Survivor: Winner at War's premiere proved once again that when it comes to making compelling reality-competition TV, you don't need fancy in-game currency or format-disfiguring twists* — all you need is a solid cast of interesting people anxious to play hard. And did they ever, right out of the gate. (*Both of which were present, but for the most part were merely potentially bad in the future, not actively awful.)
To be clear, "play hard" doesn't mean giving 110% in challenges, although that was present, too. No, these winners were out to settle scores, undermine the games of every competitor around them, and beat the best of the best. Importantly, they were doing all this while reflecting on how much their lives had changed since their last time on the show, how much Survivor itself had changed, and how much they already missed their kids. Unbridled underhanded skullduggery wrapped up in moments of humanity and sincere emotion. Based on the premiere, it's certainly worth watching for.
It was great to see players like Amber and Ethan come back and play again, people who hadn't competed since All-Stars (way back in 2004!), especially since, as Ethan himself said, for a while it was questionable whether Ethan would ever be healthy enough to play again. Amber had also gone through many life changes (marriage to Boston Rob, four daughters!) and had the additional intrigue of appearing on this season alongside her husband, which allowed (very briefly) check-ins on how Rob and Amber felt bittersweet about challenge wins, since their own victory meant their partner had to attend Tribal Council.
This had been done before of course, in the two Blood vs. Water seasons, but this time Rob and Amber were the only formally connected pair. To the surprise of few, they were correct in assessing that this made them each massive targets, and after three short days, Amber is no longer an active player. This casting choice — having the Marianos as the only married couple — was a huge disservice to Amber, who seemed legitimately excited to play again, but really had no chance to do so, due to Boston Rob's looming presence on the other tribe. Maybe, having seen how Blood vs. Water played out for Tyson, this was production's plan all along, to light a fire under Boston Rob (or, probably in their second- or third-best case scenario, Amber could be Natalie in San Juan del Sur ... somewhat confusing when actual Tyson and Natalie are both playing this season, too).
Other existing connections also worked against the players. Obviously, there are some that aren't the players' fault. Natalie can't go back in time and change the fact that she and Jeremy played their first days of Survivor together on Hunahpu in San Juan del Sur. But she was targeted for that, anyway. (Strangely, having four members of the Villains tribe from Heroes vs. Villains barely seemed to raise an eyebrow.) Luckily, the only other real in-show overlap was Sarah and Tony having been castmates on two seasons, and Sandra having joined them on the second one (Game Changers), but since none of those shared appearances ended on particularly good terms, maybe they were easily overlooked.
Imaginary or exaggerated connections also came to the fore in the premiere, with Yul explicitly targeting the "poker alliance," a likely joke Tyson made while he, Rob, Jeremy, and Kim played a televised poker game a year ago. On the one hand, it was great to see Survivor acknowledging that pre-game alliances always exist in seasons with returning players. On the other hand, it's somewhat hilarious and ingenious that Yul stoked paranoia about this alliance which appears to be 90% Yul's invention, as Yul owned up to on twitter. After all, appearance is reality on Survivor. On the third hand (using Culpepper math), it's even more ingenious that Yul and Nick actually had a pre-game alliance themselves, and had clearly discussed targeting the "poker alliance," since Nick mentioned all of this in his pre-game interview with Gordon Holmes. Layers upon layers of deception.
Still, as the second Tribal in particular demonstrated, having a cast of winners — most of whom the audience already loves — infuses every voting decision with feelings of dread for the viewers. Seeing a great winner like Kim Spradlin completely cut out of the loop, falling to her knees, and reduced to begging for someone, anyone to just talk to her ... that hurt. And when the first vote revealed at the second Tribal was for Nick, and the next three were for Kim, you had to briefly wonder, "Oh no, is Kim really going to be a unanimous first boot from her tribe?" Those three votes stung far more than the decoy half of a split vote usually does. Now just imagine when someone whose presence also carries massive emotional weight, like Ethan, not only receives votes, but gets the most votes. This season is gonna be painful.
But it's a good pain. That's the essence of drama. The emotion, the investment in each character's quest for success, sharing their disappointment when that comes to an end: that's what makes this show entertaining. It's what makes this season in particular so compelling, because we've already seen these people struggle to win a season once, and for the most part, we were rooting for them while they were doing so. The elation of an ultimate victory this season will mean all that much more when it's balanced against a series of tragic losses.
So the answer to this "problem" is not "Please keep my favorites around in limbo on Edge of Extinction for the entire season so I can still see them." That completely undermines the stakes of those people being voted out in the first place. Instead, the answer is: Losing a player we like when they're voted out is not a problem, it's a feature. It's the whole point. It's the essence of Survivor.
Kim being voted out here would have been crushing. Kim being voted out here then going to Edge of Extinction would erase most of the meaning of that loss, especially since she's probably among the favorites to win her way back in. So while it seems a bit unfair that Natalie was voted out for being half of a "pair" that she can't do anything to change, it ends up being a bit of a wash. The banality of this parade of defused climaxes will become more apparent as the season progresses. But for two short hours, we could at least feel the exquisite ecstasies and anguish of what might have been, if the season hadn't been saddled with EoE.
