Life ain’t easy when you’re a Survivor producer. In the premiere episode of every season, you have to introduce 16 to 20 players, develop the story of two or three tribes, have an opening “get your gear” sequence, convey the complexity of a multi-stage immunity challenge, and maintain tension at Tribal Council even if the boot is obvious. Along the way, you have to use editorial shortcuts to establish – without giving away the ultimate fate of – your narrative leads.
And you have to do that in 65-70 minutes of air time.
The job, needless to say, is a difficult one. And, lest we forget, the people who are shaping the story aren’t the Kubricks and Tarantinos of the world (although wouldn’t that make for a hell of a Survivor season); they’re reality television producers. Oh, sure, they’re good at their jobs, but it’s not like they possess a superhuman skill at cinematic subterfuge; they have a nearly impossible task and they’re attempting to accomplish it in a highly compressed timeline.
Which is to say that everything you need to know about the season is to be found within these 65-70 minutes – if you just know where to look. On some level, we already know how this season will play out, because they’ve told us (because they have to). The end is the beginning is the end.
To see what I mean, read on.
1) The Significant Six
Back in Survivor: Cambodia, a lot was made of the “Irrelevant Eight,” the players who didn’t get an opening confessional; most edit readers dismissed their chances, a reaction that was validated by the results: Six out of the eight failed to make the merge, and the other two (Keith and Stephen) were marginal contributors to the overall story.
Second Chance was playing by a slightly different set of rules, of course, because it was a returnee season; the producers are never going to let a dozen newbies talk to the camera before Probst starts priming the season theme pump. The end result, though, is that the handful of confessionals we get are critically important to the overall story. They establish our narrators. Our characters. And maybe, just maybe, our winner.
So let’s take a quick look at who got to talk.
2) Significant 6: Millennials
Taylor: He kicked things off with a spiel about who he is, and in the process established the “Millennial mindset.” My immediate reaction: “Why him?” Frankly, this seemed like the perfect spot for Adam, given how articulate he was in his camp life confessionals. Instead, we got the snowboard instructor as the initial voice of the season. So for those of you thinking that Taylor is a Triforce Zeldouche, doomed to be this season’s Reynold to Jay’s Eddie, and that Figgy and Michelle are going to suffer the same fate as the so-called “Cool Kids” Hope and Allie, Taylor getting this confessional means you’re almost certainly wrong.
Mari: Speaking of Survivor producers, not only do they have to tell the season-long story, establishing post-merge players during the pre-merge game, they also have to let us know who the key characters are for the first few episodes (they often “chunk” the season into a series of mini-seasons, and each piece has protagonists and antagonists). Mari was reinforcing the theme of the season, talking about what it means to be a Millennial, but she was also unleashing her ego; her “I am going to win” lacks the substance and subtlety of a winner quote, and, at least for me, establishes her as an early-season strategist whose overconfidence undermines her game.
Zeke: Is there any doubt, even only one episode in, that he’s going to be this season’s defining character? He’s already all over the edit. He told us that he’s the least Millennial of the Millennials… but that also makes him the most Gen-X of the Millennials, doesn’t it? Everyone is gonna love this guy. Except the people he blindsides.
3) Significant 6: Gen-X
Chris: His confessional, delivered with bland intensity, focused on his willingness to fight. And that’s precisely what he’ll do this season: fight every step of the way in what is being heavily foreshadowed as a difficult battle. I can’t be the only one who thinks he comes across as the stoic leader of a doomed tribe, can I?
Sunday: If there’s a candidate for “most likely to take Rachel’s spot as the floater who gets further in the game than anyone expected,” it’s Sunday. She mocked kids who play videogames (hammering another nail in Mari’s coffin in the process), and staked her claim to the season’s reductive and insulting view of Gen-Xers (judgmental, calcified, preachy). The producers are basically telling the aging CBS demographic – specifically older women – that this is who they should root for.
David: Hello, journey character! The theme of David’s confessional was perseverance. And that trait is going to come in mighty handy given the hole he’s dug for himself in this episode. There’s no way David gives one of these six confessionals if he doesn’t turn it around and make the merge. So get used to this guy.
