For a show now in its 29th season (and currently filming its 30th), one thing can be said about Survivor: It's not afraid to switch things up. Well, okay, not in casting, where "a true cross-section of America" still means a mostly white portfolio of models, pageant queens, aspiring singer-songwriters, and former college and pro athletes, mostly in their 20s, and only one woman older than 35. But when it comes to the structure of the show, Survivor giddily departs from previous formats, successful or not, seemingly for no reason. Such is the case with the Blood vs. Water twist, which debuted all of one year ago. We should be happy about this (Yay, variety! New things!), but we're worried, and we'll go into detail about our concerns below.
But first: we know nothing!
Before we begin, an obvious caveat: We've been wrong about seasons at this point before, in particular, the original Blood vs. Water. What was most surprising about the Blood vs. Water season's success was that it took spectacular liberties with format, piling an interconnected conglomerate of twists on top of one already tried (and failed) twice, Redemption Island. This led to a seemingly overconceptualized structure, with loved ones being given a chance to swap out for one another, hand out idol clues, and eventually play with each othe. Despite all that, the season worked (at least pre-merge), as much because of its twists as despite them. And it did so despite dire predictions from critics (such as this one) who were aghast that this incoherent jumble of twists, particularly when combined with Redemption Island, would collapse under its own weight, bringing down the show with it. Shows what we know, right?
So yes, we admit it: despite our concerns, Blood vs. Water worked. Yet as much as we want to believe that the success of BvsW was the result of clever, insightful planning, it's also possible that production just got lucky. In retrospect, there were two key components of the BvsW season that were critical to its success. The first was the novelty of the twist(s): Survivor had never been played, from the start, by pairs of loved ones before. All of a sudden, common Survivor behaviors (celebrating after challenge wins, winning challenges in the first place, being given hidden immunity idol clues, voting someone out) created in-game repercussions not just for the person performing them, but also for their partner on the other tribe. What made this work was a set of smart, game-aware contestants (Tyson and his alliance, Vytas, and Hayden among them) who picked up on these new wrinkles, adjusted to them on the fly, and devised completely new strategies through which to exploit them. Vytas came up with a plan to boot Tyson's girlfriend Rachel, just to goad Tyson into switching out for her at Redemption Island. (Which, in retrospect, might have allowed Vytas and Aras to coast to the end post-merge.) Who does that?
So why all our trepidation as we consider the return of Blood vs. Water? Two reasons: (1) it's a new cast, none of whom have played Survivor before (BvsW had 10 returnees, plus Big Brother winner Hayden), and none of whom leap off the screen as master strategists the way Vytas did in his pre-season interviews, and (2) Exile Island seems like a complete waste of time. Read on to see why.
We hate to say it, but Blood vs. Water should have returnees
Look, we didn't ask for this format to repeated again this soon. And we're certainly pleased to see two (maybe even three?) returnee-free seasons of Survivor back-to-back (-to-back?). But we worry that Blood vs. Water is likely to work better when the cast pairs returnees with a loved one. We're not militant about this; we would be happy for this season to prove us wrong. But in the end, as was proven in BvsW, Survivor remains an individual game. Yet this particular format forces casting to find pairs of people they are willing to let play it, and in any pair, one person will end up being a better Survivor player than their partner. When casting returning players, production at least has a ballpark expectation of gameplay for the returnee half of each pair, so they can mostly focus on trying to get as many good partners as possible. Not so with an all-newbie cast, where you're starting from scratch. And casting was under double pressure here: While seasons such as Samoa prove it's hard to find 20 good new contestants (which is what SJdS started with, until a last-minute medevac dropped the cast size to 18), it seems likely that it's even more difficult to find 10 good contestants who have a close enough relationship to another great potential contestant for the Blood vs. Water drama to work. Maybe this cast can pull that off. But we're having a hard time finding even one Spencer, Kass, or Tony in this group. Hopefully we're wrong.
