The first two episodes of Survivor: Palau introduce the overall theme of the season, which is production doing unprecedented, often ill-advised, things just because it can, as if standing up in a rowboat and singing at the top of its lungs: "Look at us! We did this! We're way more important than these generic, disposable contestants we absolutely did not recruit from modeling agencies at the last minute!"
Just in the first hour, we start with 20 contestants (unprecedented!), tricked into getting up early, putting on fancy clothes, and boarding a rowboat under the guise of "press photos" (unprecedented! except for Pearl Islands). After racing for necklaces (unprecedented, but soon repeated), they're all plopped on one beach, with no instructions and no buffs (unprecedented!). Then two (-ish) days later, there's a tribe pick, and two people are gone before the immunity challenge. Pay no attention to the fact that this is grossly unfair, it's unprecedented! Similarly, as Ulong's numbers later dwindle down to nothing, there's no swap to save them, then there's no merge! Unprecedented! Which means the dominant majority alliance at Koror stays dominant! Hooray! Unprecedented!
But we're getting ahead of ourselves a bit. What's striking over the first two episodes is that, despite Ulong's eventual collapse, the two tribes really are pretty evenly matched early on. Things could have gone differently if Ulong had just had some better luck. This is especially clear in the second episode: If they'd just reversed the order of the challenges, the tribes would have been even after Episode 2.
Koror has three people who are more or less dead weight in most challenges (Katie, Caryn, Willard), and the Ep.2 RC "Gauntlet Dash" favored small, agile people, which Ian and Coby were clearly not (five failed attempts between them). That challenge played into Ulong's strength, and Angie, Ashlee, and Kim (and Janu!) all shone. Koror surprisingly has an edge in brute strength, but that edge is all Tom Westman, as the foot locker-hauling immunity challenge demonstrated, whereas Ulong's deficits in water-based challenges became clear (Kim failed to dive at all, the rest of Ulong appeared only slightly less useless).
But Tom's strength aside, Koror is also making a ton of mistakes: They idiotically chose to build a new camp after they won the first immunity challenge. They won the second IC despite a bizarre plan to have two people dive at once, which at best appeared to be pointless, if not detrimental, because there's only room for one person to pull the rope at a time, and that just makes two people short of breath. Koror has a strong, charismatic leader in Tom, but they don't always make the best decisions.
Ulong, meanwhile, desperately needs a leader, but they booted their obvious one in the first episode, and after that they're just a loose collective of people, many of whom think they know best (Stephenie, Bobby Jon, James, Jeff), but sort of wishy-washily go along with whatever murky consensus emerges. There's no reason this system is any better or worse than Koror's (where Caryn and Coby are already starting to chafe at Tom's decision-making), it's really just bad luck that Ulong ends up falling apart.
So for all of production's later questionable no-swap, no-merge choices, it could have ended up quite differently. Oh well. It's still interesting to see what happens this one time, with one tribe being allowed to get run into the ground. Thankfully it hasn't been done again since.
No more Wandavision
This was first noticed way back in 2015 when Palau first appeared on CBS All-Access (now Paramount+), but Wanda's singing has been cut entirely from the streaming version of the premiere. Why? It's almost certainly a rights issue. In true Wandoff fashion, Wanda's songs are all song parodies/covers. They pair original Survivor-themed lyrics with existing (copyrighted) tunes. So airing them in a streaming episode from which Paramount/CBS makes money is copyright infringement, unless CBS wants to pony up the dough to license those tunes. (Given the limited reach of Paramount+, those fees might add up to pennies a month!) Fan favorite or not, it's not terribly surprising this entertainment conglomerate was unwilling to make an effort to preserve a contestant who's gone 20 minutes into the season.
That's fine, it's a business decision. A soulless corporation that charges you a non-trivial monthly fee to watch old shows still bogged down with far-too-frequent ads should not shock you when it makes a cheap, greedy choice. Luckily for me, the one and only Survivor DVD set I own is Palau, so I can go back and compare, even if DVDs are an archaic, uncivilized way to watch a TV show, or really anything.
The important thing is: this decision robs the premiere of some of its best, most lighthearted moments AND of some critical context for the tribe-pick decision-making. Jonathan's reasons for not being picked are still there — he jumped first from the boat, and Coby leads a whisper campaign to turn people against him (which, in light of later incidents at Ponderosa, seems like a good call, as we'll discuss below). Wanda not being selected, however, makes no sense at all. She doesn't even have a confessional any more! Now she's just this anonymous lady in a blue dress who was briefly seen holding the map, and then she's gone.
It's even more tragic than that, though, because Wanda's singing adds so much depth and humor to the initial individual immunity challenge, and to rest of the segment of the premiere in which she appears. In the streaming form, it's now a cold, calculated battle of wills, as people weigh whether to jump in and swim to shore, or paddle the boat. Stephenie and Jonathan stupidly jump far from shore, and are quickly left behind to swim their way in. After that it's a race as the boat pulls to within swimming distance, and everyone else leaps in, sprints to shore, and Ian and Jolanda grab the respective necklaces.