4) A Few More Intro Musings
** Four men and two women got to talk… which hints at a season dominated by the men. (They could have just as easily gone 3/3 or 4/2 the other way; this cast has plenty of players who can give good confessional.)
** If you’re reluctant to buy what I’m selling here, ask yourself how you would construct an opening confessional sequence… you’d wouldn’t give screen time to non-factors, you’d want a mix of players and characters, you’d want to hint at the story ahead like any good prologue… and then remember that the one we saw on Wednesday was put together by a team of people just like you (and frankly, given that you’re reading a Survivor blog, you probably know more, and care more, about the show than many of the producers).
** At least four of these players are going to make the merge… probably five.
5) Tribe Dynamics: Millennials
Let me ask you this: If you had a choice to align with the Triforce or the Misfits, which would you choose?
Taylor and Jay seem incredibly predictable to me; you can anticipate what they’re up to, and they wear their emotions on their sleeves. Figgy is a lot more dangerous – she’s game savvy, that one – but so long as she’s working with the bros, she won’t have a lot of room to maneuver. As a group, they’re overly, and overtly, relying on being challenge assets.
On the flip side, the Misfits Alliance – if it can really be called that – is full of self-interested strategists. Mari cannot hide her intelligence (and already revealed that she’s a gamer). Neither can Adam. One conversation with Hannah and you know that she was cast because of her love for Survivor (and, unless you’re oblivious, you know she’s there to be a strategist).
So if you’re Michaela or Zeke, which side do you choose? Sure, you agreed to target the pretty people, but that was before you won the first immunity challenge. Now that you’re six days into the game, which group seems more dangerous to you?
Which is a long-winded way of saying this: Don’t be surprised if Mari, Adam, and Hannah are in a lot of trouble next week.
(If you’re wondering, I see Michelle as a floater who will settle in with the Triforce if they win the power struggle; otherwise, she’ll try to stay out of the fray and muddle to the merge. Will, meanwhile, is a bit harder to predict, given that we got zero sense of his loyalties in the premiere; if I had to guess, though, he will follow Michelle, the hot missionary, wherever she may go.)
6) Tribe Dynamics: Gen-X
Gen-X has a problem: Their dominant alliance is too big. The only person truly on the outs right now is CeCe; once she’s gone, whom do they boot next? Ken? (Apparently, he was close to Rachel before the tribe turned against her.) Until the swap, though, they need him in challenges. David would be high on the list… but he’s our journey character, so he’s not going anywhere. Maybe Lucy’s days are numbered; the edit certainly says she’s not important to the story (zero confessionals in a 90-minute premiere). Paul, too, feels like a pre-merge boot; were he either a character or a player, we would have seen more of him last week (I think it’s safe to assume that he’s the player medical is checking on in the preview; I don’t think he’s leaving, but the scare is going to slow him down, and he’s well on his way to getting the equivalent of a Survivor participation trophy.)
Having listed all of the potential targets, who’s left at the heart of the Gen-X alliance? Chris, Bret, Sunday, Jessica, and David. Three players who had opening confessionals… someone with the Legacy Advantage… and Bret. Given that the battle lines within this tribe have yet to be drawn (I still think that there’s potential for Bret to run afoul of Chris by setting up his own sub-alliance), I’m assuming two things:
** The Gen-Xers aren’t going to Tribal next week (we’d have a stronger sense of who might be in danger if they were; the producers would have begun to cultivate a decoy boot).
** The tribe as a whole isn’t as critical to the overall storyline (Chris, Sunday, and David all likely make the merge because of those opening confessionals, but their stories don’t belong to endgamers).
7) Negative space
You know how the empty space between the E and the X in the Fed-Ex logo forms an arrow? That’s an incredibly clever use of what’s called negative space; the arrow subtly reinforces the Fed-Ex branding message without calling attention to itself. Survivor, too, utilizes negative space to tell a story; often, a quiet but pivotal player will be given a lot of reaction shots, along with the occasional seemingly needless confessional, just to keep them alive in the edit (last season’s winner Michele is a great example of this).
The MGX queen of negative space? Michaela.
** Her expressive eyebrows were all over the early interactions as she took exception to Paul and CeCe’s generalizations about Millennials.
** She was shown wisely leaving the rest of the Millennials (to get other gear) as Probst chastised the tribe for standing around at one of the decision stations.
