It's always dangerous to go out on a limb and bestow upon the current week's episode of Survivor the coveted title of "Worst. Episode. Ever." Because invariably, the very next week the show's producers will find a way to use their latest offering to prove you wrong. Had it not been for Helen's impression of Penny, and Clay's cutting audio commentary track as Jake droned on and on about his outdoorsman prowess, this episode could easily have eclipsed the blister-laden mark of futility set by last week's hour-long Thai water torture. Now we see what the crew meant when they complained "all the interesting players got booted early." Even Magilla was yawning.
This cast started out comatose, except in confessionals, and rigor mortis started to set in (at least for those still in the game) as the cameras lingered on the comatose Sook-Jai tribe. Remarkably, even with all the adverse weather conditions, a stray bolt of lightning still hasn't managed to strike one of these barely moving corpses, causing it to become reanimated. If this were a Faulkner novel, it would be As I Lay Dying: multiple narrators, some bordering on insanity, almost all with heavy drawls, hamfistedly presiding over the interment of the Survivor franchise. True, it seems kind of cold to kick a dead show while it's down (Survivor: Thailand rates as "Expired" in the new issue of Wired), but someone has to do it. We were here while it could still kick back, dammit, so it might as well be us.
Perhaps the only pleasant surprise in this episode occurs in the first five minutes, as the bored Chuay-Gahn members take turns ridiculing their absent Sook-Jai tribemates, currently occupied with the offing of Erin at Tribal Council. Helen does a bang-up job capturing the sighing, backstabbing, crocodile-tearing essence of cheerleader Penny. We hereby nominate Helen to take over the role of Penny for the rest of the season, since the real one seems to be too busy hiding from the cameras.
Brian tries his best to immerse himself in the role of Ken, but apparently hasn't been paying particularly close attention to the source material, since his version of Ken drawls like one of the show's ubiquitous Southerners, apart from saying "yo" and "bitches" a lot. Then again, this performance may explain why Brian's previous screen experience has been limited to soft porn.
Still, the Chuay-Gahn versions of Sook-Jai are ten times more interesting than what we've seen recently of the real versions. We begin to picture how wonderful the series might be if massive storms somehow prevent the production boat from returning Ken, Jake and Penny back from tribal council for the next 15 days. It's not like the real Sook-Jais really need to be there to be picked off one by one.
Sadly, they soon return from Tribal Council, shattering this reverie. There is the requisite group hug, tears, and compelling statements from Jake and Penny that it's oh-so-hard to vote people off, and they'll have to work extra hard to avoid doing that again in the future. Yeah, good luck with that. Or at least stop talking about it every damn week. Fittingly, as the Sook-Jais wander through the campsite, Helen leaps to her feet, fanning her arms wildly, in a futile attempt to rid the area of the stench of death.
Next, perhaps in response to complaints from the film crew, we get a lengthy expose of what can charitably be called "the inhumane working conditions for Survivor camera operators." Last week, we were treated to Penny's nonstop brown-nosing and Helen's ceaseless recitation of recipes. This week it's Jake's never-ending adventure yarns. Or, as Clay puts it, "Roy Rogers tales." Which is odd, because Jake seems to mention neither horseback riding nor lame, sub-McDonalds "American food" chain restaurants. Jake says this is a strategic move, hoping to win over Jan's heart with his cheery tales of slaughtering small animals. Ken, Robb and Jed all claimed to like these stories, but judging from the amount of eye rolling going on, perhaps the novelty has started to wear thin by day 25. Or perhaps it's just that Jake's stories are indistinguishable from Abe Simpson talking about the time he went to Shelbyville, because he needed a new heel for his shoe, so he tied an onion to his belt, which was the style at the time....
And just when you thought it might be safe to switch back over from Friends, Helen starts singing again, this time an almost full-length rendition of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Yes, it's Survivor: The Musical! Complete with orchestral accompaniment! Which turns out to be a poor post-production decision, since somewhere mid-song, Helen's singing goes painfully flat. Much like this series in general. Clay stares up at the moon, desperately searching the sky for anything - aliens, giant eagles, perhaps even a massive U.S. airstrike on Thai Muslim extremists - anything that might help him escape this misery.
But no, the only escape is through another veil of tears. Apparently, when Mark Burnett promised "all new challenges" for this season, he neglected to mention that they would be for all the same rewards: chickens, feasts, videos from home, a trip for local sightseeing, an SUV, and a visit from home. This week, the rolodex of original, unscripted reality TV stopped at the traditional "videos from home" card. Ostensibly, this is a strategic move to reveal deep, dark secrets about the Survivors to their fellow contestants, thereby throwing some anarchy into the proceedings.
As with past seasons, this doesn't work. We learn yet again that people who have been starving and sleeping in the dirt halfway around the world for the previous twenty six days tend to miss their friends and family. And that they'll cry if you show them videos of said friends and family. Especially if you tease them with brief snippets, and only the reward challenge winner gets the full tape. Thankfully, apart from Clay's continued weeping, the tears are relatively brief, and we move on to the challenge itself. But not before merging first. A shiny new yellow buff (creatively described as "gold" in the CBS store) for everyone, which elicits a few muffled hurrahs from the underwhelmed contestants. Ken wonders privately if this means they can now move away from the urine-soaked cave. Um, no. At least not until tomorrow, when you get booted, Ken.
