As Survivor 44 eased into its regular size for its second episode, it showed the producers still have new ideas, and plenty of exciting players with which to try them. It was also a refreshing respite from the relentless Series of Production-Designed Events of the premiere, as the contestants had an entire day (Day 4) to sit around camp, talking to each other. True, they mostly talked about idols and/or birdcages and keys, but from those conversations the audience was at least able to discern the various tribe's hierarchies, and occasionally learn something about the contestants themselves. This was a welcome change.
It was also an episode in which a Big Twist in the idols this season was revealed, in a way that was so subtle, it required sharp-eyed viewers to go back and re-watch to confirm. This is such a departure from the days of Jeff Probst giggling to the camera as he placed a Beware Advantage in a tree way back in Survivor 41, that it's hard to believe this is the same show. But it is, and what's best is: The twist is really clever, and it gives the contestants the tools for a huge amount of creative, deceptive chaos - or not, it's entirely up to them.
The big, barely noticeable, reveal
That big twist? There are three different real idols, and each tribe has a fake idol that looks like the real idol of another tribe. (And inversely, every tribe's real idol looks like another tribe's fake idol.) Mike Bloom tweeted about this the day after Episode 2 aired, and Ryan Kaiser also mentioned it in his column yesterday. (This is why each idol-finder was shown reading the instructions about their real and fake idols, either in public in Brandon's case, or in confessional.)
Will this work, though? That remains to be seen, but it's a wonderful development that instead of (in addition to?) subjecting them to unfair games of chance to screw them over (*cough* the stupid dilemma setup this season *cough*), the show trusts its players enough to allow them to make something exciting happen on their own.
There are two potential payoffs here. One is mistrust of an idol-holder acting in good faith. As we've seen in the past few seasons, the high-risk/reward nature of the Beware idols drove the people who found them together, and they often formed bonds over their shared status. With that established as the new-era baseline, that may happen again this season, and whoever finds the rehidden Ratu idol will know what their idol and fake idol look like. Tika's fake idol (bead bracelet) is currently held by Carolyn, and it looks like Ratu's real idol. Danny has Soka's real idol (a medallion), which looks like Ratu's fake.
So here's a scenario as to how that might play out: If, say, Kane eventually finds Ratu's rehidden idol, everyone on Ratu suspects as much, and Danny gets wind of this and approaches Kane at the merge, showing Kane his (real) idol as proof that they're both idol-holders, Kane will be suspicious, because Danny's idol looks fake. Is he trying to pull a fast one on Kane, or is he just an idiot who was duped by someone else at Soka?
The other, more unlikely outcome is that someone who's holding a fake now has a really good chance to dupe someone on another tribe that their fake idol is real. In this scenario, Carolyn (with Tika's fake, which looks like Ratu's real idol) can approach anyone from Ratu and forge an alliance based on her (fake) idol, perhaps even offering it as protection in exchange for a vote. The problem with this is that in order to pull this off, the person deploying the fake has to (1) know that each tribe has overlapping real/fake idols, and (2) know which tribe has the real idol that looks like their fake. That's a huge ask. But it's also possible that someone could try this because they have a fake idol burning a hole in their pocket, and they could just get lucky. Right?
Obviously, this is all going to take a long time to play out to completion, and sadly, it probably won't be repeatable in the future. Or at least it won't have the same impact, because people will know to be more suspicious. But it's a really fun development this season, and it's something that will be interesting to track as the game progresses. Whoever came up with this deserves a raise. (As does whoever put Carolyn and Yam Yam on the same tribe.)
Still ... more people, please?
Now that we've spent a lot of words talking about idols, is it possible for the show to spend a little more time on who the contestants are, and not just show them talking about idols? It was disappointing to only hear about how much of a Survivor fan Helen is from her final words (and exit press). There was virtually no Helen-specific background in the season before this, apart from when she mentioned that she likes doing puzzles (while she talked about doing the Savvy task puzzle).
Look, I get that it's a delicate balance. The show went all in on backstory segments for Survivor 43, and fans complained loudly. This season, the backstories have been fewer, and all have generally been lighter in tone, not endless variations on "This is the personal tragedy that drives me." And that's fine, it's okay to learn non-grim things about the contestants, too.
But in paring back the backstories, the show also has short-served the people who have left the game so far. Bruce barely had a confessional. We mostly heard about his fandom as he was being pulled from the game. Maddy's characterization was a little more solid, because we at least got to see her trying to make a big move, one that resulted in her being booted. Helen, however, was a person who was on Tika, talked about Tika, and then was voted out of Tika. We saw her tell Carson she really wanted to be there, and it was clear that got along well with (the similarly undercharacterized) Sarah, but we didn't really know Helen when she left, so her emotional final words were a bit of a shock.
In Helen's exit press, we learned she initially felt a connection to Bruce (who's from Rhode Island) because in the pre-game he was wearing clothes related to several Boston-area sports teams (Patriots, Celtics), and she grew up in Boston. This was completely new information! They were on a tribe together! And it's also inherently interesting, because there aren't a lot of Asian-Americans in New England. But nope, that's TMI for Survivor, apparently! (I know, I get it, Bruce was barely on this season, and there's only so much time.)
Hopefully as the season progresses, this will sort itself out. The backstories are common in SurvivorAU, which has 24 episodes (but also 24 contestants), most of which are 1.5 hours, and even their shorter episodes have longer runtimes, so they have more room to fill. We have had some backstories this season, and eventually, we should have an idea who most of the contestants are. We did get the highly entertaining Matt-Frannie showmance (and Claire eyerolling commentary) segment this week, which was a fun change of pace. But it would still be nice if Survivor could try a bit harder to properly introduce people before they leave our screens.
Backyard games: Jeff Probst appeared taken aback that Matthew had built a replica of the Ep2 IC's snake maze in his back yard, and had practiced it extensively. Wasn't one of Probst's big selling points for the carnival games-era challenge elements was that "these are games you can play in your back yard"? He learned it from you, dad.
Do try this at home: A common take on Matthew's admission there was that it exposed him as a hyper-prepared superfan, which could be detrimental. But as Carson immediately followed up in confessional, this cast has a lot of those types of people — Carson used a 3-D printer to replicate and practice a bunch of common Survivor puzzles — so it's unlikely to be something held against Matthew. Not too strongly, anyway. Evvie memorized the same puzzle Carson was shown doing. David Wright had an entire scrapbook with every puzzle ever used. Worst-case scenario here is Survivor stops recycling the same challenge elements and comes up with new ones once in a while. The horror!