Survivor Contestant, Embedded Aca-Fan Max Dawson Shares His Experiences (Part One)

Ok, there are three things you need to know. First, Neither my wife, Cynthia, nor my son, Charlie, nor myself have ever missed a single episode of Survivor — in the 30 seasons the series has been on the air. (Keep in mind Survivor runs two seasons a year, but still that’s a lot of episodes) Second, Max Dawson is — over those 30 seasons — the first media scholar to ever appear on Survivor, the first person who we knew as a friend and colleague to make it on the show. There have been other Survivor “super-fans” (oh how I hate that phrase!) on the program, but by definition, Max was the first “Aca-Fan” to appear on Survivor. He’s one of us.

Max

And so, third, when he got voted off for freaking out the other contestants with his expansive knowledge and endless enthusiasm for the series, it hit our household hard. And when it was announced last week that Max would be one of 32 former contestants who would be vying for votes to be one of ten men and ten women who would get a second chance on Survivor, my son, Charlie, signed up to be one of his campaign advisors, and I jumped at the chance to use this blog to let the guy tell his story. The Jenkins family is taking its enthusiasm for Survivor TO THE MAX!. I’ve voted every morning since the voting started for Max and a range of other contestants whose game play has brought me much pleasure through the years.

What he has to say here will be interesting to aca-fans regardless of what you’re a fan of because it speaks to something more universal: the opportunity for audiences to go inside their favorite franchises and their struggle to gain the acceptance of their favorite producers, society and their own harshest critics – each other. Max’s insights, his journey from teaching a Northwestern University class on Survivor to being a contestant, will interest media scholars who want to understand more about the culture surrounding reality television. There’s much you would learn about the reality television world by watching how this election unfolds — a contest between people who have been waiting up to 15 years for a second chance to play, and where there are more candidates than in the GOP primary. Rob Has a Podcast, the podcast of preference for the hardcore Survivor fans, has been doing extensive interviews with each candidate as they explain why they deserve a second chance to be on the program. But as a compliment to those sports talk radio style interviews, my son wanted to interview Max as an acs-fan. So, over the next few posts here, you can read the interview Charlie did with Max Dawson and also check out the never-before-published anywhere syllabus for his Survivor class, which should demonstrate his academic street cred. 🙂

We are hoping that many acs-fans will want to vote for Max, if only to show the world that we fans are not going to be kicked around this way. Follow this link to the CBS website and vote for Max. The way the election works, you also have to vote for 9 other male candidates. Here are the ones I’ve been voting for: Jeff Varner, Andrew Savage, Shane Powers, Terry Dietz, Stephen Fishback, Vitas Baskauskas, Spencer Bledsoe, Jeremy Collins, and Woo Hwang.

Charlie: Let’s start at the end. You went from teaching a Northwestern University course on Survivor to actually playing the game. What was the best thing that came out of that?

Max: My life over the past few years has been a series of experiences whereby I’ve crossed thresholds that academics rarely get to cross. It’s rare that you get to study a subject and then, at some point, translate that dedicated period of immersion into active involvement. Prior to going on Survivor I transitioned from being a professor to being a consultant and researcher in Los Angeles working directly with networks and studios. In the midst of that change, my involvement with the Survivor casting department, which had sort of fizzled in 2014 after an aborted plan to put me on the show, was rekindled and I went from being a Survivor fan to a Survivor player. So, I have been straddling a number of seemingly-isolated or cordoned-off domains for a while and after the past few years I have begun to realize that the boundaries between them are completely illusory. The opportunities to go back and forth between those worlds are much, much more rich and varied than I had ever anticipated.

Charlie: One of my all-time favorite Survivor scenes was from Survivor: Philippines. Jonathan Penner, a Los Angeles screenwriter, was trying to convince his fellow competitor Lisa Whelchel to work with him in the game, so he asked her to think about what she wanted her story to be on the show. Did she want to be the hero or the follower? What did you think your story was going to be, what do you think your story ended up being, and how do you feel like your story was presented on the air?

Max: When I initially agreed to be a part of Survivor: Worlds Apart, I thought my story was going to be one about a fan living out the ultimate fantasy of being a part of the subject of your fandom – of being able to play the game that you’ve not only enjoyed but that’s become one of the centerpieces of your social community for an extended period of time. Survivor, for me, is more than just a show I watch. It’s started many of the relationships I value. It has introduced me to new people and opened doors for me.

