Survivor: Edge of Extinction still has an intact roster of four returnees (or "returners," in Eric's parlance), but has now (partially) shed two of its new faces. This despite near-constant talk of voting the two- or three-time contestants out.
That's fine, the past seven times mixed new/returning player seasons have been tried, there's always been a bit of an asterisk attached to the season, because of the perception that the returning players had an unfair advantage. So it's somewhat interesting that — even though the results have yet to catch up to that overall feeling — the mood seems to be that the returnees are just sitting ducks, waiting to be voted out. It's still an unfair format, just in the opposite direction this time. There's just no winning with mixed seasons.
Survivor has now tried these hybrid seasons with two returnees (Guatemala, Redemption Island, South Pacific), three (Philippines), four (this season, which makes it the fifth "captains" season), and ten (Micronesia, Caramoan, Blood vs. Water). Of these, the only one that felt even close to a level playing field was Philippines, and that was because two of the three returning players (Mike Skupin, Russell Swan) had been medically removed relatively early from their first season, and neither had even attended Tribal Council more than twice. They were only marginally more seasoned than legit first-time players. (Penner was the obvious exception, with close to one-and-a-half seasons already under his belt.)
Not so this season, with three third-timers and one second-timer vs. 14 first-timers. The difference this season being that at least this time, the new players seem universally aware of the threat their returning favorites pose to their own chances of winning. Even so, the mixing of players of different levels of familiarity with how the show actually works is still problematic, an issue the show just doesn't seem interested in remembering or addressing. And it's completely predictable, based on past history. Just look at how every potential outcome will most likely be viewed in hindsight:
In none of these cases is the win as satisfying as a new player beating other fresh faces, or a veteran conquering a cast of similarly seasoned Survivors.
So why do it, then? Why have we returned to the mixed returning/ new player format, the scourge of the boring mid-20s era, a full eleven seasons after it had rightly been put out to pasture?
That's a great question. Dalton Ross tried asking Jeff Probst this exact thing before Edge of Extinction filmed, and as far as we can tell, the only rationale Probst gave was (paraphrasing): "It just felt like it was time! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ "
This is a frustrating response, because it completely ignores the very obvious reasons (above) that the format was bemoaned in the first place. But hey, you know: Survivor always has to try "new" things and break new ground, and mumble mumble keep things fresh. (Just like this season's fourth attempt at Redemption Island!)
So instead of this season building on the success of David vs. Goliath and relishing in the contestants' personal stories and deep appreciation for the game, roughly 75% of the confessionals so far (especially on the Kama tribe) have been one-note, empty variants on either "We have to take out the returnees" or "I'm worried these new players want me out." These soundbites tell us nothing about any of these players as individual people, and it's already tiresome after two episodes. The only* respite from the "Destroy all the returnees/Help! I'm a returnee!" onslaught has been the old standbys: (1) talking about idols, (2) scenes of people looking for idols, and (3) "We need to keep the tribe strong."
It's as if the producers forced a bot to watch 1000 hours of recent Survivor seasons then asked it to write its own season. For some reason without using the words "Island" or "versus" in the title, to make it seem fresh and exciting.
*Well, okay, there was also that uncomfortable dance thing Kama was doing, in which Aubry was forced to participate. Probably a glitch in the software.
The (potential) torture of Reem
As the first person to (ever) live on Edge of Extinction (which will never officially be called Extinction Island because then the players would see that it's really Redemption Island with a lower budget), Reem is in a uniquely difficult situation. She's there all alone, with very little information. For all she knows, there could 13 or so of these beaches, one for each person voted out, and she's never going to have someone there to talk to (except for the people filming her). That's not unlike solitary confinement, which is known to be psychologically damaging.
Luckily, others will be joining Reem, at least eventually. But she doesn't know that for sure. Furthermore, this episode (and the next episode's preview) presented a horrible possibility: What if Keith opted out of going to Extinction on Night 6? And what if after that, say Wendy breaks her ankle and leaves via medevac, also bypassing Extinction, so there's no arrival on Night 9, either? That could leave Reem there, completely alone, for up to 9 days, with no way of knowing if things are ever going to change.
It's important to point out that, once a second person does arrive, it'll still be a bare-bones existence, but at least they'll have each other for company, and the knowledge that, at regular intervals, more people will be showing up. The only mystery will be when and how the promised "return to game" will take place. Because of this, subsequent people who enter Edge of Extinction won't have to deal with any of this oppressive uncertainty and isolation, as long as they have the chance to talk to a previous bootee. Seeing just one other previous inhabitant will explain how the system works, and that more blindside victims will eventually be joining them.
So this initial, information-free exile is uniquely Reem's personal hell to inhabit. Thankfully, again, most of that will disappear as soon as someone does show up to join her. And let's be honest: playful cliffhanger editing aside, barring a medevac, no Survivor contestant is going to pass up a get-out-of-Ponderosa-free card on Day 6 of the game. (See, for example, the former castaway responses in Gordon Holmes's recap.) So most likely, it'll all work out okay, and there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is probably Keith's replacement torch.
