As we hike our way through the weeds and into Gabon, we continue our rewatch trek through past Survivor seasons with one absolutely hopeless starting tribe: from Maraamu in Marquesas, to Ravu in Fiji, and now on to Fang in Gabon. Hooray!
This time, of course, it was the players' own damn fault, since they picked the tribes themselves. Also this time: It's thankfully in HD, because if we have to watch a tribe collapse, we should at least not be stuck with a crappy 640 x 480 resolution. (We'll circle back for you eventually, Palau. Probably.)
The first two episodes (both of which aired the same night as a "two-hour premiere") introduce us to some big characters (Crystal is quite tall), and a mix of Survivor fans (Susie, who is not shown, Charlie, who is, and GC, Randy and Gillian) and recruits (everyone else). A recruit-heavy cast worked out great in Fiji, so maybe it will here too, right?
Uh ... we'll see. There are some legitimately interesting people here. Ken is a Smash legend, and a bit of a proto-Christian Hubicki. Crystal is a physically under-performing elite athlete. Bob is a real-life MacGyver who's almost two decades older than the previous eldest winner, yet is constantly hopping up on top of dangerously high things. Ace, Randy, and Corinne are loud and opinionated.
The overall problem with this cast is that it feels a bit inauthentic. A lot of the go-to confessional voices come across as possibly performing an improv bit (Ace, Sugar, Randy, Corinne), and it's never really clear whether they actually mean what they say, or if they're just mugging for the cameras. Or maybe it's both. Certainly, those lines are pretty opaque in the first two hours. But maybe things will improve over time?
All that said, maybe the producers also felt this season was a bit of a dud. It remains eternally hilarious that the show titled its double-length season premiere, the grand celebration of the show's return to the airwaves after a summer-long hiatus — not to mention the glorious, long-anticipated debut of Survivor in HD — as "Want to See the Elephant Dung?"
Ramming home the (otherwise forgotten) theme
It's not quite Probst leading off Tribal Council with "So Ryan, as a Hustler, how do you ...?", but production's heavy hand can be seen throughout these first two hours, vainly trying to remind everyone that the theme this season is "Earth's Last Eden." Marcus dutifully complies in a confessional about Charlie, "This may be the Garden of Eden, but we're not two Adams." The first IC (running through a swamp then digging up puzzle pieces) is called, for no discernible reason, "Temptation Valley." Dan's food/comfort "temptation" at Exile Island in the second hour is an apple. Much later at the fake merge, several people will describe the idol they toss into the ocean as an "apple."
At least they tried? Sort of?
It's possible the show has to put in all this effort to reinforce the theme because, well ... it's not otherwise very apparent from what's on the screen. It's a bit hard to square "Garden of Eden" with the part of Gabon we see for the majority of the show. Almost every challenge is conducted in rolling hills covered exclusively in grass — no animals, no trees with snakes dangling, no lush vegetation or even forbidden fruit — just grass. Sparse, patchy. Also some dirt. We do get frequent cut-scenes with gorillas and elephants and the like, but with the exception of a handful of times when the fauna actually come near the camps, this could easily just be licensed footage, filmed somewhere else on Planet Earth.
The camps themselves are part of the disconnect, too. Unlike Fiji's sandy beaches, they're inland, so they're dirt-filled, and instead of the usual cast-made bamboo shelters, production provided some prefabricated broken-down huts, which the contestants are expected to patch up and live in. For safety reasons, these huts are out in the open grassland, too, just like the challenges. All that adds up to a bit of an air of decay, maybe even a post-apocalyptic vibe. Hardly anything that connotes "birthplace of humanity," anyway.
Worst of all, of course, these camps are filled with filthy, starving, ill-tempered Americans, although one does at least have a vaguely South African-ish accent. (Notably, nobody here speaks French, the official language of Gabon.)
Then again, the whole Eden story ends up with the central couple departing the place, so maybe it's appropriate that everyone here seems ready to leave?
A tale of two "shitty tribe" players
Speaking of elephant dung, Fang presents an excellent contrast between what to do and what not to do when your starting tribe sucks. Well, lots of examples of what not to do, really. For example, relentless, reality-denying positivity (Gillian) comes across as pretty grating when you keep losing. It's probably not the best strategy to keep pointing out how close the tribe came to winning, when you, yourself, are most of the anchor preventing the team from doing so. But while Gillian actually does believe in her tribe (even after they vote her out), the pair we actually want to talk about here are the two who vocally hate Fang: Michelle and Randy.
Michelle makes some good points about how she's one of Fang's better challenge performers (on a tribe that's woefully outgunned), but her overall play in the first hour is pretty much horrific otherwise. She openly shuns the rest of her tribe (except Kenny), calling them "retarded."
She also complains a lot about the cold temperatures, although to be fair, she does have some legitimate complaints. Chiefly, she was pretty much Purple Kelly-ed by the wardrobe department here — forced to spend up to 39 days in just a tank top and short-shorts, while Dan and Charlie get to wear full suits, complete with t-shirts and boxer briefs as undergarments (so ... two shirts and a jacket vs. Michelle's tank top). Not to mention that for her entire time on Fang, the tribe has neither fire nor any way to prepare their rice.
Still, Michelle's social game is a good example of the pitfalls of the recruit-heavy casting mantra of this era of Survivor: She had little familiarity with the show, and no real incentive to play the game, so when the chips were down, she did everything wrong. Pure cannon fodder, mostly by design.