Max with Ian Terry

My attitude going into the game was very much influenced by Ian Terry’s experience on Big Brother 14. Ian was a huge Big Brother fan and he went into the game with the objective of relishing every possible experience, good and bad. So early on he volunteered to be a Have-Not [a punishment which requires contestants to take cold showers, sleep with the lights on and subsist off of gruel], and he did so in a way that showed he was enjoying every minute of being in The House.

Now, Ian’s story took on the perfect narrative arc of the fan’s journey from couch to throne, culminating in winning the game he loves – and not only winning, but doing so in spectacular fashion over arguably the greatest reality competition contestant of all time, Dan Gheesling. I thought I could have that kind of experience. At the very least, if I didn’t win in spectacular fashion, I would go into Survivor with the mindset that whatever happened, good or bad, I would have the time of my life. I hoped that my unbridled enthusiasm for Survivor would translate into opportunities for me in the game – that other players would be won over by it, and fans would say, “There’s one of us. There’s a guy who loves the show, who thinks it’s important, and who takes it seriously, but not too seriously.”

When I stepped out onto the beach on Day 1 and [Survivor host] Jeff Probst said, “Welcome to Survivor 30: Worlds Apart, White Collar vs. Blue Collar vs. No Collar”, I realized that my hopes of having any such experience were slim. In the United States in the mid-2010s, what is white collar a synonym for? White collar is a synonym for mendacious, cruel, greedy. It’s a synonym for stuffed shirts. For people who are disembodied, disconnected, soulless. The 1%. I realized I had been assigned to The Villains Tribe, or even worse The Pretensious Assholes Tribe. Looking around at my fellow players I saw a few women in business attire. I saw Joaquin, a young man in the medical sales profession who utterly oozed with that cocky, Wall Street, stereotypical shark aura. And then there was me.

Instead of going into this as a fan with a deep passion for the game, I was going into this as a hyper-intellectual, ineffective, bumbling academic. I looked at The Blue Collars, they were literally wearing flags on their clothing and talking about being the heart and soul of America and I saw Jeff Probst with a shit-eating grin on his face. Then I saw him treat us like we were the 1% and he was in an Occupy protest. I definitely realized that my story was going to be different.

And I wasn’t necessarily dismayed by that. I just knew it was going to require an adjustment. In fact, a lot of the fun times I had playing the game, or recording confessionals (most of which didn’t make it into the show), had to do with me playing up the villainy that I think was being ascribed to the White Collars. I said things like, “We’re the White Collars, the same people who brought you Enron and the subprime mortgage crisis. We robbed your pension and now we’re going to destroy you in this challenge.” And for me, it was fun. As much as Survivor is a reality show it was also an opportunity for me to play and be silly and have fun. That was the story I anticipated when I stood on the beach on Day 1.

The story I actually experienced was a third beast altogether. [My story] ended up being that I was someone who was blinded by their excitement. People asked me if I had a form of Aspergers syndrome because of the way I was portrayed as being more interested in reciting statistics or strange bits of information about the show than in actually playing the game. That was not representative of my experience out there. It was representative of a small sample of the interviews I did, most of which were framed by producers to get me to talk about those things. They were specifically, explicitly asking me questions like, ‘Max, we’re 30 seasons into Survivor and you’ve studied this at the collegiate level. Tell us what your class on Survivor has taught us about the best way to approach a 3-3-1 split.” So everything I was asked, asked me to talk about things on a very technical, historical level that was oriented toward detail and trivia. That was the majority of the footage that made it into the show.

Charlie: Perhaps they played up your encyclopedic knowledge because that was something unique you brought to the series.

Max: Well, it was something unique that I brought, but it was also something that allowed them to construct a narrative that my passion for the game was ultimately blinding, possibly even unhealthy and led to my inability to play.

Charlie: Do you feel like your fandom did play a role in why you got voted off fifth, or was that a construction of the editing?

Max: Unlike many of the professional athletes and celebrities who played Survivor in the modern era, I was recognized instantaneously upon setting foot on the beach. Within five minutes, my tribe mate So Kim came up to me and said, “I know who you are.” She had read about a Survivor professor who might be on his way down to Nicaragua to compete on the 30th installment of the series. [NOTE: Max explained in another interview that someone he knew regrettably leaked the information online.] So, from the get-go I was identified by my fellow cast members as a superfan who had an almost supernatural command over the mechanics of the game and who, as a result, needed to be monitored and could not be trusted.

