Survivor: Edge of Extinction debuted with an hour-long episode, which seemed rushed, barely scratching the surface on most of the new players, and mostly just felt incomplete.
We know, it's not Survivor's fault, it's CBS's. Instead of last season's 90-minute runtime, Survivor had to cram all of its new information and cast members into a single hour (42 minutes with the ads removed), in order to accommodate CBS's new lackluster, trend-trailing, Burnett-helmed talent show rip-off, the hour-long, inaccurately titled The World's Best. (Whose now-mediocre ratings at last match its meh reviews.)
But in another sense, it *is* also Survivor's fault, mainly because of the choices they made this season. CBS didn't force the show to mix the newbies with four returning players, Survivor's braintrust came up with that all on their own. Ditto to a new, two-stage, difficult-to-explain (and thus time-sucking) advantage, and a new twist that takes place after torches are snuffed, which had to be explained twice in the episode (neither time to the contestants at large).
Another obvious problem: The returnees take up too much screen time. This doesn't make intuitive sense, because we already know them from their past seasons, so why do we need to spend so much time meeting them again, especially when there are 14 new faces to get to know? But it does make ratings/audience-pleasing sense. The veterans are the big draw, the top billing, the favorites. Obviously, the show has to at least acknowledge that.
At least this isn't a Russell Hantz season, where he's immediately handed 14-to-15 chances per episode to trundle out his wearisome greatest hits confessional package, which ranges all the way from "I am the best player who ever was" to "I am the greatest player of all time!" That doesn't mean, however, we skimped on the returnee-flogging. Oh no.
Joe had two confessionals, Kelley had two, Aubry and David one each, and the returnees as a group were highlighted once on the speed boat as they were ushered in, and once upon joining the rest of the cast on the marooning ship, where (after excited gasps from the newbies) Probst expounded on each of their accomplishments. And then they each individually told the exact same story about how they have lots to offer the new players, but are worried (correctly!) about being targeted. That's a lot of time.
Who are these new players? That's the question we're mostly left asking after the premiere. Neither Chris nor Julia even had a confessional. On the plus side, we were introduced to Wendy and Keith, the only people who had more than two confessionals. We sort of know their motivations and intended gameplay now, and also Reem's. Similarly, we know a bit about Ron, too, because we watched him find his advantage/idol menu. These are all good things. The canned pre-game biographical info recitations you usually see in the premiere confessionals often tell us very little about who the contestants really are. We learn much more from seeing them react to in-game events. That happened for these three to four contestants, at least.
The rest of the newbies are mostly blank slates at this point. Lauren has been almost entirely defined as "the one who likes Kelley (and Joe)," Rick/Devens is the guy with glasses in the majority group on the blue tribe. Julie is the woman who peed in a bush in Central Park once. Gavin has a pineapple shirt and an accent. Victoria has red hair and is a fan of the show. The Wardog is the bald guy who doesn't like people moving his clothes. Literally, most of these people were defined visually, given one anecdote, and then we moved on. That'll obviously be remedied in future weeks, but it's always best when the premiere functions as a standalone introduction. This felt unfinished.
The feeling of incompleteness is probably also a result of the cliffhanger nature of the twist(s). Is Edge of Extinction a good idea? Since Reem only just arrived there, we don't have any way to tell yet. Obviously, this question and others will eventually be answered as the season moves along. In a perfect world, that extra half-hour would have been a boon, at least for the cast introduction duties. But this is an imperfect world, Survivor had to work with the timeslot it was given, and here we are. We'll get over it, probably.
There may also be larger reasons why so much time seemed to be commandeered by the returning players. Maybe they all get voted out quickly, the editors want to set up that coming culling immediately, and they figure we'll have most of the season to meet the first-timers, anyway. That's fine, or at least it will be eventually.
Still, we can't forgive that time constraints (?) robbed us of this moment, which sounds better than most of those that were actually aired, and which was cruelly excised from the premiere:
My favorite moment from the marooning was cut.— Josh Wigler (@roundhoward) February 21, 2019
On the boat, The Wardog introduced himself as "The Wardog." Moments later, Probst asked Rick to identify himself.