We still love the cast, we're still deeply invested in their pursuit of the prize, but it all could have been dialed up so much more.
Winners at war with the record books
It should surprise no one that when you roll out a season featuring a five-time player like Boston Rob, and three four-time players (Sandra, Parvati, Tyson), some career Survivor counting stat records — categories such as days played, Tribal Council voting, and challenges won — are likely to fall. If this was a surprise, well ... spoiler alert, whoops. Seriously, if you aren't itching for a peek into which Survivor marks are likely to be topped this season, why are you still reading?
Still, even if it's not a shock, some big, long-standing (at least since Game Changers) records are almost certain to be broken this season. In this section, we'll take a tour through some of the biggest (and smallest) that you care about, or didn't know you cared about, but should:
- VFB (votes for boot): Also known as voting people out. Parvati and Boston Rob already led the lifetime stats in this category, and the premiere saw them extend those leads, to 27 and 26, respectively. Previously, they had been bunched up with Russell and Amanda near the top. No more. How far out of reach can this duo take this record this season? At the moment, the prospects look pretty good. Sandra's not far behind them at #6 (22 VFB), and would pass Russell for third place by voting just four more people out. Ethan and Amber are way back with 14 VFB each, which would theoretically put them in reach of first place if Amber was still in the game, and if the people in the #1 and #2 (and #6) slots weren't. So, Ethan can make some progress, but realistically, the record is probably out of reach for him.
- Days played: The title for most days played (career), currently held by Ozzy, is all but guaranteed to change hands this season, and may even do so within the next three or four episodes. Thanks to Edge of Extinction, you can bank that every current player will add another 35 days to their days played total this season (32 more after Ep1). Nobody seems likely to raise the flag, so a medevac is really the only way they would fall short of that total. And the records, they will fall. Rob is at #3, just 8 days behind Ozzy at 120 days played. Rob has never been to Exile/Redemption/Edge either, so if you remove those days, he's already at #1. The only
- Tribal/team challenge wins: Rob, Parvati, Tyson are all on the career leaderboard, and Rob (22 wins) moved up to #3 all-time in the premiere, just two behind Ozzy's 25. That seems well within Rob's reach. Parvati's a bit further back at #7 (19 wins), and Tyson is at #9 (18 wins). Bubbling under (through Ep1): Amber - 14, Sandra - 13, Yul - 12, Jeremy - 12, Danni - 10, Ethan - 9. The presence of EoE might hinder movement in this category, because there may not be room in the episode for many tribal reward challenges. Oh well.
- Idols found, career: It should not surprise anyone to learn that Ben and Tony are tied for the third most idols found, lifetime (both accomplished in their first seasons), with three each. That puts them just two behind Russell Hantz. It's unclear if receiving an idol from EoE should really count as "finding" one (although we did count the one Rick Devens found in his back when he returned from EoE, so ... probably). Given last season's idol bonanza, it would be somewhat surprising if neither at least ties Russell this season. Jeremy, Tyson, Adam, and Natalie all have two (including Natalie's in the premiere), so who knows, Russell's total could be under threat from multiple fronts.
- Times voted out, career: Edge of Extinction takes (and it takes and it takes and it takes), but it could give something here. In theory, either Rob or Tyson (who have each been voted out twice) could pull an Ozzy, and get themselves voted out three times this season. That would give them five career boots, and tie them with ... Ozzy. So shooting the moon would give them a piece of first place. The more pedestrian accomplishment of being booted twice would net them a tie with Cirie and Andrea for second (four times). Since nobody else on this cast has been voted out more than once before, that's pretty much it for this stat.
- VAP, career: Amber (currently #19, with 18 career votes against) moved onto the leaderboard with her boot in the premiere. Rob is a few slots ahead at #15 (20 votes against), and is theoretically in striking distance of Andrea Boehlke's title (36 total votes against). Nobody else even had 14, so unless one of the Marianos manages to get voted out twice this season, Andrea can probably rest easy. The vote magnet queen stays queen.
- The zero votes against club: Nick and Natalie were the only active members of this club entering this season (Sandra and Ethan had previously been members, before Game Changers and All-Stars, respectively). Both had their memberships revoked this episode. Oh well, that's the end of that.
- Sit-outs, career: At last, we have reached the most important category. Sandra seemed overjoyed to sit out the second IC in the premiere, and for good reason: She's now in second place all-time, with 10 career sit-outs. That puts her just two bench assignments behind the leader, Courtney Yates, who has 12. Courtney is right to worry. Parvati is not
Fire tokens and the edge - early returns
Obviously, it's going to take a lot more than one episode to completely assess just how much Edge of Extinction *and* fire tokens will impact the outcome of this season. There's very little reason to hope for much good to come from EoE, but fire tokens are still relatively untested, and still hold promise.
