The first two episodes of Survivor: Samoa presented the show's first opportunity to introduce the audience to Russell Hantz. In doing so, they somehow packed a full 6 days of Russell Hantz, more Russell Hantz (Nighttime Edition), and pretty much only Russell Hantz into two hour-long episodes.
Sure, there were cursory nods to other contestants: We had two requisite "Shambo is ostracized" sequences at Galu, where, like a beta version of John Cochran, she declines to join her new Galu tribe as they relax in the water (unlike actual Cochran, she never relents). In episode two, Shambo recreated the "Rupert loses the spear" scene, this time losing the mouthpiece of Galu's newly-won snorkel. There were check-ins with and reflections on the very important chiefs, Russell Swan and Mick. We also saw a bit of Hantz's ostensible (but ultimately short-lived) opposition, Marisa and Betsy. But the rest was all Hantz: By Hantz, about Hantz, and pretty much for Hantz.
To be fair, he is obviously a major character, and he did enter the game with some pre-planned antics the show (debatably) needed to put on the screen. (Some more debatably than others.) But it's hard to separate the show's fascination with their shiny (headed) new object from a directive to build the case that Hantz deserved to be on Heroes vs. Villains.
This is a bit facetious, because of course he was a good pick. Let us not forget that the Villains tribe did, after all, include one Danielle DiLorenzo, who was not remotely villainous in Panama - Exile Island, apart from simply being someone who wasn't Cirie.
In retrospect, it's hard not to feel that maybe we were told at most half a story this season. Certainly we got the story of why Russell lost. But we're never really shown why Natalie won, and even if that wasn't one the editors felt like telling, there were still 18 other potential angles from which to view the season's narrative. But instead, it was pretty much only Hantz's that was deemed to matter.
That much is clear in the first episode, where a lot of the irritating things Russell does as "strategy" are scenes that would normally be cut for time. For example, nobody is all that upset that he dumped out all the canteens the first night. But for some reason, we have to pretend they are, because Russell the Villain did it. Even though the collective response is like, "Oh. The water's gone. Oh well. That sucks." And then they go refill the canteens, and boil some more water, and nobody speaks of it again.
Similarly, Jaison seems moderately annoyed that he can't find his socks, which Russell gleefully burned the night before. But since Jaison doesn't know Russell did it, it's a plot point with no real payoff, apart from the audience being privy to the knowledge that Russell is an asshole. Could we have just gone with the Hurricane Katrina sob story/lie and called it a day? Yeah, probably.
But hey, only 27 more consecutive episodes (not counting recaps) of the opposite editing choice to go!
The stories left untold
The other main reason Russell stands out so much is that a lot of this cast is boring filler, because this was Peak Recruit Era Survivor. The casting department had somehow convinced itself that it could pluck 20 recruits from the beaches, bars, and restaurants of Santa Monica, people who had never seen Survivor before, and as long as there was at least one doctor and one lawyer, one or two were Ivy League-educated, and all were good-looking and in their 20s or 30s, it would be a great season. Sure, they would grudgingly toss in a few longtime applicants (Betsy, Russ Swan, Mike Borassi) for seasoning, probably because that gave them a bit more age diversity, but apart from that: the more model-actors from the greater LA area, the better.
It's pretty clear that's not actually true, of course. The people who actually applied clearly appreciate the game and tend to take it more seriously (Betsy, for example, and Russ Swan vs. say, Kelly Sharbaugh), even if they're not successful. And a lot of the recruits are pretty bland to watch (name your own names here). And of course, some are so toxic they should never have been there in the first place: (Ben, more on that below).
Even so, the editors left a lot of side stories on the cutting room floor, ones that could have been pretty interesting. For example, the premiere starts off making nods (during the opening vote for chiefs and hero challenge selections, all done on first impressions) to wanting to talk about race and stereotypes. Liz feels okay about a positive Asian-American stereotype that may have led to her being viewed as "the smartest," but hopes to avoid being seen as sneaky and/or conniving. Jaison, as a collegiate water polo player, happily shatters the (very prominently amplified by multiple past seasons of this very show, then later repeated by Borassi, in case we missed it) stereotype that Black men can't swim, easily outpacing John Fincher in the opening swim leg of the Ep1 RC. But that's pretty much the last we see of these story lines. Race only matters in first impressions, apparently. Even though at least one guy is obviously racist.
That's clear in Episode 2, as Yasmin and Ben get in a loud argument when she visits Foa Foa. But there's still more context and depth to that situation that goes unexplored. As in: it's clear that Galu's chief, Russ Swan, feels some kind of connection to Yasmin, as the only other Black person on his tribe. He works overtime to help her demonstrate her value to the tribe, putting her into the Ep1 RC (in the "most agile" slot, which she performs well), and sending her to scout out Foa Foa after the Ep2 IC, roles for which she would otherwise probably have been overlooked. But we never get his thoughts on that, nor do we hear hers. They're just two people who happen to be on the same tribe, who never visibly interact with each other.