Rick: "This is awkward, but my name is also The Wardog." #Survivor
The big twist: Going with the flow
We've still only barely visited Edge of Extinction island, but signs point to it dramatically improving on its predecessors in one key aspect. One of the two* major problems with the old Redemption island format was the way it disrupted the natural storytelling flow of a Survivor episode. In a regular, non-Redemption season's episode, you see a low-stakes challenge, then a high-stakes challenge, someone vulnerable doesn't win immunity, they get voted out, and that's the end. Jeff Probst says some words of wisdom about the game continuing, the contestants grab their stuff, and head back to camp, ready to repeat the cycle next week.
Redemption tied that flow in knots, by forcing a potentially game-ending duel into the opening act of most episodes. Sure, you still had the closing scene of the torch snuffing and walk of shame each week, but that person wasn't really done yet. Instead, most of the time, they actually left in the first third of the next week's episode. Not to mention that symbolically, instead of "fire = life," and the snuffed torch reflecting the end of their game, Redemption duel losers had to burn their buffs turning fire into death. But whatever.
At least on the first run-through, Edge of Extinction appears to unclog that disrupted narrative flow. Probst swears there will be no duels to distract us. We'll see Extinction when the story calls for us to visit it, we won't be forced there at the same time each week. We'll see more of the fallout back in camp, in the regular game. These are welcome changes.
Plus, the Extinction set reveal was spooky and fun. Reem's arrival in the dark, with the island lit only by the torch she was carrying, was a great touch. Had Ghost Island been introduced this way two seasons ago, it would have seemed a lot more compelling. Maybe that magic will fade as more people show up, and we see a small village of quasi-contestants milling about in broad daylight. But for now, at least it seems to have potential. And a restored flow.
*The other major (perhaps even greatest) problem with Redemption Island? Having someone return near the end of the game (final five). That's a ridiculously unfair advantage to the person returning, and now there's only one shot for the people still playing to do the right thing and vote them back out. This wasn't a problem with the Outcasts twist. If Survivor had shown even the *slightest* bit of self-restraint here, and kept Edge of Extinction as a pre-merge-only twist, like the Outcasts, Edge of Extinction would be a home run: Compelling/ bewildering/ surprising for the audience and players alike. Instead, its ceiling is most likely to be a marginally better Redemption. Such a wasted opportunity. To quote Joe Talbot at his most ominous: "It's coming...it's coming...."
Questioning the edit
Speaking of the storytelling, however, one key aspect of the show has become newly mysterious: To what extent does the need to play up the saving-the-poor-underdog aspect of Extinction affect the presentation of the regular-game portion of the story?
We ask this because as presented in the episode, the Reem boot really felt like like an unfair railroading, a foregone conclusion that she and Wendy were completely powerless to fight back against. The stated reasons — Egads! She dried our clothes! The horror! — did not seem to fit the punishment. Similarly, the presentation of the tribe's strategic division as a throwaway, spur-of-the-moment decision — Look, those three are in the water ... so the rest of us are the dominant majority. Phew! Done! — also fed the perception that Reem's ouster was completely unfair. Worst of all, Reem and Wendy were ostracized for helping Keith get better at swimming! How dare they try to improve their tribe?
So when, as expected, Reem was voted out, it seemed deflating and cruel. But wait! What's this secret pathway that could allow Reem another chance to return to the game? The downtrodden underdog might still be saved? Hallelujah!
That was how the show itself portrayed the series of unfortunate (for Reem) events, at least. In doing so, it casts Edge of Extinction in the most positive light possible, as a miraculous beacon of hope. (Well, okay, then it also hints at darkness ahead, as Reem steps onto a desolate, lightless beach, strewn with the disintegrating carcass of a wrecked ship. Yay?)
Still, because this episode marked the audience's introduction to the twist, we needed to be rooting for Reem here. If the first boot had been some domineering, unlikable bully, the audience would be saying "I hope it rains non-stop on that jerk!" instead of the bootee wishing that on her former tribemates. Plus we would all be groaning that we're stuck with that insufferable loser for an indeterminate number of future weeks. So did Survivor just get lucky with a likable first boot here, or did they maybe tweak a few things here and there to tip the scales a bit?
It's impossible to know for sure, but nipping and tucking to amplify perceptions of heroism and villainy is something reality TV editors do all the time, and something that we as audience members often forget. Even if Survivor just lucked into a perfect storm here, the chances are high that our rooting interests will be tipped in favor of the Extinction visitors in the coming weeks. Maybe the need to do that will wane as the audience becomes more familiar with the concept. Maybe not.
Just a reminder that the show's presentations of fairness and unfairness may not be as black-and-white as they seem.