Randy is also pretty negative about Fang, but since he's a game- and TV-savvy superfan, he saves his complaints for blistering confessional fusillades. Randy astutely avoids pissing people off directly, and instead goes with Operation Let Other People Crash and Burn: "My best plan right now is just to keep my mouth shut, sit on my ass, and watch us self-destruct." Meanwhile, he works around camp, helps in challenges, and proves his worth with creative pursuits like sacrificing the wire frames of his glasses to fashion a usable fishhook.
Randy still finds himself outside what ends up being the core Fang alliance (Ken/Crystal/GC plus Matty and Susie), and will eventually flip to the more strategically minded Onions. But his adapt-and-endure approach is pretty successful, especially considering how much of a bunch of idiots he thinks his tribemates are.
The all-male edit
The special premiere "episode" ran for two full hours (it was actually two regular-length episodes), and yet the editors somehow couldn't find room for a single confessional from Kelly or Paloma (both of whom are gone pre-merge, one in the next hour, even), nor from Susie (who's a finalist, and on the tribe that votes someone out both times). Jacquie only briefly pops up in the second hour, and she's a founding member of the sole named alliance on Kota. She gets a perfunctory nod because someone had to talk about how life is good at Kota while they continue winning. Meanwhile, Charlie and Marcus each had about 50 confessionals over the 2-hour span, despite neither attending Tribal Council.
This is also partly a casualty of the casting rubric of this era. There had to be a lot of young, attractive women, and apparently someone (probably Les Moonves) decided it's not important that they be able to do much more than look good in skimpy clothing. Shockingly, some of the women cast for this purpose don't seem to know much about the game, don't have much outdoor experience, and don't do much more than hang out together and get picked off. They're cannon fodder like Michelle, just there to be seen and fill the early pre-jury slots while the beefy white dudes the show hopes will win (Matty, Dan, Ace, Marcus) find their footing in the game.
So it's sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy when we don't hear from them. The editors don't want to waste valuable screen time on these players' long-term plans for the game, because those don't come to fruition. Could these women have been memorable characters if they'd had more screen time? Maybe! Just as Robb Stark is a fairly bland, vanilla character in the Song of Ice and Fire books because he's not a main POV narrator, it's easy to assume players are boring when they're never given confessionals to prove otherwise. From what we do see of them, Paloma and Jacquie in particular seem to have decent ideas about the game, but why squander precious resources on that, when we could listen to Ace talking about how great he is, or Randy and Corinne crapping on their tribemates repeatedly?
Speaking of casting, fresh as we are off of rewatching Fiji, it's hard not to notice just how *white* this cast is. Just one of the nine people on the Kota tribe is person of color, and unsurprisingly, she'll be their first boot next episode (the aforementioned, mostly invisible Paloma). Most appallingly, this closes out Survivor's two seasons filmed in Africa (Africa and Gabon), and in those two seasons, the show cast a grand total of just four Black contestants, out of 34 total. That's abysmal.
- (Body) Language! During the "Fang already hates GC's leadership" segment in Episode 2, it's striking how much effort Crystal puts into trying to get GC to dial things back a bit, without actually saying anything. When he's giving everyone daytime tasks, she's making wide-eyed "Oh no!" looks at him. When Randy's telling him how to make rice, and GC's misunderstanding what Randy's saying and planning to just keep on going with his original plan, Crystal is literally standing behind Randy making frantic "Whoa! Stop!" gestures that only GC can see. Poor Crystal. Poor GC. GC has good intentions, isn't particularly overbearing in his suggestions, and most importantly, didn't *want* to be the leader. Sigh.
- Don't hate the game, 'enjoy' the game-hating players: The weirdest thing about Gabon is the anti-game stance the show is forced to take editorially by Bob's win. From his pre-game interview with Andy Dehnart, Bob came into the game not wanting to do anything strategic, but rather hoped to just enjoy his time in Africa and build stuff. He's basically a time-traveling Gabriel Cade. So when that "game" style ends up winning, the people actually plotting and scheming become the bad guys by default. In Episode 2, we see Charlie and Marcus forming the core of the Onion alliance. This is textbook Survivor gameplay: logical, thoughtful, strategic. They're doing everything right. Yet as the show goes along, they sort of get turned into the villains (much like John and Tammy did in Marquesas ... for the crime of opposing the misfit underdogs. (It helps the editors that the Onions pull in Corinne and Randy, both of whose chipper attitudes help them come across as actual villains.) The Onions will face off against eternal underdog Sugar, and eventually the ragtag remnants of the hapless Fang tribe (Ken, Crystal, Matty, Susie), who with the exception of Ken, don't really do much strategizing beyond "keep the tribe strong" and simply sticking together the whole game. In the Marquesas - Fiji - Gabon sequence, Gabon feels like a significant step back from the game-celebrating triumph of Fiji, at least through the first two hours. But there's only so much you can do with so little.
- All islands are terrible: The relationship between idols and Exile Island has yet to be severed here, and from a modern perspective, the game suffers for it. The first two votes are unanimous, mainly because there's zero risk of an idol play (at least in Ep.1), because the idol is safely stashed away in a sandy crater at Exile Island, which is only visited once in the two hours. (Also Dan, reading the "sandy crater" part, promptly searches in the lake.) Simultaneously, this makes all efforts at overturning these supermajority votes all but futile. Even if Gillian could persuade Susie to join her, they still need two more votes even to force a tie. Having idols in/ near camp, where any down-on-their-luck contestant can theoretically find one, at least creates reasonable doubt that a unanimous vote could fall through. Furthermore, Kota singling Dan out to send him to Exile almost gets him voted out in the second hour. It wasn't his fault! But the limited access/ flush the idol mentality makes that a viable option. And as always, Exile Island is stupid if there's no idol to be found there, as happens later in the game. Let's just end all twists that contain the name "island."
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