It's mergin' time on Survivor: Thailand, and if you've watched this show before, you know what that means: hours of drunken revelry, half-assed attempts at making a new faux-ethnic tribe name, pissing contests between the tribes (usually after the drinking part), more of the usual backstabbing and snark, and the sad ritual of one of the strong "star" contestants getting voted off. All of which still happened this week, even though this "merge" wasn't really one. Although we must admit that it was entertaining watching the grand puppetmaster, Mark Burnett, yank the strings of his contestants back and forth this week.
Perhaps to lull the audience into a jaded, complacent state (always a wise idea in an "action"-oriented game show), we start the festivities by taking a nightvision peek at last week's losers. The Sook-Jai tribe is returning from having voted off Robb, the taste of blood still fresh on their lips. Or his speech about harmony, family and love. One of the two.
Anyway, things are getting complicated: Erin doesn't trust Ken and Shii Ann, while Ken doesn't trust Penny. Neither does Shii Ann. Phew! So much to keep track of. To simplify, we'll just say that the Sook Jais, having gotten rid the people that got them food and won them challenges, are now a bunch of paranoid, self-important layabouts, who seem to spend a lot of time reclining and bitching about each other, at least when they're not busy sleeping. Watching this tense drama unfold, Mark Burnett begins counting down the seconds until he can start torturing actual athletes (and some celebrities) on the next Eco-Challenge. "Seven million, seven hundred seventy-six thousand... seven million, seven hundred seventy-five thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine...."
But, having made it through six whole episodes, Burnett is now free to monkey around with the format a tad. How to get the dysfunctional Sook-Jai family back in business? Why, make it bigger, of course! Having tried the usual means (life-sized dolls, stuffing the contestants full of food), Burnett is forced to resort to the most logical path: having the contestants paint their bodies in rainbow colors. Over at Chuay-Gahn, the result of this is superhero costumes (or at least, WWE costumes in Ted's case) and elaborate full-body art (Helen and Brian). The denizens of Fort Sook-Jai, however, wallowing in their self-loathing, manage a few dots and swirls here and there, and call it a day. Except Jake, of course, who has so many spots of day-glo blue paint, he looks like a leper. Err, leopard. No wait, leper was right.
So imagine their embarrassment when they arrive at their "reward challenge" to find that (*gasp*) there are other people there wearing the same color! Oh the humanity! But you can feel their palpable joy as Jeff Probst tells them to pair up, take a picnic basket, and go find a beach. Fortunately, after lugging the heavy picnic supplies (two apples), the contestants are indeed rewarded, because each gets to hear some freak covered in goofy paint jabbering incessantly about how much they hate their tribemates.
Such as poor Clay. He gets stuck with ambassador duty. He takes Shii Ann to Chuay-Gahn camp, to show her the many sights and sounds: "Look, here's where Tanya puked two weeks ago... and it's still warm! Here's where Ted was grinding Ghandia! And here's a special treat: it looks like Magilla has been flinging stuff at the walls of our cave again! No, hold on, that's not chocolate!" For her part, Shii Ann, who has just spent the previous six episodes ridiculing Robb's non-stop verbal barrages, spends the entire time telling Clay every minute detail of her life in Sook-Jai, from the texture of the chicken hearts to the number of fronds in the fort's roof. Clay tries to maintain consciousness by compulsive folding and refolding of the note inviting him to this personal hell.
Privately, he wonders if gnawing off his own foot to escape might be seen as rude. "Uh, Shii Ann, honey, I think I see our boat over yonder on that island. I think I'll swim over thar for a spell." Hours later, having been picked up six miles offshore by the Thai Coast Guard, and returned to Tarutao for attempted escape from the penal colony, Clay returns to find Shii Ann has made it as far as a blow-by-blow description of all the moves Sook-Jai didn't make in the immunity challenge they threw to boot Jed. Luckily for Clay, the camera crew signals it's time to return to the rest of the group. Where we find randy old Jake, last seen walking off hand-in-hand with a similarly spotty Jan, winking at the camera, saying they had a "great time." Ah, that CBS for ya, nodding to the silver demographic.
