Survivor New Zealand's second season made an extremely auspicious debut this week. Nearly everything that stirred fan discontent about the first season has been jettisoned, in favor of a more robust, streamlined, competitive show, seemingly making the leap to near-US levels of production value and gameplay in a single offseason.
Gone are the back-to-back episodes spanning a single elimination, an odyssey that required slogging through two-and-a-half hours of TV and a detour through Redemption Island just to complete one boot cycle. Instead, Thailand has single, 1.5-hour episode ending in a Tribal Council each week, which still affords plenty of room in which to get to know the contestants, while cutting most of the superfluous filler. Gone too is Redemption Island, whose tiny duels made sense for a show with a minimal budget; in are hidden immunity idols (as of next episode, at least, according to the TV guide listing). The challenges are bigger, and more elaborate, now comparable to the US version in scale, and most importantly, the new cast brings with deeper show knowledge and an increased competitive intensity to the screen.
There are still a fair number of contestants who might be prone to "honor and integrity"-type gameplay, but they at least seem less plentiful. And so far (through a grand total of one Tribal Council, at least), results resemble the more-aggressive gameplay style the show and host Matt Chisholm have been touting.
Superfans vs. naiveté
The first and best us-vs-them moment came early in the premiere, while the Chani tribe was setting up camp on Day 1. The story played out through hilarious intercutting of camp scenes and Liam's confessional about being super stoked about nobody playing the game yet on Day 1. Liam goes on at length about how everyone is on the same page, working as a team, while he's shown hacking away at a branch with a shovel. Because that's what you do, apparently. Meanwhile, we also see snippets of JT wandering around camp, setting up alliances with four other people, none of whom are Liam. It all ends with Liam confidently concluding his confessional with, "So, yeah, I'm really happy that nothing's going on." Perfectly executed strategy, perfectly edited for TV. Great stuff all around. Except for poor, oblivious Liam, of course.
Similar situations arose on the non-Tribal-attending tribe (Khang Khaw) as well. There, superfan Lisa seemed dumbfounded that her new tribemate Tess would claim (disingenuously, in Lisa's view) that she'd never actually gotten around to watching Survivor before playing it. Tess cheerfully copped to that actually being the case in confessional, but the editing drove the point home by having a (still off-screen) producer verbally ask Lisa, mid-confessional, "Do you really think she's making it up?" This was jarring to seasoned viewers, who have only ever heard the contestant's side of the confessional conversation, but that served to add further emphasis. Tess really *hasn't* watched Survivor. An interesting casting choice (Tess otherwise seems fine so far, even if editing is suggesting she's the yellow tribe's Liam), and an effective editing decision.
Later, fellow superfan Dylan discussed idols and had a "stratchat" with Kaysha, setting up an (alleged) alliance of five to work around the three alpha bros (Brad, Matt, Josh) and the aforementioned Tess. Standard Survivor fare, mostly notable because Dylan had a less-than-glowing edit overall, as he was the unlucky superfan to appear on-screen during Matt Chisholm's shade-throwing opening sequence narration: "they think they know the show."
That's a more familiar stance for a Survivor season to take with its superfans. US Survivor tends to hold its superfans at arm's length, preferring to present them as oddball, ridicule-deserving nerds (South Pacific Cochran, Max and Shirin in Worlds Apart, Jacob in Ghost Island), unless they happen to also be strapping, handsome young men (Malcolm, maybe Michael in Ghost Island?). So bravo to Survivor NZ for (mostly) taking the fans' side for once. The episode was also notable in allowing its non-fan contestants to own up to their lack of preparation. In the U.S., they're now coached to claim they've been watching forever in their pre-game interviews, even when it's fairly obvious they haven't. Points scored, NZ.
Still, entering this premiere, the show had a lot of ground to make up in order to rival its American counterpart. Season one (Nicaragua) had its moments, and Avi's win was a fairly impressive piece of social gaming. But a lot of those original contestants seemed reluctant to backstab, and infamously berated the one player who had done so (Barb) at the Final Tribal Council. This lot seems much more comfortable actually playing the game of Survivor, at least based on the first episode, in which Chani's self-appointed leader, Josefien (it's hard to write "Jose" and not think José) was blindsided... by an alliance presumably spearheaded by JT. (That's what the editing suggested, but since TVNZ hid the full voting comments behind a VPN-resistant wall, we'll just have to take JT's tweets as evidence for that.) With idols apparently making their appearance in the next episode, the action should continue.
This is an extremely young group of contestants. Let's hope they can maintain this pace for a full 39 days.
Dramatically improved challenges
Survivor rarely has time for three challenges in US Survivor, but here, they worked. The opening individual reward challenge was perhaps the least exciting of the three, but that was largely irrelevant, since it was really just an elaborate mechanism through which to select tribe leaders for the schoolyard pick, and to expose potential challenge standouts, in order to aid in the tribe selection process. Although at least Jose had an individual challenge win as a consolation prize. Regardless, this challenge was a clever means to divide the tribes. Because of the dynamics involved (including unavoidable discomfort as Dylan and Karla were the last picked), this was vastly superior to standard, production-assigned tribes.
As challenges, the tribal reward and immunity challenges were far more impressive. The reward challenge was a Survivor classic (having served as the opening RC in Heroes vs. Villains), made even better with copious quantities of mud, instead of sand. The immunity challenge combined multiple familiar elements into something completely new and impressive in scale. Best of all, it contained enough different elements that there were multiple lead changes, which is a sign of successful design. The final puzzle was also designed really well, in that each word was entirely contained within two planks, such that they could be placed in any order. This theoretically gave Chani a second chance, when Lisa and Dylan realized they needed to re-order their sentence (or so Matt Chisholm's narration claimed, it didn't actually look that close). Still, a satisfyingly balanced, complex, and large-scale build. Definitely an improvement over last season's
Jeff Pitman is a New Zealand expat, 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
We see you there, Brad. TBH, that thing is hard to miss.
Day 1 Matt is sporting a fetching red-and-white trucker hat combo.
Non-host Matt has a floppy hat with a strap. Eh, maybe it'll grow on us.
JT, sporting the world's only known Ashhurst hat. Because JT, apparently.
Tess is wearing a black hat. Obviously a villain.
Please, I'm an actual villain. My name even rhymes with Villain. This is a *Dodgers* hat. What more do you want?
Josh's hat is blandly colored and highly inoffensive. This simply won't do.
Oh my. That's more like it, Arun.
Day 2 Matt's hat is an all-black number, because NZ, apparently.
Ugh, when turned backwards, Brad's hat is plain yellow? What kind of sorcery is this?
Hang on a sec, JT's hat has a mullet mode? We rescind our previous skepticism.
*Another* Dodgers hat? Please go back to liking cricket or something, NZ.
Day 3 Matt's hat is an blue-white trucker style, because he's rooting for Chani. Fat lot of good that did.
Other NZ: Thailand Episode 1 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Josefien Maasdam