Tyler

I have had conversations with some of my fellow tribe members since the game ended – Tyler, for example – who said, “I liked playing with you, but you knew so much about the game that I felt I couldn’t trust you.” And so, the preconceptions that the other contestants had about me certainly hurt my chances in that it led them to regard me as being a potentially dangerous competitor, when that probably did not have much basis in reality. Knowing that the tribe swap should occur around Day 12 is very helpful for my game, but it’s not something that gives me an unfair advantage. It’s just something that helps me psychologically prepare for things. Knowing what kinds of things could happen in a tribe swap, or how the tribes could be broken up, is information that could benefit the whole tribe and yet I was treated like that information gave me some sort of unfair advantage.

In reality, my super fan status ended up playing against me when some of the players I got thrown together with after the tribes were mixed together on Day 11 or 12 started to regard my passion for the game as annoying. As you saw in the edit, my friendship with another superfan on my tribe was off-putting to some members of the tribe. And that was the thing that really startled me. Because many of the people who said that our behavior was annoying self-identified as fans. They told me in our first conversation, “Oh, I’ve been a fan of Survivor since I was a kid!” So, it was a great example of fans arbitrarily designating what the appropriate level of involvement for a fandom is, and not only self-policing that boundary but penalizing people who transgress it – designating them as being weirdos. In most other communities that I frequent these days, that level of passion is a prerequisite, whether it’s a record collecting message board, a Survivor Facebook group, a yoga class –

Charlie: Academia?

Max: – and academia! People tend to be passionately involved in what they do. I look at this historical moment in our popular culture as ones in which fans have been elevated to a position of relative power. Media industries are recognizing fans’ tastes to a degree they never have before. So I came from a world in which fandom is not only acceptable but cool, and for the first time in a long time, I was in a situation where the sort of fandom I engage in was considered transgressive and annoying.

Charlie: Do you feel like the show itself took the same perspective in telling your story? Did the editing portray your fandom as transgressive and annoying?

Max: Well, it’s interesting that on a season touted for having the largest number of hardcore Survivor fans in the show’s history, most of the contestants who have self-identified that way have received very unflattering edits. That’s not to say [unflattering edits] have been exclusively reserved for fans this season. I’d say that the majority of participants in this cast have been on the receiving end of horribly unflattering edits. And I am not going to be the sort of person who says, “It was the edit!” [The person you saw] is me, just like it’s Dan and Will. These are aspects of our personalities that have been highlighted. But I do feel like there has been a consistent message across this season that Survivor fans are poorly equipped to navigate the social dynamics that are so central to the game. Something that I heard so many times, from so many Internet commentators – each of whom thought they were so brilliant – was “I guess those who teach can’t play, eh prof?”

There are 24 hours in a day and if you see 45 seconds of my life in the course of an episode that covers three days you’re going to see a little snippet of what I’ve done. And the snippet you see may be from an interview in which I’ve been encouraged to discuss certain topics by a producer who’s looking to tell the story in a particular way. So, it’s been interesting to me that some of the fans themselves – the people who have the most invested in the show – have been willing to read these edits in a very literal and unforgiving fashion. They’re not all saying, “What was cut? What else went on out there? Why are we seeing this clip?” Instead they’re saying, “Yes, this is Max. This is Dan. This is Shirin. These are the people themselves.”

It’s been frustrating to be the subject of forms of textual engagement that fly in the face of everything that Henry Jenkins talks about in Textual Poachers, or everything John Fiske says about resistant readings. I’ve been shocked by the degree to which some Survivor superfans have been willing to engage in completely complicit readings, where the limited information they see becomes a sacrosanct text and any alternative interpretation is written off.

Charlie: Looking back at your years as a fan before you played, do you feel like you judged the show wrongly or do you think you always viewed the show more forgivingly?

Max: Well, I see many super fans watching with an emphasis on strategy whereas I’ve always primarily been interested in Survivor as some of the most interesting character development and multi-dimensional storytelling in contemporary popular culture. For example, one of my favorite seasons does not feature very advanced gameplay or the kinds of twists and reversals many fans favor. It features a very conventional, good vs. evil, underdog story in which four minority players appear horribly overmatched against a group of eight hulking, imposing, often-quite-unpleasant younger people. The group of four systematically picks them off in a series of improbable victories that bring them together and take them to the final stage of the game. I think of that season as being such an amazing example of so many of the classical tropes that animate stories in any genre. The way in which Survivor takes those tropes and places them in the context of an unscripted program has always been one of the most exciting things about the show for me. So in that respect, I don’t think I saw the show wrongly before. I’ve just been forced to realize how differently I watch the show than other people who have a deep passion for it.