That's fine as far as it goes, but the original was so much better. In that, we get the first few confessionals from people debating whether to jump in and swim to shore, and then all of a sudden ... Wanda pops up and starts singing! We immediately cut to Willard's hilarious, curmudgeonly response: "It's a really hot day, rowing the boat, and this lunatic jumps up and starts singing a song. I wanted to knock her off with the oar!" Then Coby (as always) gives the appropriate response: "At first I thought, 'Oh, that's so cute, look, Wanda's singing' ... and then it just kept going and going and going, and everybody was just like, 'Is she gonna stop?'" And then of course, we cut to Wanda's gleeful confessional, where she giddily boasts about all the songs she has prepared for this 39-day experience. Then we cut to Stephenie and Jonathan finally jumping in, and the implication is sort of that they're trying to get away from Wanda's singing. (Jonathan even says "I can't take it, I'm gonna jump in.")
But not any more, not now. Not in the age of streaming. Future generations are already being robbed.
What's so lovable about Wanda is that she planned all this. It's one of the worst, most ill-conceived pre-game Survivor strategies ever, outside of maybe pre-Samoa Russell Hantz's ridiculous, asinine scheme to dump people's canteens out at night. (So that — horrors — they have to refill them the next morning ... oh no!) But at least Hantz's dumbass idea was carried out solely in the presence of his dutiful personal camera crew. Wanda's singing is as maximally public as possible. It's profoundly irritating to everyone around her after the first 10 seconds or so, but she keeps going anyway, convinced she's turning Survivor into one big party. She's completely illiterate at reading the room. It's one of the most catastrophic Day 1 decisions in the history of Survivor, but bless her heart, Wanda is no quitter, and she just keeps going. We see her start it up again when they're building camp, and everyone just glances at each other, uncomfortably. So *of course* she's the woman who doesn't get picked for a tribe. And of course kind-hearted Ian asks her for another song as she heads out of the game on the boat with Jonathan. (Perhaps also to twist the knife a bit for Jonathan, who is sitting next to her.)
Wanda is beloved by the fandom because she was such an open, unguarded, exuberant superfan in a season full of recruits. She did all these wacky things, and her game was cruelly cut short by an unprecedented twist ... in part because of those wacky things. Terrible Survivor player, one-of-a-kind Survivor character. Her oddball, party-time antics made her a Michael Scott (or at least a David Brent) a few months before that character existed (in the US), and for a brief moment, Gregg Carey was our Jim Halpert.
But now that's gone, all of it. And Palau is the lesser for it.
So congratulations, CBS/Paramount! Your penny-pinching ways managed to make your fourth- or fifth-tier streaming service even less worthy of a subscription. If you're a new Survivor fan who recently came across it on Netflix, did you know many, many seasons are available for free on Amazon Prime?
(The terrible screenshots above are because I was forced to snap pictures of my screen with my phone, because CBS/Paramount also put copy-protection software on the DVDs — which I legally purchased — that prevents screenshots from being taken. Truly one of the worst entertainment companies around,)
The many, many Episode 1-associated controversies
No, not the dumb "tribe pick/ two people leave without a vote" twist. That's not controversial, everyone hates it.
Rather, everyone who left the show in Episode 1 was involved in post-game controversies of some kind or another. Wanda's is the least controversial: In an interview with TVGuide.com, she alleged that seven of the original castmembers had been cut at the last minute and replaced with younger, better-looking people. Models. (Gasp! On Survivor? Perish the thought!)
You will be shocked to learn that CBS vehemently denied this charge, even though a cursory peek at the younger half of the cast reveals a *lot* of people who seem to have no connection whatsoever to Survivor, but do have a modeling past (Jonathan, Jeff, Kim, Bobby Jon, and Ibrehem, at least). If they're recruits unfamiliar with Survivor, have modeled, and came in at the last minute, is Wanda's claim really that inaccurate? Jonathan would later describe being given a stack of old seasons to watch while the cast was sequestered before filming, to give him some idea what he was getting into. He made it through six. Jenn (RIP) lived in Encino. Hmmm. (Even Ian was shifted over from The Amazing Race casting.)
As always with Wanda, that's the light stuff. But it's not unrelated to the other stuff.
The more important charge about this season came from the person actually voted out in the premiere, Jolanda Jones. She described this during RHAP's Black Voices of Survivor Roundtable discussion, on June 24, 2020 (the whole thing is great, Jolanda's accusation comes at around the 48-minute mark). This is something that happened after she had already been voted out, while the pre-jurors were assembling at Ponderosa, before departing for their pre-jury trips abroad:
At least for me, there was a racial incident on Ponderosa, where I was called the N-word. And I literally had to pick up a pool cue and a pool ball to defend myself against two white young men, in their early 20s, because they were going to fight me.
