We ask this somewhat in jest, somewhat in earnest. One thing is for sure, this season is not boring, by any stretch. But has it been fun? We're four episodes in, and some of the most entertaining, hardest-playing contestants are already gone, including this week's lamentable extinguishing of the Jeff Varner supernova. It's hard to imagine the show will somehow be better with Varner not on it. Abi's shenanigans were already tiresome two episodes ago, and there's no visible light on the horizon. Angkor still faces grim conditions, now with even fewer players to carry the workload. On the other hand, there are still a large number of solid players left on the tribes we never see (Bayon and Ta Keo), and besides, Angkor's misery can only suck the life out of four more episodes, tops.
Even so, our overall underwhelmed reaction thus far just doesn't make sense, because most of the component parts seemed great in isolation: a strong scene with Jeremy manipulating Stephen like a pawn; another great scene with Kass defying Kelley's and the audience's expectations; a grueling Reward Challenge with a surprise winner; and even a classic IC that, despite recent missteps, usually entertains. But something still seems missing that ties it all together. Maybe it's just the overwhelming bleakness of Angkor, where not only are conditions horrible, but the players we didn't vote for (except Tasha) are in charge, and life seems not unlike an extended stay in the Dreadfort's dungeons. Maybe it's that players we like keep getting voted out earlier than we'd prefer (which tends to happen in a season overloaded with players we like, obviously). Maybe it's the predictability: in the current configuration, there's no reason to believe any tribe other than Angkor will be headed to Tribal Council, so we already know we'll be stuck in Angkor for the last 10-15 minutes, pretending there's interesting strategic decision-making going on.
Whatever the case, we still have hope that things will pick up once Angkor finally sinks. We just hope it's sooner, rather than later. You know, with an even 16 people left, and a perfect 8-8 gender split, this would be the perfect time to swap them back into two tribes of eight. Just saying. Or praying. Maybe both.
Okay, fine. It was exciting once. Now let's never speak of it again.
This is the second running of the Hero Challenge. The last one was a sort-of duel between Ozzy and Coach (for reward), to open South Pacific. It was... okay. Its enjoyability resided mainly in both tribes yelling puzzle instructions at the two returnees they hadn't yet met, which was both hilariously chaotic and set up an us-vs-them vibe for the returnees against the first-timers. The version in this episode's reward challenge, however, was hardly a spectator-involved event, yet it had all the makings of Jeff Probst's Most Favoritest Challenge In The History Of Ever. And to be clear, despite all our misgivings, it worked: watching the exhausted, starving Andrew Savage somehow pull off a come-from-behind victory over the much-younger Jeremy and all-time individual challenge beast Terry indeed made for gripping, compelling TV. A grueling, hard-fought competition, replete with lead changes and surprise successes. But....
Could we not do this again, please? It's never going to pay off any better than it did here. (Unless maybe it was Courtney Yates or Sandra Diaz-Twine delivering an epic defeat to Savage/Terry and Russell Hantz.) But most importantly: there is a time and place for individual challenges, and that's called the post-merge. 82% of the cast standing around clapping is actually kind of boring, especially for them. It's a waste of their time, and to a certain extent, ours. Also, it's a bit disturbing that only men are apparently eligible to compete in Hero Challenges, especially since you just went to the trouble of ensuring all three tribes had even numbers of men and women. In fact, thanks to the sit-out rules being conveniently overlooked here, Ciera and Monica didn't have to compete at all in this two-challenge episode, and there were 17 people left. We get that Probst desperately wanted to see his beloved old guys compete head-to-head "like battering rams" before they were all voted out. Yay, mission accomplished. Now let's go back to tribal challenges before the merge, thanks.
Post-script: We know that this is a plea that is almost certain to fall on deaf ears, because if there's one that's universally true about Survivor, it's that if the show tries anything that people like, even a little bit, they'll repeat it so frequently that you're already sick of it by the next season, and then they'll keep doing it for 5-10 seasons more. So please, let's just avoid that, and skip directly to the post-Hero Challenge era.
Whose Second Chance is this, anyway?
As viewers, we feel a certain ownership of this season, because we voted for the cast (well, okay... a rapidly dwindling percentage of the cast). And yet we feel like the theme of the season has been hijacked by the host's well-meaning but misguided pre-game pep talks. Ever since the first episode, the editors have been beating us over the heads with players repeating Probst's Ep.1 admonition that Second Chance is all about the contestants learning from mistakes they made the first time. Just this episode, Kass dutifully claimed "I think the winner of Second Chances will be someone who embraces evolution and change." So instead of the cast we thought we were getting, we have a bunch of people playing bizarro versions of their first seasons. Kass is playing nice and making friendship bracelets. Spencer is exploring his emotions. Woo is thinking about playing strategically.
Look, we're all for players making minor tweaks in their overall strategic approach, to correct past deficiencies. It's great that Jeremy seems more relaxed, happy, and willing to play second-level mind games with Stephen, all while currying the erstwhile Know-It-All's favor. That is a tangible evolution of Jeremy's prior skill set. Doing the exact opposite of what you did the last time, however, is not "growth," no matter how much Probst goads you into thinking that way. We weren't voting for #FreeBraceletsKass! (Even though, as Andy Dehnart points out, the fake idol/birthday present scene was edited to perfection.) Doing everything differently would be the gear marked with the R. You know, Reverse.
(Note: No sooner did we write all this, than we realized Martin Holmes made a similar point in his Redmond Episode Review, "Bizarro World.")
Why is Survivor trying to injure its contestants?
Professional sports plow millions into their athletes' contracts, and are slowly realizing that maybe it's a good idea to protect those investments. Baseball has made drastic rule changes to cut down on home-plate collisions, and is on the verge of doing the same at second base. The NFL, under the threat of multiple lawsuits, is taking steps to reduce player concussions. Survivor? Survivor probably spends as much on an entire cast's payouts as the host makes in an episode. (Okay, maybe two episodes.) Investment? Contestants? Instead, Survivor says, "Oh no! Everyone loved that season where we brought back medevacced players, but we've already cleared out most of the good potential medevac returnees! So let's try to injure as many good players as we can, while we have them all in one place!"
We all have a good laugh when blindfolded players wave their arms about frantically, grasping for objects just beyond their reach. Or even when they stumble about, trip, bump into each other, and fall down. But it was considerably less funny when blindfolded Dan Foley dropped a heavy wooden platform on blindfolded Kelly Remington's head, opening a sizeable bloody gash in her forehead. So having just gone through that, what does Survivor do for a follow-up? Why, it has its contestants lug heavy, sharp, pointy objects around, in the hope they'll "accidentally" crush their or other unsuspecting sightless bystanders' extremities, of course! "Thanks for liking these people so much that you voted them back onto our show, America. We know what you really wanted was to see them receive a series of potentially disfiguring injuries."
Other Second Chance Episode 4 recaps & commentary
Exit interviews - Jeff Varner
Podcasts - Episode 4