** She was paired not once but twice with Chris, first when their intro shots were shown back to back, and later when they both gave confessionals about the severity of the cyclone and how Survivor will test them. Their fates are linked, and their stories are shared. And, given that Chris is earmarked for the merge because of his opening confessional, this means that Michaela is around for the long haul.
8) The Legacy Advantage
A few thoughts about this new twist:
** Kudos to the producers for keeping this thing under wraps during the pre-season. Normally, Probst can’t help but reveal twists to Dalton Ross and Gordon Holmes. It was fun to be surprised for once.
** That said, the skeptic in me wonders if the advantage ends up being a dud. If it was really important to the endgame, Probst wouldn’t be able to shut up about it, would he? And yet, he sang the praises of the extra vote, and that never went anywhere (for the record, it worked beautifully in last summer’s Durham Warriors Survival Challenge), so who knows?
** A significant concern: Because the advantage was inserted on Day 1, and the audience has been aware of it right from the start, I fear that the producers will feel that the advantage itself has to be huge just to live up to the hype. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I’m deeply wary of a significant advantage being given to a player three days before the end of the game. No one should be able to open up his or her bag on Day 36 and find a seat to Final Tribal Council gift-wrapped by a recently departed player.
** Deciding what to do with the advantage this early on is an intriguing strategic puzzle. To keep it hidden is dangerous: If you eventually tell members of your alliance that you found it back on Day 1, you’ll lose some of their trust because you kept a secret from them over an extended period of time. Plus, people can sense when you’re holding back; the fact that you have an advantage will shape your behavior, and empathetic players will pick up on it.
** On the flip side, to reveal the advantage could make you a target (as all advantages do; players have justifiable paranoia about game-changing elements that they don’t control)… and yet it’s also an asset that your alliance can rally around (“If they blindside me, I’ll will it to you”).
** Here’s what I’d be tempted to do: Jokingly inform my alliance that if they blindside me, I’ll give the advantage to a power player on the other tribe. It won’t be a joke, though; I’ve been saying for years that players need to find a way to convey to the members of their alliance, as gently as possible, that if they take you out, you’re going to do everything in your power to undermine their ability to win the game. That may seem needlessly aggressive, especially this early in the game (normally, one wouldn’t need to make any implied threats until the jury phase begins), but once you stumble onto something like the legacy advantage, you have to play the game that’s been handed to you, and make sure that the advantage is an asset, not an albatross.
9) Second Viewing Small Stuff
I should know better than to watch the episode a second time; I always see a ton of stuff I want to write about. These columns are long enough already! But since I did, here are a few observations:
** During the opening, when Probst was telling the players about the theme of the season, there was an extended shot of Michelle playing with her hair (and poor Will, standing behind her, watching, already smitten). Accompanying this image was an ominous rattle-snake shake of a maraca. Couple that with her pre-season assertion that she might follow in the biblical footsteps of women who toppled powerful men, and I can’t help but assume she’s going to be the undoing of Will and/or Jay (dark horse candidate: Ken).
** If you found an advantage in the opening gear-grabbing scrum, and later found out it was the legacy advantage, would you assume that there are also easily-found idols in play already? Were I Jessica, I might think that idol clues would be delayed, because it’s unlikely that the producers want to show the discovery of the advantage (and explain how it works) AND spend time on idols all in the first episode. There WILL be idols, of course – the odds of having an idol-less season are incredibly low, because the producers want and need that element of unpredictability – but I wouldn’t be as paranoid about Rachel or David having found one already.
** I wonder if any of the Gen-Xers noticed how concerned Jessica was about being able to bring her bag when they were evacuated. Had I been out there, I would have immediately wondered, “What do you have in there?” On a related note, if she actually still had the advantage in her bag – rather than burying it – then she’s making a critical mistake (there’s a good chance someone will see it).
** Figgy had what would be the oddest winner quote ever, where she talked about getting the million and a husband. That is, unless the relationship that starts on the island gets Keith-Whitney serious and there’s a proposal coming at the Reunion. Of course, which guy would it be? The shot right after her quote was of Jay… but she talks about how attractive Taylor is (and he’s the one that’s smitten with her in the teaser for next week). How’s this for an alternate theory: Taylor is the Sole Survivor… and they’re together at the end of the season?