I’ve been on record saying that I love Survivor: Worlds Apart and think it’s one of the greatest seasons of all time. I stand by that, because I think the characters – across the cast of 18 – are pound-for-pound (as Jeff Probst said) some of the biggest, most dynamic personalities the show has ever seen. There aren’t many people in this cast you can put into that category of, “Why did they get on? What do they bring?” Instead, we see first or second boots who are as dynamic and charismatic as some of the greatest contestants of all time. To be a part of a season that’s so stacked in that way made [winning] harder for me, but it also made it more satisfying. What could be worse than going out there with a group of people with static personalities who aren’t interested in playing the game? So, it’s not that I ever assumed my aesthetic criteria was the same as everyone else’s, or believed they should be the same as everyone else’s, but I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that what I view as a great Survivor season might for many other fans be a horrible season of Survivor. By the same token, what – for me – makes a great Survivor contestant might, for others, be a terrible Survivor contestant.

Charlie: So, how would you suggest that fans form opinions of contestants if not based on the information that’s on the show? Where do they get information to contextualize the broadcasts and understand more about what happened on location?

Max: That’s a difficult question because Survivor is not true transmedia storytelling. In many instances, watching the [online] Secret Scenes – going outside the core text – ends up providing contradictory evidence that complicates your understanding of the core text. In my fourth episode. I was identified by one of my fellow contestants [finance industry corporate trainer Carolyn Rivera] as a “cult leader.” She says, “He’s dangerous. He’s in your heads. He’s controlling you.” It’s completely out of context because there was nothing that had been shown before which indicated that was the case, and in the following episode I was eliminated not for being a dangerous manipulator but for being a bumbling egghead.

It’s not the Survivor fan’s responsibility to read my exit interviews [in the press], watch the Secret Scenes, and dig through the textual evidence in order to come up with one, complete, true story. It’s more-so that I’d like people to watch with a more open mind and realize that as audience members, they themselves are participants in a process of shaping raw footage into stories that fit narrative archetypes. The serialized story has to build over the course of 13 episodes into a story that supports an outcome which is known to the editors when they create the first episode. It’s essentially as if you’d written the end of a series of novels, you know how it ends, and now you have to go back and write the first installment. The storyline that you thought might have been an interesting component of the first chapter becomes irrelevant to the narrative arc that takes you from the beginning to the end, and as a result, that storyline might be minimized or eliminated. A character who might have played a central role in an early chapter fades away quickly because they don’t have any influence over the ultimate outcome. We need to watch with an open mind and realize we’re seeing the fraction of what went on which proves that the person standing at the end of the game is the one truly deserving recipient of the million dollar prize.

Charlie: What has your relationship been with the other contestants that went through the same experience? People who follow the show have all seen social media photos hashtagged The #Dirty30, which portray you and the rest of the Worlds Apart cast traveling the country together eight months after the game, visiting each other’s hometowns, appearing to be best friends. What is the Dirty 30? Did you form them?

Max:The Dirty 30 is an embarrassingly-named Facebook group that another contestant, [former CAA talent agent] Tyler Fredrickson, formed right after our return from Nicaragua in order to share pictures and stories and just stay in each other’s lives. And the Dirty 30 went from being just a Facebook group to being a hashtag that we could use as a kind of rallying cry, and as a way to pledge our allegiance to one another, and as a statement of unity. One thing that happens over the course of watching a Survivor season in which you’re a participant is that you watch as people around you eagerly anticipate the devolution of your social relationships with your fellow cast members into animosity or even aggression. There are people literally sitting there with popcorn saying, “I can’t wait to see these people start tearing each other apart on Facebook and social media posts, and eviscerate each other in interviews after their exits.”

We went into this – and not all of us, but a few of us in particular – with a mindset that it is appropriate in any season for players to put their egos aside and let the collective and the audience take precedence. We shouldn’t allow the show to be dominated by bickering between the contestants or people airing their personal grievances against others who shared this really special experience. But instead we should celebrate Survivor and do what we can to handle disputes between participates internally instead of allowing those conflicts to spill out into public venues.

So, one of the things we did from the start was set out this precedent that when people are voted off they’re bombed with love. Many of the women have received enormous bouquets of flowers the day of they’re going to be voted off on the show. We check in with people who have been through a traumatic experience and in many instances are forced to see themselves do humiliating things on screen, or hear people say things about them, or relive moments where they were shocked or caught off guard. There isn’t much of an official support network when you play Survivor. You’re pretty much left on your own.

So we, as a group, under the moniker of this preposterous name the Dirty 30, created an official support network. We started calling people a few days before they were going to be voted off [on the television broadcasts] saying, “Hey, what’s up? How do you want to handle these press interviews? What are you going to talk about? There’s going to be some very sensitive subjects. Are you going to get down into the muck and trash people or are you going to take the high road?” And in some cases it’s really been beneficial, because we’ve been able to help people deal with tough things they’ve been going through in a private and discreet way rather than dealing with it under the magnifying lens of the media.