- Free EoE-free fire token suggestions: If production wants to keep fire tokens around, add them in as early-season rewards, like flint, to tribal immunities. If a tarp costs 4 tokens, give the IC-winning tribe two tokens, so that it's close enough that one or two people might consider adding in their one token, for the good of the tribe. Later in the game, tack on an extra token for an individual reward or immunity win. Have one reward be a trip to the "Survivor Shop" (thank you, SurvivorAU) where the winner can buy stuff for him- or herself *OR* the tribe, by spending tokens, but with no witnesses present. Signal this will happen ahead of time, so people can pool their cash. There are a lot of possibilities that don't require Edge of Extinction. See? We can get "creative" too. (WTF.)
But let's take a brief peek at the changes to Edge of Extinction so far this season:
- New EoE, the good: Natalie was only isolated on EoE for one day, plus since this was a repeated format, she knew what she was getting into. That's a much better situation than Reem found herself in as the first arrival in Season 38. Natalie also actually had a task to accomplish that first day. Whereas Reem was in solitary confinement with no idea what was going on for a full three. Natalie's stay was basically a one-day Exile Island. A step up, although most of that was always going to happen on the second time around.
- New EoE, the bad: Natalie had a huge advantage over all future EoE arrivals, because she was virtually given free access to a fire token (or at least an idol that she could easily sell for a fire token), which she can trade in for one advantage in the re-entry challenge (with a max of three advantages per person). Future arrivals will have to compete with an increasingly larger pool of people also vying for that token, and presumably only one will be offered per episode. So, just by hiking up the same hill that she already would have had to climb to get rice, Natalie was basically guaranteed one-sixth or one-seventh of the total fire token pot for the pre-merge. Not bad for Natalie, but sort of unfair for someone voted out in Episode 5 or 6.
We don't yet know if EoE is the *only* source of idols this season. Given Survivor's recent track record, that seems highly unlikely. But there are some benefits to this system:
- It increases the chances of women finding (okay, having) idols. Last season, it seemed like women were finding them every episode, but prior to that, there had been a 4:1 disparity in the rate of idol finding between men and women. So far, women are 1-for-1 in buying idols.
- Sending idols back into the game from EoE increases the chances that they'll end up in the hands of people on the bottom, and thus get played. As we saw in Game Changers, if the idols are all held by people comfortably in the majority, they're sat on, hoarded and unused, eventually leading to someone getting Ciried. Having time-restricted idols, like Sandra's, is a welcome step to limit that possibility. Sending them in as care packages from EoE is another, somewhat less ideal, method.
Natalie made a logical guess here that Sandra would have a huge target at her first Tribal, so the intent was clear, even if Sandra ultimately ended up having no votes cast against her. Later in the game, people will have a better sense of tribe dynamics on both tribes, and can deploy idols to maximum game-altering effect. (Whether that's a good or a bad thing is a different question ... the answer is probably that it's bad).
The bad or potentially bad things about EoE that we saw here?
- As Kelley Wentworth asserted at the live KIA, people who have been voted out shouldn't be able to affect the game so directly. It's one thing to worry that someone you voted out might come back into the game. It's another thing for that person to be actively undermining your efforts while not even participating in the game. Worse yet, for all of the show's posturing about the evils of pre-game alliances, the fire token mechanism, if anything, rewards and reinforces those same pre-game alliances. Say all of Rob's closest allies (Parvati, Tyson, Amber) get voted out, leaving Rob in the game. On the one hand, Rob is sort of screwed in-game. On the other hand, that means there's a 3-in-4 chance they'll be able to send Rob help. Through no effort made by Rob himself, except in the sense of having friends outside the game.
- Which brings up another problem: The "Survivor at 40" special trotted out the trope that idols are a reward for working hard to stay in the game, that the people who work the most tend to find them. That's not necessarily accurate, but the situation here — with idols being airdropped directly into people's bags — clearly requires zero effort on the part of the player still in the game. Sandra could have napped from Day 1 to Day 3, and she still would have received that idol. Now sure, getting another idol won't be as easy, because now she needs a fire token to buy one. But just as with trinkets won by coin flips or guessing games at Island of the Idols last season, the lack of effort here undermines most of argument that idol-aided wins are valid because they required effort.
A better system, as we've suggested in the past, is to do it the way Australian Survivor does: Just have a huge variety of idol distribution methods in a single season. Already in the first six episodes of AU: All-Stars, we've had (1) a clue hidden at a challenge, leading to an idol near the torches at Tribal Council, (2) an idol hidden in a log in camp (the standard US approach), (3) an idol hidden in a reward-associated display box, and (4) a clue in camp during an in-camp food reward, directing the finder to an idol hidden under the well. The first one was also time-restricted, and was handed off to a person on the IC-losing tribe when it became clear it would have otherwise expired, unused. The AU idol distribution variation keeps things interesting, and doesn't just perpetuate the broken US system of "everyone wake up early and scour the jungle if an idol was played the night before."
If US Survivor can borrow the "family visit with the entire family, including little kids" concept (coming later this season, thanks to Tyson's insistence) from SurvivorAU, Probst & co. can certainly take a few more suggestions.
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
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