** When a player says in a confessional that he needs to find an idol to turn his game around… and this same person is our journey character… then there’s a good chance he’ll eventually get his hands on an idol. I wonder if David finding the idol will be like a light switch going off; suddenly, where he was once nervous and neurotic, David might be calm and calculating. That, I have to say, would be incredibly funny. The more likely outcome is that he would transform into Chris’ Iago, the darkly scheming sidekick.
** It’s a bad look when you announce in a confessional, “If we lose, David is going home” – but then, when you lose, David doesn’t go home. Jessica had a really good episode overall (loved her “that’s a shame, I would have made a deal with you” method of trying to suss out if David had an idol). But this moment offers us some doubt about her chances.
** Right now, Zeke is a combination of a high-profile personality, a solid player, and a journey character. I suspect that creating fire and being central to the shelter construction complete the journey part of his story, however, and that from now on, we’ll see him emerge as a strategist. Oh, and confessional hog (not that I’m complaining).
** More proof that Taylor isn’t a Triforce Zeldouche: He, unlike Reynold and Eddie, is aware that he and the other pretty people are seen as a threat. Knowing you have a problem – or in this case, that you are a problem – is half the battle. And possessing in-game self-awareness is the Survivor skill that separates the players from the cannon fodder.
** Michaela was completely non-committal with Mari when the gamer was putting together her Misfit Alliance. We can assume that Michaela was on board with the plan. But the edit allowed Michaela to remain a free agent going into next week.
** Another positive Zeke moment: He was made to look “right” when he advocated for the use of the balance beam advantage in the immunity challenge. These are the small, subtle ways that the edit can make us like a player, and in the process, shape our expectations. Because Zeke appears to have made the right call here – despite it likely being a group decision – we’re inclined to think of him as a smart player, one who is capable of shaping post-merge strategy.
** By the way, Probst, it’s FEWER pieces, not LESS. #GrammarHammer
10) Probst Probe
Do yourself a favor and NEVER make the mistake of checking out the “Players to Watch For” cast assessment Probst does with Entertainment Weekly just before the season starts airing (it’s filmed after the season is over, so he knows how the game played out). He gives away WAAAAAY too much. This is what happens when your host and your executive producer are the same person, I suppose.
My two reactions to the video:
** Jaw hit floor – I mean, Probst just can’t help himself. You can tell which of the two tribes dominates and identify many of the players who are important to the endgame. Oh, sure, he could be trolling us. But just watch him: He isn’t trying to mislead us. He’s excited about the season and the winner.
** I feel a LOT better about my random boot order column.
If you are a glutton for punishment, here’s the link:
11) Fortunes Rising: Sunday
Given her opening confessional, her high-profile comments during Tribal Council, and her position within her tribe, Sunday is poised to make a deep run. Add in the fact that she’s a member of the God Squad, and she might be the last Gen-Xer standing. I don’t think she’s gonna win, but there’s a good chance that she almost pulls it off.
12) Fortunes Falling: CeCe
Given how she reacted at Tribal Council, CeCe doesn’t seem to be aware of her standing in her tribe. At this point, she’s the obvious target if the Gen-Xers lose the next immunity challenge (although as we all know, obvious targets often provide excellent cover for a blindside), and even if she survives until a swap, as a challenge liability, she’ll be in constant danger until the merge. I don’t see any way she gets there.
13) Prediction Time:
Let’s see if I can put a puzzle together better than Rachel and David.
A lot of time was spent developing the conflict within the Millennials, so I’m going to assume they lose the immunity challenge and go to Tribal Council.
The trailer focuses on Taylor’s love goggles and Jay’s frustration with his bro. The inverse law of teaser physics says that this is a massive misdirect. So the members of Triforce must be safe.
That means that the Misfit Alliance doesn’t hold up.
Which means that Taylor, Jay, and Figgy pick up some numbers. Michelle, certainly. Will, probably.
In the end, Zeke and Michaela will make the final decision, and they’ll see Mari, Adam, and Hannah as potential threats.
Probably in that order. When in doubt, make the move that gives you more control of the game, and removes a significant long-term threat in the process.
Which means that Mari is going home.
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