Once back together, the contestants instantly decide to move to Chuay-Gahn camp (over Clay's stifled screams), mainly because Sook-Jai, having spent the previous six episodes builing their fort, then ridding themselves of the people who didn't help build it, need a new set of accommodations to fight over. Ignoring the minor problem that Probst at no time has given them new buffs in a single merged-tribe color, the contestants get to Camp Cave, see their haul of food and booze, and promptly spend a couple of days drinking and eating.
As you might expect, the following scenes are highly educational. We learn that when people consume large quantities of wine, they get drunk, sometimes fall over, and occasionally throw up. Who knew? And then there's the singing. Oh, the singing. Clearly, Mark Burnett, jealous of another show stealing his "must-see" reality show buzz, must have figured "If American Idol can lure viewers in with marginally attractive average Americans singing poorly, so can I, dammit." So while we were spared any vocalizations from actual singer-songwriter Mitchell during the Australian Outback series, here we've been subjected to Ted, Brian, the entire Chuay-Gahn tribe, Helen, and now Shii Ann's caterwauling. In the name of all that is good and holy, please, make it stop. (Next week on Survivor: Jake does an extended dance number featuring a medley of Paul Abdul hits, but can Clay top him with his version of Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty"? Only on CBS).
The aftermath of all this revelry is rather unsettling. First, even though he's the most likeable porn star Survivor has thus far featured, Brian's tongue-in-cheek confessionals are starting to make us question whether he's actually believing them. Does rapid beard growth in a tropical climate automatically turn you into John Carroll? *Shudder*. Also, Shii Ann is taking advantage of her continuous access to the Chuay-Gahns to drum up campaign support for ditching her Sook-Jai party affiliation, and labeling herself a Chuay-Gahn. Everyone seems quite open to the idea, apart from the Sook-Jais, of course, who immediately run to tell Penny that Shii Ann is planning to vote her off.
And finally, after half an hour of red herring-laden exposition, we finally come to the crux of the episode: the immunity challenge. Not without seeing good ol' Magilla stealing some food first, of course. Magilla's screentime in this episode eclipsed that of the nearly-invisible Clay, Helen and Jan combined. We think he's a lock for the final two. Anyway, the Survivors line up to hear Probst describe the IC. As Erin mentions the "merge," Probst leaps in to tell her they've done no such thing. Cheers erupt among jaded Survivor watchers at some of the best double takes since Silas got his Boran buff. Even when you knew it was coming, it was still pretty entertaining to watch. After that, the challenge and it's aftermath were pretty much an afterthought.
Since Episode 6. If found, please contact Survivor Entertainment Group.
The challenge itself was actually close to "all new". Sure, the omnipresent finding keys to remove various locks concept has been used several times, but this one actually required some ingenuity and teamwork, and remarkably didn't involve a potential winner rushing to Probst with their removed locks, only to discover they'd dropped one along the way. So, no Keith Famie Memorial Stumblefuck Award for this series (although there's still time). Honorable mention consideration might be extended to the Sook-Jai tribe, who had tied up Chuay-Gahn with 14 of the 15 locks retrieved, but then, as they always do when they want to boot one of their own, somehow found a way to make no more progress during the entire time the Chuay-Gahns took to get their last key, dig out of their cell, walk over to Probst, and endure the two-hour confirmation process as Jeffy removed both his shoes to be able to count to fifteen.
Naturally, the point of all this was for Sook-Jai to be able to purge themselves of treacherous Shii Ann. This does not mean that Mark Burnett would miss an opportunity to make it seem like Penny might get the boot instead, of course. Even if that is based entirely on Shii Ann's speech begging and pleading Jake and Ken to honor their pledges to her to boot that evil Penny. True, this ploy had about as much chance of success as a challenger unseating an incumbent Kennedy or Bush, but still, it was at least moderately more entertaining to watch Shii Ann rail against Penny's deceitful ways than the usual grinning, winking homilies about "Gosh, it will be hard to vote tonight, we love everyone so much."
We can't wait to see the ruckus Magilla raises when they try to vote him off.