That time Survivor contestants were rewarded with a screening of Jack and Jill

2011 was a dark for both the long-running reality series Survivor, and the comic career of low-brow auteur Adam Sandler. Eliza Janssen looks back at what happened when both worlds violently collided somewhere in the Samoan jungle.

What would be your desert island movie? Picture an improbable hypothetical situation, where you’ve been marooned in a hostile, wild location that nevertheless features a single-seat cinema and one film you can endlessly rewatch. Would you go for a comforting Disney or Ghibli fave from your childhood? Something thematically relevant and inspiring, with Tom Hanks or Liam Neeson battling the elements alone?

Or, trapped in the dark and gnawed apart by mosquitos, would you let yourself be slowly driven mad by Adam Sandler’s 2011 critical flop Jack and Jill? In the 23rd season of reality competition series Survivor, an “exclusive sneak peek” of the film was inflicted upon tribe members—not as the losing team’s punishment, but in fact as winning tribe’s reward. It’s still one of the weirdest reality TV/studio comedy cross-promotional efforts ever, and apropos of nothing it’s been swirlin’ around in my brain lately.

Ever since starring in some Baumbach and Safdie bros movies at the tail end of the 2010s, Sandler has gone through a soft career renaissance, reinvisioned as a harmless elder statesmen of doofus bro comedy. Millennials that grew up thinking The Waterboy and Billy Madison were cinematic masterpieces are now old enough to be chuckling along with their own children at the slew of family-friendly comedies made as part of Sandler’s hugely lucrative deal with Netflix. But for a hot minute there, somewhere in between Click and Pixels? Whew, the man’s name was shorthand for unimaginative, brainless, PG-13 goofery and gaggery. For the poor state of studio comedy itself.

Between 2010 and 2013, Sandler and his buddies put out such questionable gems as Zookeeper, That’s My Boy, the first chapter of perfectly fine kids’ series Hotel Transylvania, and not one but two Grown Ups films. I won’t be the first to point out that these laugh-an-hour films are first and foremost vacations for the cast, and cinematic ventures second, giving hangers-on like Rob Schneider and Kevin James a chance to bring their wives and kids to a pleasant set location for a low-effort working holiday.

That’s what makes the Survivor tribe’s reward so twisted, in a way. It’s a dark subversion of Sandler’s M.O., forcing competitive strangers in a tense tropical environment to witness his own pitiful touristy frolicking. On screen, Sandler and Sandler (playing both titular characters, a male and female set of identical twins) gaily enjoy a cruise, horseback riding, an indulgent Thanksgiving feast, all without any hint of stakes or true conflict. Off screen, their unwashed audience feed on insects and scant handfuls of communally-rationed rice: they strive to climb poles and heave sandbags in order to win the show’s ultimate prize. And yet here they all are together in the Samoan jungle, one group gritting their teeth to laugh at the other with chagrin.

It’s hilarious to watch longtime Survivor presenter Jeff Probst try his goshdarn hardest to sell the experience to the competing teams. Not only will they get an “exclusive sneak peek of the new Columbia Pictures movie”, Probst cajoles, “you will also enjoy all the goodies that go with a movie: popcorn, hot dogs, soda…” The promise of some well-deserved calories probably encouraged the Upolu team to victory far more than Jack and Jill ever could, but it’s still nothing compared to the regular rewards the team would’ve been expecting. Who needs a tearful phone call home to their kids or a bath when you could be watching Adam Sandler in drag tackling online dating?

The sight of a glowing cinema marquee in the middle of jungle strikes the viewer as ominously surreal, something our of Twin Peaks: The Return or one of Tony’s morphine-addled, postmodern dream sequences in The Sopranos. “CINEMA”, its text threatens: “Now Showing: Jack and Jill”. In the same month, out in the free world, cinemagoers were blessed with more than that one infernal option. We were laughing at Bridesmaids instead, or weeping at Scorsese’s sumptuous children’s film Hugo; the indie scene was celebrating Martha Marcy May Marlene, Melancholia and Take Shelter; hell, there were probably some YA readers in the tribe who would’ve sacrificed an immunity idol to catch the final chapters of the Twilight and Harry Potter franchises.

Of course the sole tribe member to really get the incisive themes and cinematic quality of Jack and Jill was notorious series villain Coach, a dreadlocked white guy who once wept when gently asked to stop doing so much tai chi. “It was funny”, he confirms, “but at the same time there was a message. And the message was, hey, family comes first.” This aligns pretty closely with how Probst pitched the film as a highly relevant watch for South Pacific’s “families” of competitors, with the two Sandlers depicting the importance of “the bonds you make in this tribe”. Jack and Jill “are twins”, he helpfully explains: “He doesn’t always get along with his sister, but in the end he realises that he needs his twin sister to survive in the world.”

Absolutely nobody who has seen Jack and Jill would recall that plot. If I had been wasting away in the depths of the jungle for weeks, the only Jack and Jill scene that could possibly lift my spirits would be its in-world commercial that features Al Pacino, playing himself, rapping about the deliciousness of Dunkin’ Donuts’ new beverage the Dunkaccino. Perhaps the most miserable part of this whole experience is that the contestants later admitted to only watching 15 minutes of the movie before retiring to their palm-leaf beds for some well-earned rest, and so they would’ve missed out on this whole, bravura sequence.

They didn’t get to hear Al playfully referencing some of the greatest films of all time in iced coffee-centric puns!! “Attica, hoo-ah, latte lite/This whole trial is outta sight/They pulled me back in with hazelnut, too/Caramel swirl, I knew it was you”.

It’s telling that the season’s winner, medical student Sophie, can be seen staring stony-faced at the Sandman antics on screen, not a forced laugh or smile to be seen. She refuses to be a corporate shill for Survivor’s evil genius producers, or for the madmen at Happy Madison Productions. It’s how all of us would, and should feel, were we to ever throw our bodies into an incredibly strenuous physical activity only to be trapped in a purpose-built Jack and Jill prison cell. I wonder if the cinema set is still out there in the Samoan wilderness, now overtaken by vines and nests of biting critters. It would be a fitting final resting place. The tribe has spoken.