Charlie: I think a lot of viewers have been confused when they see such viciousness on the show and such friendship outside of it. Obviously, the show was filmed eight months before it aired, and the Instagram photos were taken in real time. But it’s still a puzzling contrast from the outside. I guess what you’re telling me is that there have continued to be things you guys worked through together, but they were just handled privately.

Shirin

Max: Yeah, and I’m not going to say that everything is resolved. There have been a couple of notable instances this season involving a woman named Shirin Oskooi. She’s a Yahoo! executive, Ivy League grad, a very successful person, strong, powerful and willful. She exhibits every quality that I would look for in a friend, a colleague or a partner. But they weren’t necessarily qualities that would come out in the game such that people from diverse backgrounds would appreciate them. Her personality clashes with the other cast members resulted in some of the ugliest, most harrowing scenes we’ve seen in 30 seasons of Survivor – bordering on…. general nastiness that bordered on misogyny and even worse. And it has spilled over into social media from time to time. And sometimes it’s been like a full time second job keeping track of what’s going on and mediating, helping people to gain perspective in a moment where they’re seeing red because they just watched an episode where someone really denigrated them or attacked them viciously to their face or where they’ve just been savaged by an edit, and helping them to see that we’re getting to take part in a once in a lifetime experience and an entertainment franchise as storied as Survivor. That should, itself, be enough to help us transcend some of the challenges of exposing our lives to a reality show.

Charlie: Does the show have a responsibility to intervene where it perceives abuse to be taking place or fights to be departing from the spirit of the game? Or is the show doing everything it should?

Max: I think that the show’s only real responsibility lies in preventing physical violence from occurring amongst the contestants. The issue of emotional violence or psychological abuse is a very real one, but untrained professionals – untrained in psychology – can’t police that. It’s not the same kind of cut-and-dry, black-and-white issue [that physical violence is.] Given some of the things we’ve seen this season there have been larger discussions about what the show’s responsibility is with respect to portraying [emotional violence] on the screen. I think the show has handled it in a very responsible way. I don’t think it’s Survivor’s responsibility to run a PSA, or any sort of legal disclaimer, before or after an episode. I think the best thing the show can do in these situations is to show these episodes in as accurate and minimally edited a way as possible to confront the audience and the contestants themselves with the ugliness that comes out in very trying situations.

Survivor’s appeal for much of the audience – myself included – is the social experiment. How do people behave when all of the trappings of civilization, all of the comforts that allow us to maintain ontological security in our everyday lives have been taken away from us. Some people rise to the occasion. They’re shackled by those trappings, and they rise when they’re removed. I’m thinking of someone like [South Carolina nurse] Cirie Fields from Survivor: Panama, Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains who had this amazing arc. She had never been in the outdoors. She’d never been away from home and her family. She couldn’t fend for herself. She was essentially a dead woman walking from the moment the game began, and by the end of her first season she ended up surviving herself and her fellow contestants with how competitive and skilled she’d become. Then she went on to surprise many people in the audience in her second game by becoming one of the best to ever play the game.

So we see those moments where people rise, and then we see those moments where people go to the darkest possible place. It’s almost as though their internal monitors have been removed with these social constructs and they’re suddenly able to indulge in behaviors or attitudes that would be completely unacceptable in polite society. The fact that Survivor shows us both of those responses is one of the things that makes it an important TV show – not just as a great example of non-fiction programming or a force in the American television industry but because of the ways in which Survivor has this experimental component to it where it acts as an X-ray, allowing things to come to the surface that might not have otherwise. It forces viewers to confront what lies in many of our hearts and contemplate how we would behave in these situations. Would I rise to the occasion, or would the darkest aspects of my personality come out if I was under duress?

That completes part one of our interview. We plan to post Part 2 on Wednesday when we will talk with Max about his golden opportunity to earn a chance at redemption, how he would feel competing against the iconic characters he grew up a fan of, and how he would face competing against close friends like Shirin who he has spent the past year cultivating relationships with.

For now, please throw your collective support behind Max in the online vote. . We would all appreciate your time and effort. Once again, the site does require you to register for a free CBS.com account the first time you vote (so have your spam-list email addresses ready!) and you must vote for nine other men at the same time.

FWIW I (Charlie) have been voting for Max, Jeff Varner, Andrew Savage, Shane Powers, Stephen Fishbach, Vytas Baskauskas, Spencer Bledsoe, Jeremy Collins, Joe Anglim and Mike Holloway.