1) Hey there, loyal readers!
Good to see you back here in the Baker’s Dozen, especially when I said last spring that I wasn’t going to write this season.
I know, I know, that’s two seasons in a row that I’ve thrown in the towel only to pick it up again, but that has everything to do with the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge (if you haven’t read my column about my experience in Maine, please do – it’s a good read – and then donate! http://durhamwarriors.org). My love for Survivor – which has been besieged and beleaguered thanks to production manipulation (Caramoan), pregame alliances (Blood vs. Water), and casting absurdity (every single season since… when DID it start, anyway? A good question for another time), has been rekindled by Bob Crowley’s charity event and those who played it, so much so that I’m going to write as much as I can this fall, despite hearing that Survivor: San Juan del Sur is an unmitigated train-wreck.
I may not be quite as faithful with my weekly columns this season, however, given the impending arrival of Wee Baby Baker the Second. Anna Claire will be joining us somewhere in mid-October, so I’ll be focusing on brevity and levity in an effort to preserve my sanity; as a result, there’s a good chance that much of what I write this fall will be half-baked (which admittedly isn’t much different from my usual soapbox sermons and conspiracy theories) and show the unmistakable signs of sleep deprivation. I might even start writing in llama.
Speaking of brevity and levity, it sounds like we’re going to need both, given that we’ve got uninspired casting choices (and, in the case of John Rocker, we’ve got a contemptible one), we’re likely to be landlocked (the filming location – the same area as Survivor: Nicaragua and Redemption Island – doesn’t have any protected harbors, and the water is too choppy for challenges), and we’ve got the worst season name and acronym in the show’s history (S:SJdSBvW2 – I suppose I should be happy that this isn’t Fans vs. Favorites United Kingdom… S:FvFUK).
Anyway, enough preamble. I’m late to the preseason column party, so I’ll avoid the obvious commentary that other writers have covered (Rocker’s a racist imbecile! The Twinnies are annoying! Most of the cast has no idea what they’re doing!) and focus on observations I haven’t seen elsewhere. I will also do my best to remain positive and optimistic in this column and throughout the season. But boy are they making it hard, particularly when…
2) … Probst has the audacity to say that this cast is a “cross-section of America.”
Geographic diversity, perhaps. But as far as I know, a lot of the U.S. (including the core Survivor audience) isn’t young and white with a single digit body fat percentage. Has Probst already forgotten that Cagayan – widely considered one of the finest seasons the show has ever produced – had an endgame dominated by “normal” people?
Oh, and Probst believes that casting John Rocker is not only defensible, but laudable.
Probst as a host = exceptional. Probst as an executive producer = execrable.
3) A mildly shocking admission:
I like Exile Island, and not just because it isn’t Redemption Island (which should never return, but we know it will, when Neil Patrick Harris purportedly texts Jeff about it at 2am).
It’s not too hard to figure out why Probst and production brought it back: it will encourage cross-tribe alliances, which will get the show what it wants for the post-merge game.
Here’s the thing: In the first Blood vs. Water, the players who had lost their partners early in the game – Tyson, Gervase, Monica – took over, and the only relationship the show got to explore was the mother-daughter dynamic of Laura and Ciera. (It COULD have gone the other way – the game was tied between orphans and couples 6-6 at the merge – but the Baskauskas brothers were too dangerous and Ciera thought she had a strong alliance with the returning players.)
Probst – who still imagines himself a talk show host/amateur therapist – wants to see the post-merge game dominated by tandems, not individuals, so that he and the show can explore the Blood vs. Water conceit: Would a father vote out his son? Will a beauty backstab her boyfriend? Will a Twinnie betray a Twinnie? These are the questions Probst wants to answer… and Exile Island is one way to make that happen.
The idea is to have the pairs primed to play together after the merge: the worst case scenario is that six teams lose a member before the merge, giving us a 6-6 tie, just like the first Blood vs. Water. At that point, if some relationships have been built on Exile Island, perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way this time, and the tandems will take over the game. And should even one team be entirely eliminated before the merge, the tandems will have the numbers advantage – just as the producers would prefer.
For the record, I’m not saying this is a bad thing (other than the show clearly having a preference and putting systems into place to bring about preferred outcomes). Just pointing out that Exile Island isn’t just about seeing loved ones battle with one another. It’s all about setting up the story that Survivor wants to tell.