The racist elephant in the room
Episode 2 contains Ben's racist ranting about Yasmin being "ghetto trash" and needing to go back to grammar school because of the way she speaks. (Which he repeats, and adds more to, at Tribal Council.) It also contains Ben taking a cheap shot at Russell Swan (kicking his knee/tripping him from behind) during the Schmergen Brawl challenge. Probst immediately kicks Ben out of the challenge, which then resumes with Foa Foa down a person in the pit, as a penalty. Galu scores seconds later. Ben's asshole attitude directly costs Foa Foa the tie-breaking point, putting them down 2-1, and on the brink of elimination. After the challenge, he shrugs, smirks, and flashes his "outlaw" tattoo publicly, never apologizing to his tribe. He then stays up all night chopping wood, keeping the entire camp awake. Jaison valiantly tries to get Mick on board to consider booting him. Ashley does the same with Liz.
Yet he receives just a single, throwaway vote at Tribal Council, from the departing Betsy. Despite all this.
And that's not even the end of it. According to Marisa's exit interviews, at the Episode 1 Tribal Council, Ben and Hantz had formed a tag team, berating her at length. (Jaison alludes to this early in Episode 2, when talking to Russell.) It was clear Ben was an asshole then. People were already sick of the way he blew up at people in camp, even before Yasmin arrived.
Furthermore, it's pretty obvious that much of Foa Foa knew what they were getting before the game started. Ben received zero votes to be tribe chief, even though five (!) of his nine tribemates did. Here, it's important to remember that the players spend close to a week in lockdown at Ponderosa before the game starts, and while they're unable to talk to each other, they do hang out and eat in the same general area, and can interact with producers and Ponderosa staff. People must have picked up during that time that Ben was an arrogant, self-absorbed prick.
Why was this guy given a guaranteed slot, while Erik Cardona came in as an alternate? Sometimes Survivor casting just sucks.
More importantly, why was Ben allowed to skate through this episode? Two reasons: Large tribes, and Russell Hantz. Being on a large tribe helped him, because it's much easier for someone who's wavering — Jaison, Ashley — to go with the perceived numbers and not make waves on a tribe of 10 people. Betsy and Marisa tried their best to swing something in Episode 1, but they fell short. Just Mick voted with them (for reasons that were never shown nor explained). Betsy couldn't swing Natalie. Russell had already formed alliances with Jaison (and Ashley and Ben and Natalie), and he wants Marisa out. Borassi and Liz appear to just go with the numbers, in an "as long as it ain't me" sense. And it's done.
Betsy came up against the same problem in Episode 2. Betsy pushes *hard* on Ashley and Natalie to get them to vote Ben, but neither is initially receptive to the idea. After thinking about it, Ashley reconsiders, but she can't pull in Liz. Jaison is also having second thoughts, in part because Ben is obviously racist, and in part because Ben is starting to encroach on Jaison's preferred position as Russell's lieutenant. He tries to swing Mick (who voted against the majority last time!), but still can't make it work. Foa Foa has eight people. It's a lot of work to get the necessary five-person majority together. Betsy has at best three. It's not enough. Large tribes with no swaps are a great way to preserve the status quo in Survivor, especially when the tribes are full of people unfamiliar with the game.
The brawl challenge: A dumb tradition finally claims a victim
Episode 2's sole challenge was "Schmergen Brawl," which followed the mid-teens tradition of an early tribal challenge that encouraged full-contact brawling. But where the pillow-dragging challenge was carried out in sand in Panama, and in ankle-deep water in Micronesia, or where Basket Brawl was also done in water in Tocantins, this version featured high-speed collisions on hard-packed dirt, or, if they were lucky, into various wooden posts or platforms.
It's frankly amazing that the only injury here was Mike Borassi having a cardiac event. Well, and Ben Browning intentionally kicking Russ Swan in the back of the leg, because Ben is a huge baby who reasoned that although he wasn't brave enough to tackle him, he could still injure him if it was a sneak attack. Still, no broken bones, and no concussions (except possibly Borassi).
In addition to this just being really dumb from a safety standpoint, Probst lets slip production's underlying intent for these challenges as he's sending Yasmin over to stand with Foa Foa after the brawling is complete: He smugly chuckles "after *THIS* challenge, this should be interesting."
Production obviously wants to deepen the divisions between the initial tribes. What are they thinking?
Why is production going out of its way not just to hurt its contestants, but to actively inhibit interesting gameplay? Why are they encouraging the contestants to favor a boring Pagonging? Players sticking to initial tribes really doesn't need any additional assistance to happen, it's clearly the default state.
It's like they watched Rob Cesternino flip back and forth between alliances in The Amazon and said to themselves, "Ugh, such disloyalty! We have to double our efforts to make sure this never happens again." Sigh.
- The Borassi mystique: This was Mike Borassi's second Survivor season. He was pulled from Tocantins on Day -1 (the day before filming started) for medical reasons, and replaced by Spencer Duhm. He was pulled from Samoa for medical reasons on Day 5. The lingering question is: Why? What was so spectacular about him that production bent over backwards to cast him twice, and in back-to-back seasons, no less? On the one hand, he was a longtime applicant, so it's cool that they gave him two shots. He did go on a fitness kick between seasons, losing 30 pounds before showing up in Samoa, so that's at least good news for him. On the other hand, he's 62, and he's a walking, talking big-city East Coast Italian-American stereotype: Tough, colorful, boisterous. He's Dan Lembo, just two seasons earlier and twice the size. (Although Dan Lembo had never seen the show, and probably still hasn't.)
Sure, he comes up with fun confessional quotes, like "I'm a bad motor scooter," but he also quotes Norm from Cheers at Tribal Council without attribution ("It's a dog-eat-dog world, and we're all wearing Milk Bone underwear"), which is ... eh. If this were Gabon, he's basically Gillian — decent person, gives solid confessionals, but far too unlike everyone else to be much more than cannon fodder, compounded by an inability to compete in the early physical challenges (Mike was relegated to the puzzle in the Ep1 IC). In all, he's someone with an extremely slim chance of reaching the merge, let alone winning. Ultimately, his was a casting slot wasted, one that could have gone to someone who might otherwise have helped Marisa and Betsy stand up to Hantz. (Perhaps that was by design.) Oh well.
- Sidenote - the lies casting/production tells: Speaking of Spencer Duhm (who was an alternate that ended up on the show), Erik Cardona and one unnamed woman were also alternates for this season, but for some reason the show made a last-second decision to go with 20 instead of 18 contestants, and the pair made it in. But hilariously, Cardona said in a recent interview with Dalton Ross that casting told him that they were sending him out to Samoa, but not to get his hopes up, because an alternate had *never* made it onto the show before. This is clearly, demonstrably false. It was false way back in S2, when Tina not only made it on, but won. It was even more glaringly false since it had just happened again the season before. Why do they do these things?
- Speaking of production lies: In the pre-season press for Samoa, Probst touted this as a season of "choices," where production really opened things up, and let the contestants control the flow of the game. This is true for the initial chiefs vote (which is really just a nicer version of the first impressions "vote off" in the previous season, Tocantins), and having the chiefs select the participants in the opening hero challenge. Note that these are less "choices," and more random number generation/ guessing. But "choice" is even more laughable, having just watched Fiji and Gabon, where the contestants, not production, made the most important decision: tribal composition. What if Jaison, Russ Swan and Yasmin had all been on a tribe together? What if Betsy had been on Galu, and Shambo on Foa Foa? What if Laura and Dave had been on Hantz's tribe? Totally different seasons.
- Foa Foa - double the name, double the hypocrisy: Yasmin kicks off her visit to Foa Foa in the most cringey way possible, offering to help them with strategy, because otherwise the two tribes don't match up, and beating them is like "taking candy from a baby" (which is the episode title). Obviously, this is a sub-optimal tack to take. (Yasmin readily admits she was on the show solely to become a reality TV personality, so it's not surprising she doesn't appear to have thought this through.) Jaison gives the appropriate community response to this lecture in confessional: "Screw you!" Still, it's hilarious that Russell immediately stalks off to the beach, and gives a hot-headed on-the-spot confessional, objecting in particular that she's "disrespecting us, calling us babies!" Apparently it's only okay to refer to Foa Foa as dumb babies behind their backs, in the safety of confessional, eh, Russell?
- The idol fake-out, shown and unshown: The other part of Yasmin visiting Foa Foa was that she received a clue to Foa Foa's idol. This seems a bit mean when production knew full well that Russell had already found it. Interestingly, from Yasmin's exit interview, she confided in Jaison (who also knew that Russell had found it), who *helped her look for it* for 40 minutes or so. Giving Yasmin an idol clue does at least tell her that there's probably also one at Galu, so it's not quite as dirty a production move as re-hiding a trail of useless idol clues for Bob to find in Gabon. But it's close.
- So long, old people: As the Episode 2 vote approaches, Betsy rightly worries that she'll be perceived as the "old person," and Liz (in confessional) agrees that Betsy is, at 47, not even remotely comparable physically to Ben, who's 28. Which raises a surprising point: After Borassi is removed *everyone* on Foa Foa is between 26 and 36, except Betsy (and Ashley, who's 22, but if she'd been the first boot, Marisa was 26). I know, you're thinking, "Whoa, Russell was only 36?!" It's true, though. Meanwhile, Galu has a 38-year-old (Dave Ball), a 39-year-old (Laura Morett), a 42-year-old (Russ Swan), and a 45-year-old (Shambo). Again, the season of "choices" the contestants make.
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