Even after Probst explained the "reasoning" to Dalton Ross, we're still struggling to understand how having duels is better than having tribal reward challenges. Okay, yes, Survivor will get the drama (at least temporarily, at most nine times) of loved one battling loved one each week. But getting sent to Exile Island is not the same as having your game end when you lose the duel. So ultimately, there is far less at stake here than, say, in BvsW's Candice vs. John (vs. another person), or Aras vs. Vytas (also vs. another person), or Tina vs. Katie. Lower stakes mean less drama. Perhaps more damningly, because they're forcing one partner to duel another, there will be sixteen people sitting out, none of whom particularly care who wins. It's really just a smaller-scale Reward Challenge, but with a massive number of sit-outs. Yes, keeping it in
Redemption "Exile" Arena preserves the potential drama of people yelling at the tribe that recently voted out their loved one. But that also could have happened when the losing tribe marched into a plain old reward challenge. You know, the old familiar "Getting your first look at the new [past episode's IC-losing] tribe. [Bootee] voted out at the last Tribal Council."
As far as we can tell, the only real reason we have duels this season is because Redemption Arena had already been built, and production felt the need to use it, even though they didn't have to. (Probably also because they didn't have regular tribal reward challenges planned.) So while it's interesting, and somewhat laudable, that Probst & Co. are forcing the contestants to adjust, on the fly, when they discover Redemption Island is no longer in play, that adjustment will probably take all of about three seconds, and we the audience will be left with 6+ episodes of rinky-dink, not-quite-challenges. Which, through the magic of editing, we will hopefully find less dull to watch than will the assembled tribes.
We know, it's not really all that terrible. But wait, it could get even worse. How? If they extend the duels-instead-of-RCs "feature" after the merge, just because they were initially planning to do that for Redemption Island, too. Please, please, no.
Exile Island: Oh God, no
As underwhelmed as we are at the prospect of absolutely unnecessary duels, we are absolutely aghast at the decision to resurrect the previously dead-and-buried Exile Island twist. That was the dragon that Coach slew! Eleven seasons ago!
Why is Exile Island so bad? Because it's a massive waste of time, and every ounce of possible benefit has already been wrung from it, several times over. Spanning the six seasons in which it was previously used, every possible permutation of "Exile Island scene" has already been filmed and aired. 90% of these are the exiled person(s) feeling miserable (or downcast, or unhappy, or on a rare occasion, morose). And before a glimmer of hope arises: nope, this season there won't be any scenes of the exilees bucking up, taking power into their own hands, and following the trail of treasure hunt clues to the hidden idol (or even the fake hidden idol), because this season the idols are back at camp (and probably not even hidden all that well). The only possible plus, then, is the prospect of an eleven-seasons-too-late payoff to the much-ballyhooed "cross-tribe Exile alliance" that Tocantins promised, but never delivered. And given how rapidly that evaporated at the Tocantins merge, we're not hopeful.
To be fair, Exile Island interferes with the structure of the show far less than Redemption Island did. It's definitely an improvement there. Blindside are actually blindsides again, drawing rocks really can end your game. Exile Island's chief sin is that it interferes with the gameplay of the people sent there, especially (as shown in that EW video) when people are sent there in the first episode. One unlucky exilee will get a buff, then immediately lose a duel (or just watch it), get exiled, return to their never-met tribe, promptly then lose an IC, then have a few hours in which to scramble to save themselves, among people to whom they've never previously talked. That is tremendously unfair, especially because it's completely unnecessary. (We partially say this because the EW video shows that one of the people this could happen to is also one of the very few capable-seeming contestants on this season, and losing that person this early under such ridiculous circumstances would be an absolute tragedy.)
Look, Survivor, we know you paid people to scout out a remote island filming location for Redemption Island, probably built a shelter there, and hired additional transportation and film crews to shuttle contestants there and film them every two-to-three days. We get that. We also get that costs have already been incurred. But just because you've made the correct decision and opted not to send your freight train to its intended Redemption Island destination, it doesn't mean your only option is to jump off and throw the switch, sending the now unmanned locomotive hurtling along a parallel but also unnecessary track. It's okay to just hit the brakes. Really. Or at least it would have been three months ago, when you filmed this. Oh well.
Pre-season SJdS news and commentary