based on the way “Survivor's” spin-masters edited the thing, appeared to work. Kent had momentarily stopped the scheming, and he would soon -- successfully, he imagined – convince everyone to vote Pete off.
I should stop here to say that I have little understanding of the dynamics of this vote-folks-off-the-island thing. I think the general idea is that each competitor wants to eliminate the strongest competition first, so that, at the end of the game, you're up against a couple of weaklings in the final three. But what if this is everyone's strategy? Couldn't we then accidentally wind up with an all-weakling finals? Do people pretend to be weak? Does anyone go there to make friends? These questions briefly seized me while I watched to see what would happen to Kent. But now that his candidacy is no more, I'm not going to tune in to answer them. Perhaps you will.
In any event, Kent somehow found a toothpick to use during the tribal council. I couldn't really follow the mechanics of the discussion and the alliances – there were fallen tribes, and multiple unplayed secret-but-no-longer-secret immunity idols – but I did manage to follow the bobbing of Kent's toothpick. Anyway, Kent got voted off, 5-4, over the guy he had schemed to oust. Kent was disappointed, and so was Jeff Probst, the host of “Survivor.” He told the gang that this was one of the biggest missed opportunities in the history of the show. I think he was talking about failing to oust one of the deceivers with the hidden idols, but maybe he was talking about the collective misstep that is deserting Jeff Kent.
They extinguished Jeff Kent's torch, and Jeff Kent traipsed away solemnly before they played his exit interview. That was more spirited: "You know what pisses me off? I think I've made about $60 million playing baseball, and I want this frickin' million dollars in this game. And it's not even a million bucks – it's 600 grand by the time Obama takes it. I'm a Game 7 World Series loser. You know, I played in the biggest games in the world, and the worst games in the world. But this just sucks."
But one wonders how much it really sucked. Kent said in another exit interview at something called the Ponderosa that none of the other competitors knew he was a baseball player. He toiled in blissful obscurity. He said he made some friends. And there was this: When one of the competitors, planning for that night's tribal council, ran down a list of good and evil cast members, Kent wasn't mentioned as one of the evil ones. Imagine that: Jeff Kent, the under-the-radar good guy.