This is one of the most disturbing incidents of Survivor-associated racism, and it doesn't even have the excuse of having occurred within the stresses of the game. And again, the same set of people who were brought in as eye-candy replacements (according to Wanda) were the perpetrators: all but one of the pre-jury boots were from Ulong, the tribe filled with younger, prettier people.
So who are the young men who attacked Jolanda? Jolanda declined to name names, as is her prerogative. People on Reddit concluded that the pair are probably Jonathan Libby (then 23) and Jeff Wilson (then 21). That fits with the reported travel groups for the prejury — according to another RHAP interview, this one with Wanda in 2014, the suspected perpetrators were sent off on their own trip together, which Wanda also blames on fighting among the pre-jury group.
Regardless of who it was, though, clearly this happened to Jolanda, and it was deeply hurtful. These events happened more than 15 years ago. Hopefully the young men involved have grown up and evolved since then. But either way, maybe it's a good idea to trash-can your "bring back Wanda and Jonathan" takes, and replace them with a "bring back Wanda and Jolanda" campaign instead. Or maybe just Jolanda, since Wanda is over 70 now.
(Thanks to Muneeb Khan, @MUK734, for his help with Reddit and RHAP links on this.)
DVD commentary tidbits
Between the "Welcome to Palau" post-game featurette and the voice-over commentary for Episodes 1 and 2 (Ep.1: Tom, Ian, Caryn, Stephenie; Ep.2: Gregg, Jenn, Katie, Bobby Jon), there are a few pieces of information that are interesting and/or correct misperceptions from the edited product. Among these:
- Losing performance: Tom gets a confessional shortly after the full cast arrives at (future) Ulong beach, talking about how people keep trying to wrangle him into starting the fire, which he calls "a loser job, man." That's funny on its face, since Tom is a firefighter, obviously. But it gets even better: We then cut to the people actually trying and failing to start the fire, and they're all future Ulongs — Ashlee, Stephenie, Bobby Jon, Kim, and James (and Jonathan). Subtle but effective foreshadowing.
- Jolanda — also screwed by the tribe pick: Jolanda and Ibrehem were the only people of color (perhaps also Janu?) on this season. Ibrehem was the second-to-last guy picked, behind even James. Jolanda was 39 years old, Black, and a parent. An experienced leader who admits she has "a big personality," on a tribe that had zero interest in being told what to do. Maybe she was doomed regardless, but all of this set her apart from the rest of her tribe, almost all of whom were young (five were ages 21-25) White people, mostly from the South, which may have played into that. She picked well in selecting Bobby Jon, who at least respected her and tried to keep her around (as did Ibrehem). But she clearly clashed with the rest of Ulong. Koror, meanwhile, had just two people (Ian and Gregg) under 28. Even if the tribes had been separated by age as in Nicaragua (with Jolanda and James swapping places with Ian and Gregg), it's hard to imagine a worse draw for Jolanda, something over which she had no control after she selected Bobby Jon. Oh well. It's a situation that should be more avoidable in the future, with Survivor's new commitment to 50% BIPOC casts. Just 30+ seasons too late for Jolanda.
- A chilling vision of things to come: There's no better sign of Ulong's dysfunction, or predictor of Stephenie's future (Guatemala) self, than her performance in the first tribal IC. Ulong (mostly at Jolanda's insistence) elects to carry a bunch of heavy items through the obstacle course. Stephenie thinks this is a bad idea. Does she — the most physical woman on Ulong after Jolanda — jump in and help carry things to speed things along? Nope, she carries just two paddles, and spends most of her time yelling at everyone else to hurry up. Then she blames the loss entirely on Jolanda, even though the tribe was absolutely pathetic at paddling, and would never have found their way to their flag, let alone returned to shore. Way to team, Stephenie.
- Stupid, stupid people: Is there a dumber early decision in Survivor history than Koror's inexplicable choice to give up the camp they had just built and go to a completely new beach, sight unseen, after winning the Ep1 RC/IC? What on earth were they thinking? "Gosh, Mr. Probst. We had such a swell time building the first shelter, it surely would be a shame to miss out on doing all that work over again! Could we please have some more?" Set aside the rats and the capsizing that temporarily sinks their flint: This is, on its face, just impenetrably dumb. They're the older, physically overmatched tribe. What are they doing intentionally wearing themselves out, when they could be inflicting that on Ulong?
- The obvious what-if: How would the season have changed if the tribe pick had just gone to ten apiece, as in a modern 20-person season? The default picks for the two remainders would be: Wanda has to join the old folks on Koror, while Jonathan joins the young, pretty people on Ulong. Importantly, he's their fifth young, strong man (they only had four men to Koror's five). Maybe that's enough to put them over the top in either the first or second immunity challenge? It's hard to imagine Koror consistently dominating when they have to field at least three of Katie, Willard, Wanda, and Caryn.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes