In basing the entire pre-season marketing pitch on this being the "most punishing season of Survivor ever," the network and show have created a new, different vibe for this season. Andy Dehnart at RealityBlurred called it "a full-on horror show" feeling. We were shown a worm crawling out of Jennifer's bloody ear. And with Jason and Scot opting to play hard and snatch the feel-good ending away from Darnell at Tribal Council, the episode closed with a further dark tone. Looming over it all is the implicit threat that even you do like some of these people (such as the endlessly likable Tai), there's an increasingly good chance that they could overcome their in-game strategic difficulties... only to get pulled from the game as a medevac. Someone's minor scratch in a challenge or injury in camp could turn into a raging, life-threatening infection! They're all going to die!
But as more time passes, and we've gotten past the initial shock of the new, darker Survivor, we're starting to wonder if maybe this is actually a good thing. Injuries are an unpredictable element that can spring from out of nowhere to fell your treasured favorites. Obviously, a reality competition show is quite far from Game of Thrones, but the material could still be there for the show to build up a few Robb Starks to dispatch in their own Red Weddings. Or it can pay off as it did in this episode, with two almost-medevacs, where each person made a miraculous recovery. Either way, as much as we don't want to encourage Survivor putting its contestants in harm's way unnecessarily in future seasons, this season has already been shot (for almost a year now!) and is known to be medevac-heavy. We're perfectly happy with the editors using this gloomy spectre of impending medevacs as a narrative device to toy with the audience's expectations. Embrace the darkest timeline, Survivor.
The Alecia fakeout
We want to take some extra time to acknowledge the outstanding effort that went into hiding/decoying Darnell's boot. As far as we can tell, everyone was on board here, broadly hinting that Alecia, not Darnell, was going to be the first person eliminated from Survivor: Kaoh Rong, right down to the pre-season ad campaign. Typically, those ads highlight colorful players (Tai, Jason), stunt casting (Caleb, but surprisingly not Scot), long-term players (Neal? Joe?), and almost always, the first person booted. Survivor: Philippines ads featured just two non-returnee players, future returnee Malcolm and first-out Zane. David Samson, Nadiya Anderson, and So Kim were all among the few players on their seasons who received pre-season ad confessionals. So when Alecia, of all people, popped up amid the paltry Kaoh Rong marketing attempt, she seemed like the obvious initial eliminee. Nary a sign of Darnell in the ads.
Jeff Probst kept up the misinformation campaign in his pre-season TV Guide assessments, saying Alecia "gets off to a tough start, in terms of dynamics." Darnell... "will be a fan favorite." The editing within the premiere continued to raise and support expectations that Alecia was doomed. Practically every scene of the Brawn camp included some instance of Alecia not fitting in, whether it was being called "Blondie" by Jason, failing to split palm fronds, or being snippily told "My ear's bleeding, sweetheart" by Jennifer. The struggle was real. Certainly, Darnell and Jennifer were also presented as potential alternative boots, but Alecia seemed like the obvious one. Right down to Jason seemingly changing his initial vote at Tribal Council, and Alecia taking the lead, 3-2, in the initial vote reveal. But then... all Darnell. Solid obfuscation efforts, all around.
Superfans vs. longtime fans vs. rookie mistakes
A lot of people have complained that our pre-season projections overvalue superfans. We would argue that we don't really think superfans have the best skill set, and that "superfan" connotes a level of enthusiasm that might actually be detrimental. Rather, the best players tend to be longtime fans with good analytical skills, and above all, social skills. Simply look at the 10 most-recent winners: Boston Rob (watched at least 3 seasons prior to winning, analytical, amazing social skills), Sophie (longtime fan, smart), Kim (longtime fan, smart, amazing social skills), Denise (longtime fan, smart, socially insightful), Cochran (an actual superfan, sufficiently analytical to position himself perfectly the second time), Tyson (fan since his first appearance nine seasons prior, deceptively analytical, great social insights), Tony (longtime fan, nonstop analytical/social machine), Natalie (the one non-fan, but she binged on Survivor before playing, and had great social ability), Mike (longtime fan, good social instincts, even if it rarely paid off for him), and Jeremy (longtime fan, raised his social game the second time). Almost to a person, these people all had internalized and analyzed how the game worked, had some idea of how they fit into the game's structure, and went into their winning seasons having thought through the likely hurdles to and requirements for a successful game. Not necessarily with a specific plan, but a solid handle on what to do and what not to do in commonly occurring situations.
This season, that group includes people like Jason, who's been watching since season 1, and started (at least co-) running things at Brawn from the second he stepped on the beach. He doesn't seem like the kind of person with a buff collection, but he's watched and absorbed the mechanics of the show, and has a decent idea of what needs to happen. It includes Aubry, who understood implicitly that her battle with heatstroke was putting her in a highly vulnerable position with her tribe, recovered, then made sure she stepped up for key roles in the immunity challenge, to ensure her fate was ultimately in her own hands. It includes Neal, who (probably rightly) worried that his Brains tribe might implode from its own lack of cohesiveness and direction before the merge, but kept his concerns to himself, kept his mouth shut and accepted Debbie's eccentricities, then cagily formed alliances out of earshot.
In contrast, people who haven't really spent any time watching any of the preceding 31 seasons tend to make head-scratchingly rookie mistakes. For example, faced with Scot and Jason trying to (patronizingly) reassure her that she's safe, Alecia responding to Jason's direct question of "do you have an idol?" with a hilariously unconvincing attempt at seeming shady and mysterious. Scot's head almost literally exploded at that instant. Similarly, as much as we love Tai, we don't get the sense he's seen a ton of Survivor, and his vanishing from a group outing to spend half an hour pulling up trees and digging for idols was... sigh. (On the plus side, at least Tai realized his mistake afterward, and hopefully he can adjust accordingly.) After an all-star season of high-level gameplay starting from Day 1, it's a bit frustrating to head back to these, well, "Kindergarten Camp" (the Ep.2 title) misadventures. So we're grateful for the fans, and hopeful that the non-fans will at least start to catch on.
Kaoh Rong Episode 1 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews: Darnell Hamilton
Episode 1 Podcasts