At the RC, the first of two highly complicated, baroque challenges, involving multiple parts and elaborate staging, the first leg is an obstacle course, in which randomly-selected pairs compete. It's not clear why pairs need to compete at this, since none of the parts are particularly taxing - climb a ladder, chop through a rope, feed a little rattan ball (leftover from previous challenges) through a tube, then cross an obstacle course - but this is Survivor, so that's the way it's done. Apparently the reason the previous few weeks' worth of challenges have either been nonexistent or painfully simple (competitive breathing through a snorkel) is because the production staff has spent all their time putting this week's RC and IC together.
Naturally, the teams with the two guys in best shape (Brian and Ken) win handily, then Brian and Helen pull off a playoff victory. Brian and Helen are apparently particularly adept at manipulating balls. Then there is the final showdown, Brian versus Helen, in a completely different challenge: this time putting together a pyramid using a small set of rattan balls that have been glued together in various multi-ball shapes. Since this is a mental challenge, there is a model there to remind the contestants what a pyramid looks like, along with a box that gives the dimensions of the base of the pyramid.
And as you can imagine, the white-knuckle excitement fairly pulls you into the TV set, as we observe, once again, competitive puzzle assembly. Whee! Scenes of Brian and Helen placing and re-placing all five or so puzzle pieces are interspersed with shots of the eliminated contestants grimacing and shifting their weight in what the producers must have concluded was rapt attention. Hours pass, Brian and Helen keep checking the pyramid model to determine which end should be pointing up. Somehow, Brian eventually manages to slap the pieces together in a pyramidal shape, and is declared the winner. In the meantime, Magilla and his monkey friends, playing off to the side with the balls left over from the first half of the challenge, has constructed a 1/10-scale model of the Empire State Building, complete with circling airplanes and a miniature King Kong swatting at them. But since their families didn't send in a video, we're forced to watch Brian's.
Probst holds up a tape labeled "Brian," and asks the winner if he's ready to see the tape his wife sent from home. Eyes darting nervously, Brian's mind races back, frantically checking his memory to make sure this is not one of the tapes that was lying around the bedroom, or one of the films he and his wife appeared in. Sadly, CC does not reenact any of her past performances, possibly because those parts of the tape were spliced out, and were currently playing on a continuous loop in the production tent. Still, Clay, having been unable to ogle Erin for a full two days, watches in slack-jawed amazement, drool cascading from his lips, as Brian's wife displays her assets. Only Helen seems to notice the luxurious furnishings and vehicles behind said assets.
With the tribes now merged, Ken rightfully figures his time is now pretty much over. Hearing this, the producers convince Ted to take off by himself in the boat for a while, to create a diversion. This allows everyone to stage a confessional, loudly declaring that they're definitely voting for Ted tonight, because he's such a loner. Optimistic Jake, seizing on a highly reliable report from Clay that everyone is voting for Ted, hatches a brilliant strategy, on a par with his clever decision to intentionally get rid of the people on his tribe that were helping Sook-Jai win challenges, so that they could enter the merge with a numerical disadvantage: the Sook-Jais will all vote for Brian. He reassures Ken, "Trust me on this! Sure, we're outnumbered 5-3, but we'll nail Brian if just one of them will vote with us." Ken says he's not sure what kind of math they teach the kids in Texas, although it might help explain Enron's accounting procedures.
Soon, we're relieved of this insightful look at the fruitful strategizing, and taken to the long-awaited first individual immunity challenge. True to Mark Burnett's word that the challenges will be a mixture of brains and brawn, this one involves memorizing the numerals 1 to 10 in Thai script, then lifting a heavy 16-oz stack of cards with the Arabic (English) versions of them. Once this thrilling competition gets down to two people, they will have to dig for buried tokens in a gigantic gridded field. But first, there's the elimination. Which, these being Survivor contestants, happens almost immediately, with five of the eight contestants being eliminated on the first question. Then the next brings it down to two. Whee!
Clay and Ken then face off at digging up their ten buried tokens. Now you'd think that, being given the exact location of the pieces, with the coordinates given using the same Thai numerals (and a handy conversion key sitting a few feet away on their tally board), might make this relatively straightforward. And if your name is Clay, you'd be right. Not so poor Ken, who just tosses the directions aside, and begins taking a random walk through the grid, digging wherever he feels like. Not that this in any way impugns the impeccable abilities of NYPD officers to connect simple clues. No, not at all. Clay wins handily, 10-3.
Water, west. Water, west. Wait, what's that water stuff, again?
So, that's about it for the drama. Sure, we still have to wade through the traditional misdirection implying that everyone except for Ken is vulnerable. Apart from Clay, of course, who spends his time commenting on how fabulous he looks in his immunity necklace, which looks not unlike a rusty bicycle wheel from which the rim has been removed. There are the usual questions and trite answers at Tribal Council, filled with almost as much political bilge as your average pre-election commercial break. And then the voting, in which shockingly, despite Clay's assurances to the contrary, Ken gets snuffed, 5-3, along tribal lines.
Yup, CBS Thursdays will keep you guessing, all right.