Anyway, there are three other Exile Island effects worth mentioning:
** While it may not have much of a visual storytelling impact any more (we’ve seen all of the vision quest narratives at this point, haven’t we?), Exile Island has a massive impact on those who go there: in a game that’s already physically and emotionally difficult, being ostracized has an incalculable psychological impact. The players will be changed by the experience, even if they seem fine when they return to their tribes. And the fact that they’ll share that isolation with one player from the other tribe WILL have an impact on the game; they’ll bond, particular those who find themselves there during the first week or two of the season.
** Speaking of those early inhabitants of Exile Island, I think their games are going to be irretrievably damaged by their early isolation. In a game like Survivor, which Probst himself says is a game entirely about relationships, a player simply can’t recover from missing out on the early days of alliance building. Thanks to CBS’s spoileriffic promos, we already know who battles in the first Exile Island challenge (and who loses – that was revealed by the TVGN preview); sadly, thanks to the luck of the draw (which is what we’re led to believe is how the pair is selected), one of the tandems I was highest on I now think is doomed.
** I’m guessing that the hidden immunity idol situation will be a mess: yes, we’ll avoid the burning of clues, but the presumption is going to be that everyone who goes to Exile has access to a clue/idol, so they’ll be targets of opportunity BECAUSE they can’t burn the clue in front of everyone else. Add to that the possibility – inevitability? – that other castaways will find the idols back at camp without the benefit of a clue, then factor in that most of these people are criminally unfamiliar with the game, and we’re looking at a season where idols will be employed with alarming frequency and minimal strategy.
So, it looks like the master and overlord of True Dork Times – the impossibly intelligent and viciously benevolent Jeff Pitman – used a stratified system to rank the cast, with no one in the “winner candidate” tier. Interestingly enough, that’s where I ended up as well when I submitted some early thoughts to one of the Survivor Talk with D & D preseason podcasts: I don’t see any of the San Juan del Sur players as true front-runners… most of ’em are in a scrum of mediocrity, with a few players with almost no shot to win.
Anyway, here’s where I stand on the 18 players… (and let’s just say that I’m thrilled the players can’t tweet this season).
The "I'm Not A Fan" Category
4) John and Julie
In my attempt to avoid repeating what others have already said and written about this cast, here’s what I have to say about John Rocker:
** I think it’s pretty obvious he’s still on steroids – which means that if he makes it to the merge, his body and mind are going to be even more incapacitated than they were going into the game.
** I love that Rocker thinks that because he hunts, he’s ready for Survivor. Oh really, John? Have you slept outside for days on end wearing nothing but a bathing suit? While on a deprivation diet? Surrounded by people who are trying to figure out when they should blindside you? Yep, deer hunting is exactly the same.
** By the way, since when did baseball closers have “world class athletic abilities”? Maybe I just find that funny because Rocker put himself into a sentence with the word “class.”
** Rocker made over $5 million during his baseball career, which troubles me for two reasons: first, there’s something screwy about the priorities of our society when someone this hateful makes that much money in his life, and two, because when you combine Rocker’s bank account with his attitude, you realize that he might get dragged deep into the game.
** He’s out there for one reason and one reason only: to build up his personal “brand.” All the evidence we need: the first commercial that CBS released. In it, Rocker rips into one of the Twinnies; Rocker is overtly embracing the role that CBS cast him for (and the producers are gleefully exploiting this fact). Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.
As for Julie, every time I try and talk myself into the possibility that she might have potential, I remember two things:
** Her reason for being on the show, according to her bio on the CBS website: “… the possibilities of future Survivor shows. I would love to compete more than once.” In other words, she'll be looking to make big moves and indulge in histrionics, but I don't think she knows the game well enough to pull any of that off without putting a massive spray-tan target on her back.
** She’s been in a relationship with John Rocker for three years.
5) Dale and Kelley
When I saw my first video of Dale, I immediately said “early boot” – there’s just something a little bit off about him, some of which could be discomfort with the camera, but probably has more to do with spending all day every day on a farm with minimal social interaction. Other interviews have made me like him more – they’ve softened him – but I can’t shake that first impression. Add that to a young-skewing tribe, and I think he goes early.