Still, it's a little disturbing how cavalierly the show just gambled with the sanity of their first booted contestant here, all for some nebulous quest to "explore how much they really want it." It's one thing to mess with contestants' expectations about the structure of the game. It's quite another thing to break them. Let's hope they got away with it.
Editing in bad faith: Extinction vs. the fanbase
If the reaction to Keith's episode-ending dilemma is any indication, we're in for a brutal season of fans loudly berating the contestants on social media. Keith prayed over his decision to depart for either Extinction or Ponderosa, a scene that echoed Davie's similar quest for divine guidance over whether to play the (dumb) idol-extending game late last season in David vs. Goliath. That would be fine, but it wasn't really presented that way. That's because coming as it did at the end of the episode, the editors decided to cut to the credits, cliffhanger-style, rather than show which path Keith chose.
This was a questionable choice that borders on bad taste. It transformed a moment in which Keith was leaning on his faith for wisdom, and flipped it around to imply he was about to commit a mortal sin to Survivor fans: "quitting." Anyone who would even consider accepting the vote's outcome and leaving the game will be viewed that way. For proof, look no further than Probst's own words, where he chipperly gave this reaction to anyone who dares select the "your game is over" option on the decision tree: "Okay, we cast wrong. We should have never put you on the show. Rest assured you’ll never be coming back."
And that's what's so worrisome about the Edge of Extinction twist, and the patronizing, condescending manner in which Probst has presented it. Sure, we get Probst's point if someone can't even be bothered to find out what's behind the mysterious new "grab a torch" choice on Day 6. But what happens later in the game? Let's imagine someone spends two full weeks (as in 14 days, not two episodes) on Edge of Extinction, with no food. They're weak, they can't think straight. Let's say the merge has already happened, another contestant has re-entered the game, and this starving ex-contestant can now say with confidence that they're unlikely to win their way back at the next (final) opportunity. If they do the rational thing and raise the sail, joining the jury, will the host and fans also lambaste them for quitting?
Maybe? Hopefully not, but who knows? Now let's pretend someone who has been in the game the whole time gets voted out at around the same spot. Say they've also had minimal food (bad luck on all the team rewards, etc.), and learned about how Extinction works from the person who re-entered at the merge, so they can confidently assess that they won't personally be winning their way back into the game the next time. At the signpost, they pick Ponderosa, and a seat on the jury, over further futile starvation and misery. How will that person be treated?
Chances are, they'll be widely ridiculed, and a good portion of Survivor twitter (and facebook) will react with livid screams of "That person took a spot that could have been mine!" and will otherwise go on to make Big Brother fans look like genteel, tea-sipping dandies.
Is that the future Jeff Probst wants to see? Maybe? Probably? Again, who knows, but it's not a difficult one to imagine. So let's at least aim higher than that, Survivor fans. This twist is not something that these contestants anticipated when they applied. It's Redemption Island with added suffering, because after cutting the rice rations in half for Ghost Island, the multimillionaire host/showrunner still thinks the contestants have it "too easy" and that the show has gotten away from rewarding the "real survival*" aspects of the game.
Spoiler alert: "Real survival" was never the point of the show. If it was, Rudy Boesch would have won in Borneo. He didn't. Deal with it.
*Also, a minor historical point: For at least the first six seasons, the show allowed the contestants to have rain ponchos, thermal jackets and multiple changes of clothes. Not to mention giant Texas flags that served as tarps.
- This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election! Jeff Probst's get-off-my-lawn fist waving at Dalton Ross is particularly precious this week, as he appears mystified as to why the new players don't seem particularly interested in going through the motions of starving for 39 days just to let Joe hang around long enough to win all the individual immunity challenges. He expresses dismay that these "short-sighted and emotional" players aren't just rolling over and letting his favorite player win, the way the Redemption Island cast did for Boston Rob. How dare they?! (He eventually also mentions David, Aubry, and Kelley.)
- Mixed all-star seasons are also unfair: In Game Changers, Aubry faced another kind of unfairness in a mixed season. Two-time winner Sandra Diaz-Twine refused to work with her, because she'd just seen Aubry's first season in Kaoh Rong, and recognized her as a social threat. Fast-forward four seasons, and now Aubry can't find traction with the new players, simply because she's a returnee. (And as a reward for her herculean efforts at finding even one person willing to work her, she was absolutely roasted by this episode's edit.) Once again, there's no winning in a mixed season. Oh well.
Cambodia's insistence on casting only second-time players who had never won remains the best and most-balanced all-star format. (All winners would also be fine.) Please try to learn from your successes, Survivor!
- Important note if you're still reading: I was still fairly underwhelmed by David vs. Goliath at this point last season, and that season ended up being great. So there's still time for this season to recover. All is not lost. (Necessarily, anyway.)
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
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