As has been almost universally noted, this one was... a miss. The jury's still out as to whether Worlds Apart will live up to its hype as one of Survivor's best seasons, but in a strong counter-argument, this episode dra...a...a...gged from start to finish. This dullness was not really the fault of the cast, or production decisions, or editing. The underlying problem, as heretical as it may be to suggest, was probably this: The three tribe format.
Three tribes are both a blessing and a curse. Treble tribes' gifts come mostly after the merge: instead of two rigid alliances of people who've been together since Day 1, with one gaining the upper hand then gradually extinguishing the other in a long, multi-episode slog, the post-merge strategic maneuvering is generally more fluid. This pays off handsomely for everyone involved: contestants have more opportunities to get ahead, editors don't have to labor around the clock to come up with a plausible decoy boot, and viewers are treated to a more exciting, unpredictable show.
Until the individual game begins, however, three tribes presents problems. For players, three tribes is an instant dilemma, because there's nowhere to hide on a six-person tribe. You either get in with the majority immediately, or you'll be the first or second boot from your tribe. There's no time for getting to know people first; the game starts the second you hit the beach. For production, these early episodes also present logistical problems. Another camp means another camera crew. You'll need an extra set of obstacles in each challenge build. For editing, one more tribe also means 50% more narrative space that has to be taken up exploring that tribe's dynamics. All of which adds up to something having to be cut early on, which is usually challenges (Cagayan had but a single challenge in each of its first three episodes, Philippines in its first four). This then feeds back on the contestants, who after they've built their shelter in the first episode, have little to do but sit around and bicker in the two long days with no challenges or Tribal Council in each three-day episode.
And that's what we saw this episode (even if it only encompassed Days 7-8). The challenge-free first half of the episode focused almost exclusively on interpersonal conflicts within the White Collar and Blue Collar tribes, with multiple people grousing that "[some other contestant] is the next to go." But... they didn't, because both of those tribes ended up winning immunity. The tension/release equilibrium of Survivor is normally kept in balance by trips to Tribal Council. With three tribes, there's a good chance that for one of those three, that meter will remain stuck on "tension," at least until a swap or a merge. Sadly, especially for Blue Collar, neither of those is particularly imminent.
So instead, we're stuck with drama and dissension to pass the time. Which to be honest, are not Survivor's forte. If we wanted to watch people argue incessantly over stupid stuff, we'd watch one of the many semi-scripted reality shows cable has to offer. Or The Amazing Race. Calculated conflict, stirred up to gain a strategic edge? Sure, that's good Survivor. Petty bickering? That's Bravo or MTV or TLC. And yet, here were are, stuck on Day 7 of Survivor: Worlds Apart, with nothing to do, and things are starting to take on a darker tone, with Rodney implicitly threatening Dan with bodily harm over an attempted joke, Lindsey railing against Mike's faith, and almost the entire White Collar tribe mocking Shirin (behind her back) for not fitting in. Nina also continued not fitting in on No Collar, complained about it, then was criticized for complaining about it.
If there's a faint glimmer of hope, it's that in the latter case, that storyline has ended. Sigh. So what can be done to fix this problem in future three-tribe seasons? What follows are a few suggestions.
Are they clueless?
Entering this episode, both Blue Collar and No Collar have won rewards at challenges, yet unlike Cagayan, we've seen exactly zero footage of anyone finding hidden immunity idol clues tucked in with their reward items, nor have we seen anyone on those tribes looking for idols. (To be fair, we haven't even seen anyone using their reward items.)
This is truly baffling. As much as we feel that idols get too much screentime in modern Survivor (relative to their actual strategic value), at least having clues in circulation gives the contestants something to do. And given how much the editors love showing idol clues, we have to conclude production really hasn't been handing them out (backed up by Joaquin's belief that his Day 1 clue still had some value, when sharing it with Tyler on Day 7). Again, this is absolutely bizarre.
Also strange: nobody on either of those two tribes has been seen trying to find their idol without a clue, since as Carolyn demonstrated, White Collar's was hidden exactly where anyone who'd previously watched the show would expect to find it. True, Vince did claim in his exit interviews that he fed the No Collars a story that Nina had already found their idol, which precipitated their vote-split attempt in Episode 2 (and much staring at Nina before the votes were read at the last two Tribal Councils). Maybe Joe, Jenn, and Hali decided there was no point in looking for it after that, and Nina wanted to maintain the ruse? (And Will had never heard of idols, doesn't understand the question, and won't respond to it?) But surely at least Dan or Kelly should be looking, right?
Part of the problem here may also have been boredom. The contestants have completed a whopping three challenges in eight days, which is in line with past three-tribe seasons, but again, those past contestants had idol clues for distraction purposes. Even All-Stars had the locked treasure chest and its attendant clues. Maybe Rodney objected to collecting wood because that's all there has been to do for the last seven days and it's getting old, dammit.
To be clear, we're not sure more challenges is necessarily the best move here. Idol clues would be vastly preferable, because they at least give hope to someone who, through no fault of their own, ended up on the bottom of a six-person tribe (whether due to age, ethnic background, religion, or just generally poor sorting of the contestants). But if you're not blanketing the camps with a snowstorm of idol clues, you have to give them something to do.
It's not the collar, and it's not the cochlear implants. It's the age disparity
Part of the uncomfortableness of Nina's boot was everyone's awkward attempts to deny that Nina's not fitting in was due to her hearing disadvantage. (Everyone that wasn't Nina, anyway.) Jeff Probst jumped in with gusto, trying to reinforce his tacked-on theme, "Is it possible Nina's on the wrong tribe? Maybe she's not a No Collar?"
No, Probst. No.
No matter how many times you repeat it, nobody is a "No Collar." That's a made-up label you created. Although, as you state, "in this game, perception is reality," and if you beat the contestants over their heads with your arbitrary theme for long enough, maybe they'll eventually start thinking that way. Nina didn't fit in for multiple reasons: most importantly her age, then her hearing, and way, way down there somewhere is "being a free spirit" (or not). Nina is more than twice as old as each of Hali, Jenn, and Joe. This was the only tribe where half the people were 25 or under. Nina is almost 20 years older than Vince, who saw himself as much, much older than the younger three. White Collar started off with five people aged 30 or older, so yes, Nina probably would have fit in better there, but just because she had more in common with more people than she did here, not because she used to work in sales. That's like pretending the fans hated the Tyler Perry idol because Tony found it, not because it was an unnecessary distortion of the game that had already been refined and fixed once. Oh wait, that's what you do. Carry on, then.
Perhaps predictably, this is another problem that derives from starting with three tribes. We get it. It's tough to balance ages when you only have six people per tribe, and you have to three men and three women each. You can do one of each gender in their 20s, their 30s, and their 40s, but then where do you put the stray 50-plus contestants? (Or, heaven forfend, teenagers?)
Final words. Before we depart, let's clarify, lest some executive producer take this out of context: We certainly don't hate the three-tribe format, and on the whole, we really like it. The ends (post-merge excitement) justify the means (early episode ennui). We just think the actual three-tribe phase could use a bit of tweaking.
Even if it's (and it pains us to say this) just more idol clues.
Worlds Apart Episode 3 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Nina Poersch
Podcasts - Episode 3