The exact opposite happened with Kelley: I really liked her at first, and that initial read may still be the right one. I can see her going pretty far, "sheep deep," a useful pawn for someone else. But the early in-game footage of her isn’t promising: she scowls at the world, and the lines on her face belong to an impatient, oppositional personality. I’m guessing she’s gonna annoy everyone.
6) Keith and Wes
Keith is my candidate for first boot if Hunahpu loses the immunity challenge in Episode 1; he's just gonna rub folks the wrong way (I think the “aw shucks” Southern good ole boy act from the interviews is gonna give way to a “I’m used to getting my way” attitude). True, his tribe is older, overall, but I think Missy is going to be playing down in age, not up (she works with young cheerleaders all day, so it won’t be hard to do), which will leave Keith on the outside looking in (and I don’t think he’s got the social flexibility to be anyone other than who he is).
Wes is cut from the same cloth, only he pairs the Southern “charm” with an overinflated sense of self; either he learns some hard lessons, grows up fast, and figures out the game (like Spencer did last season), or he gets blindsided by more savvy players.
The "Decidedly 'Meh'" Category
7) Drew and Alec
We’re entering into “somebody’s gotta make the merge” territory… and I think Drew is game-aware enough to stick around until he becomes an “individual immunity challenge threat” target. He’s clearly the brighter of the two Christy boys, but that’s like debating the relative intellectual merits of Ozzy and Fabio (two players that this tandem thinks they’re like… I’ll leave out the reference to Malcolm, whose hair alone is smarter than Drew and Alec combined). These two are going to be good in challenges, insufferable in confessionals, and useless in strategy.
Alec is a Shrinky Dink clone of his older brother – which will probably serve him well on Coyopa (Drew would present more of a threat to Rocker; Alec not so much). He’ll aim for low-hanging fruit and hook up with Baylor (which will make Wes all squirrel-shootin’ mad), and probably pull a Carter and come in 6th.
8) Missy and Baylor
Cheerleaders, as a rule, are INTENSE people… and eventually, that’s going to catch up to these two.
If Baylor plays the men in her tribe the right way – Wes and Alec are both going to court her vote – she could coast to the merge. If she chooses poorly, however, she could create a volatile situation that the tribe will resolve by booting her out. My read? She’ll end up getting deep, but it will be seen as riding coattails (and probably will be that), and she won’t have much of a case at Final Tribal, should she get there.
As for Missy – who really should switch back to Melissa at this point – is more Sheri Biethman than Monica Culpepper: She’s going to try and make moves, discover that the overabundance of Alphas on Hunahpu would prefer she play the “mom” role, and settle in for a deep, if undistinguished, run as a checker piece for the game other people are playing (given who will be around for the endgame, I can’t in good conscience use chess terminology).
9) Natalie and Nadiya
The good: Reality show veterans tend to show far more poise than newbies when the pressure starts to build…
The bad: … but these two are not Hayden Moss…
The ugly: … although production will try to help them out as much as possible (yep, I went there; my first conspiracy theory of the season!).
I have to admit, I’m curious how Nadiya will handle Rocker’s abuse of Natalie… will she defend her sister? Roll with it? Is Rocker’s trash-talk all show? Or is it proof that Nadiya is already on the outs in Coyopa (you don’t rip the partner of someone you’re working with… unless it’s to throw people off the scent of a secret alliance… but there is NO WAY that Rocker is capable of that level of strategic duplicity).
But figuring out those social politics from thirty seconds of footage is a pointless intellectual exercise: There is no way both of the Twinnies make the merge (no one will believe that they’ll turn on each other – and they’ve already had their moment in the reality show sun), and if one of them does, she won’t be around for long.
The "Modestly Intriguing" Category
10) Jon and Jaclyn
Nothing I’ve seen over the past week has moved me off of my original stance about these two: They’re strong enough to be assets, bland enough to not be threats, and loyal enough to be the core of a strong post-merge alliance.
If they tell anyone that they plan to use the prize money for a surrogate, though, there’s no way anyone – even this strategically limited cast – lets them get to the Final Tribal Council.
If tandems control the post-merge game, Jaclyn will be taken out in the 5-7 range (can’t let the woman without a uterus plead her case), and Jon will join her on the jury soon thereafter.