Probst as unreliable narrator
Along the same lines as the above questions, this season the host is not entirely telling the truth. This was another fun aspect of the premiere, as Probst deliberately did not reveal what the season's theme actually meant. Instead, he sort of fudged a cover story, pointing out that the returnees have played hard but never won before, nodding vaguely to how difficult Survivor is to win, which sort of sounds like "Edge of Extinction," more or less?
This was fun in and of itself, but the payoff for this should be multi-fold. As we saw with Reem, people who are newly booted will each get to discover the existence of this in-season Second Chance opportunity every week. (At least until someone returns at the merge.) So that'll be fun. Does anyone realistically expect a pre-merge boot to not want to keep playing? Especially, say, when the merge could be the next day? Probably not.
We'll receive another payoff when that first return to the game takes place — through an as yet completely unexplained mechanism ... is it like the Outcasts in Pearl Islands? A duel, as in recent seasons? Is it just one person? — and the still-in-the-game contestants will have their minds blown. Unless they've figured it out by then. Either way, please let however many Extinction residents show up all wear "Die, Jerks" headbands. Please?
It's been a while since Probst has actively misled everyone with careful wording, and it's fun to see it go down once in a while. But you do have to wonder how long everyone will accept "edge of extinction" as a generic theme. Joe was questioning that on Day 1, and he has already played on a season lamely titled "Worlds Apart." That title, however, had to do with the tribe division, not the theme itself. This group of superfans also just watched Ghost Island. Someone has to figure out that if the name doesn't refer to the tribes, it has to be a game element, right?
Will our unreliable editors/narrator show this moment to the audience, if someone really does solve the mystery? Let's hope so.
- Thanks for nothing? If Kama keeps winning (which doesn't appear out of the question), Ron probably won't have to decide whether to throw away a shot at individual immunity in order to steal a reward, because the first three immunity challenges are usually combined RC/ICs. So on a third straight win, there would be literally nothing useful he can do with his advantage menu. No reward to steal, no votes to make, no need for an idol. The time limit and having choices are nice touches in theory, but in practice, they don't seem to work particularly well for someone on a good tribe.
- Nothing but (injuries can come from a) net: Surely someone else immediately flashed back to Kourtney Moon (and Missy Payne) the second they saw Kelley come away from that net with an injury, right? The immunity challenge had a lot of fun elements, but that seemed unnecessarily risky. It's a little surprising that nobody bounced up and whacked their head on the log supporting the balance beam. (That's not what Kelley did, was it?)
- The reward that wasn't (shown): If you missed Dalton Ross's behind-the-scenes article about the marooning, you should fix that right now. In it, he describes an additional secret reward that was on the marooning ship, which apparently nobody noticed (at least as shown in the episode). There was a collection of canned food tied to a buoy near the boats. There was a sign on the ship directing whoever read it to dive beneath the buoy to release the food. As Dalton tweeted during the show, this actually was found, but it was cut because, as with other good stuff, no time. (And we'll give you the answer to your next question the same way Dalton phrased it: You get one guess as to who retrieved it.) Take-home message: It's amazing how much work goes into this show, a lot of which never even makes air.
- You can't trust the internet: Also in the Dalton Ross behind-the-scenes story, Jeff Probst talks about fact-checking the show's own stats before the marooning, before the returnee introductions, and catching an error in Kelley's challenge wins in the script he was memorizing. After doing so, Probst consults an unnamed online resource, decides "you can't trust the internet," and somehow comes up with the correct numbers a different way. So ... the show's stated total of Joe's team/tribal challenge wins is, shall we say, inaccurate. Probst announced that "Joe's tribes have won 16 challenges!" Looking at the challenge record on Joe's contestant page, we could only count 15. And that includes counting a couple of second-place finishes in three-tribe challenges as "wins." Which is fine, whatever. The missing challenge? That would be the Ep4 Reward Challenge in Cambodia. It was a "hero challenge," with just one person competing per tribe. Joe's tribe finished second in this one (again, fine, whatever). One key piece of info about it though: Joe did not even compete in this one, Terry Deitz did. Why include that in the count? Joe's among the all-time leaders in team challenge wins, and a substantial portion of those were indeed Joe's doing. Why cheapen that accomplishment with grade inflation?
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, you can do so on twitter: @truedorktimes
Other Edge of Extinction Episode 1 recaps and analysis
Must-read pre-Episode 1 Edge of Extinction article