And yet, why is it that I can’t shake off the image of Jon at the Final Tribal Council, answering questions from a bitter and baffled jury?
11) Josh and Reed
Thanks to the photo on the CBS/Survivor cast page, I had these two mixed up for a while, and as a result, I erroneously announced that Josh was my pick to take down the title of Sole Survivor.
I meant Reed. He’s the SuperFan. And he’s a triple threat on top of that (although perhaps a bit too bulky for the individual immunity challenges).
They’ll both benefit from being on tribes where an abundance of Alphas will allow them to easily slip into their preferred Beta roles. Josh could be in a bit of trouble as he attempts to co-exist with a bigoted buffoon like Rocker, but Reed is as well-situated as he could possibly hope. The inevitable tribe swap could undermine the best laid plans, and these two could become Aras/Vytas-level targets just before or just after the merge, but I have faith that Reed will see that coming and have a strong enough social game to weather the storm.
12) Jeremy and Val
Like just about everyone else writing about Survivor, I love these two: they understand the game, they prepared for it, and they’ve got a combined skill set which should serve them well both pre- and post-merge.
Unfortunately, none of this will make a lick of difference: they’re doomed.
Why? Exile Island.
*** Warning: CBS Spoiler Ahead ***
By the time Val returns from Exile (seemingly without the Hidden Immunity Idol clue), alliances will have been formed, and she’ll be an easy elimination, should they go to the first Tribal Council. Even if Coyopa wins the immunity challenge (they’ve certainly got the physical horsepower to do so; the puzzles, however, will be quite the adventure for both tribes this season), Val may never be able to recover from her early isolation.
As for Jeremy, I really, really want the guy to succeed – in a vacuum, he’s my winner pick – but I look at his tribe and wonder, who is going to align with him? Drew and Jon are going to bro down in the early going… Kelley will gravitate to them… Keith will, I fear, want nothing to do with him… both Julie and Missy will try and shave a decade or two off of their ages and get in good with the younger crowd… which leaves Natalie, who, with her reality show background will be a camp curiosity in the early going (for some reason, I see her getting along with everybody but aligning with nobody), and Reed, who will feel for Jeremy, but understand that he needs to work within the power structure as it comes together.
Okay, I need to stop writing about this because it’s depressing the heck out of me: I love me some Val and Jeremy, and I hope I’m horribly wrong.
13) Prediction time:
What’s a preseason column without pointless predictions that I’ll edit out of this column and deny ever existed if I’m wrong and point to as irrefutable proof of my boundless strategic genius if I’m right?
So here’s a BD Jr. of meaningless prognostications:
1. Rocker will stick around way too long…
2. ...and Val and Jeremy won’t be around long enough.
3. Tandems, rather than orphans, will dominate the post-merge game.
4. Blood vs. Water with newbies = erratic, emotional gameplay.
5. There will be a Meathead Alliance on Coyopa, with Rocker, Wes, and Alec at the heart of it.
6. The biggest fight of the season: Julie vs. Missy. They’re going to see too much of themselves in each other.
7. Alec and Baylor will have a showmance… and Wes will be jealous. (Baylor will play the two boys off of one another, because cheerleader.)
8. There is going to be an odd power struggle on Hunahpu: Keith will try to seize the elder statesman role, but he doesn’t possess the skill set to run the tribe… Jeremy and Reed have both said in their interviews that they don’t want to emerge as leaders… which leaves Drew, Jon, Missy, Julie, Natalie, and Kelley, all of whom seem like they have some Alpha tendencies (they’ll either pursue the power position or will want to have a say in who gets it). It’s gonna be a MESS.
9. The mid-to-late-20s crew on Hunahpu – Drew, Jon, Kelley, Natalie – will emerge as an alliance of convenience (I hope Reed finds a safe haven with them).
10. My heart says to select Reed as my winner pick…
11. … but my mind says he’s gunned down by a conspiracy of dunces after the merge.
12. All of the strong players will be gone by the Final 7, so we’re going to have our biggest WTF winner since Fabio…
13. … and in the seasons ahead, Probst will point to the winner of Survivor: San Juan del Sur as proof that you don’t need to know the game to win it.
So much for positivity and optimism. ;-)
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – if you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!
Andy Baker is a long-time, but definitely not long-winded, Survivor blogger.
Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius