It's difficult to believe Survivor: David vs. Goliath and Survivor: Edge of Extinction were filmed less than a month apart. Three episodes in, seemingly every lauded storytelling advance made in David vs. Goliath has not only vanished into thin air, but been replaced with some of the most wretched excesses of the two-to-three-stars-plus-a-bunch-of-mute-bystanders seasons, like Redemption Island.
In this episode alone, a well-rounded superfan who played key roles in multiple challenges for Manu left the (actual game part of the) show. We barely heard any of his thoughts on either challenges or strategy, as he made just three confessionals in three episodes. Despite being a key swing vote between two alliances, and on the tribe that went to Tribal Council all three times, he was basically a silent ghost. (His name was Chris, in case you missed it.)
Chris is not alone in being invisible and anonymous, though. We're now up to the first swap, and the audience still has no idea who the vast majority of new players are. Two of the returning players (Joe and Kelley) have really only been heard from to give variants of "these people are plotting against me," and the entirety of (non-idol/-advantage) content from the Kama tribe has been those (new, mostly anonymous) people plotting against the returnees. Except Julia, of course, who still doesn't have a confessional at all.
Manu's content hasn't been much better, even though they've had a stranglehold on the final act for three straight weeks. While we do know Wendy, and have seen a fair bit of Wardog, each episode has been pretty much a Groundhog Day revisiting of the same strategic story: David wants to target Kelley, everyone else wants to vote out Wendy, discussions are had, and in the end, neither Kelley nor Wendy leaves. Instead, other people have left the game. "These are real people," Chris pointed out at Tribal, "and that's something you can't feel back home." Which couldn't in any way be the fault of this season's storytelling decisions.
This wasn't a problem in David vs. Goliath. We learned almost every member of the David tribe's backstory in the first episode. We spent a lot of time with early Goliath boots like Jeremy and Natalie, and heard their thoughts on the game. We heard Gabby's concerns about not fitting in. Davie's desire to maximize his fun and break stereotypes in the process. Christian's thoughts on optimal slide puzzle solving. Jeremy's thoughts on leaving idols in jackets. Dan's thoughts on Supergirl and Kara. And so on.
This season? Good luck cramming a word in edgewise if you're not targeting returnees, finding an idol/advantage, or have already been cast out onto Edge of Extinction.
Even the traditional, twist-related methods to making an episode's cut have proven to be short-lived. In the premiere, Ron got to talk when he found a clue during the marooning, then dug up the advantage menu. He hasn't had a confessional since, despite leading a highly GIFed group dance in Episode 2. His advantage menu expired this episode, unused and unmentioned, without even a word about any temptation to use it to steal the chicken reward out from under Manu. Similarly, in the premiere, Lauren was allowed to gush about the returnees, then narrated her finding of Manu's idol in Episode 2. She wasn't heard from at all this episode, despite the entire episode focusing on her tribe. Would we even have seen Aubry before now if she hadn't found an idol this week? Who knows?
If the only guaranteed path to screen time for a newbie is finding an idol or advantage, and even that only lasts while they're finding it, why did Survivor even bother casting first-timers at all this season? If it's acceptable that their stories don't start until they're on Extinction, we pretty much have a separate season that has nothing at all to do with forming a society and voting people out (or even idols and advantages) taking place on Extinction. Week by week, it grows like a parasite, gradually sucking more life blood from the host.
Maybe the show's powers that be just decided David vs. Goliath was the best they'll ever get from a regular season of Survivor, so they'll throw that one in the vault, and concentrate on spinning off a new show called Edge of Extinction, where people sit around, miserable and starving, except when you tempt them to maybe fall off a cliff with the promise of food.
That makes as much sense as whatever the hell this season's story is supposed to be.
I'm tired of you and the f***ing chickens
Jeff Probst seems pretty delighted that Wendy commandeered most of the Manu camera time this week (while injured, no less) with her pro-poultry crusade. We're here for Wendy's refusal to back down from a point, and her continuing to do so with a smile, and we'd be 100% on board, if only it didn't seem so ... Manufactured. (Sorry, it was right there.)
It's not Wendy's fault. It's not Survivor's fault. It's not Sia's fault. It's not the fans' fault. And yet everyone really is at least a little bit complicit, because there's a feed-forward mechanism at work here, where all the individual motivations of the interested parties add up to season after season of virtually the same chicken drama. Is there any way we can ... just not do this? Here's why.
(1) The chickens are a false flag reward. They are always presented as "a long-term supply of eggs ... or a short-term feast." Except the hens never lay eggs, probably because they're under enormous stress from being thrown off of boats and/or locked in tiny cages. And/or slowly being starved to death in those cages. It's not like this is news to anyone who's watched the show. If a hen lays even one egg, it's such a rare event you can be sure it'll make the edit, which means the chickens aren't exactly the reliable renewable source of food for 6-10 people they're cracked up to be. Production could just give the winning tribe three fully cooked rotisserie chickens, and that would be far more humane (and probably easier than 12 individual pizzas), and it would result in far less animal suffering. But doing so would deprive the show of its actual goal with the chickens, conflict. Bringing us to...
(2) Survivor gives away chickens as a reward because they create conflict. And that conflict has been erupting since all the way back in Season 2, when the first and most authentic fight about the chickens took place, Kimmi vs. Alicia. Since then, we've had Penner vs. Flica losing his chickens in Cook Islands, Shambo and her curious chicken husbandry methods in Samoa, and most memorably recently, Tai Trang and Mark the Chicken. Not to mention, generally, lots of grimacing and not wanting to deal the grisly process of killing and cleaning the chickens, scattered throughout the past two decades. Many people have raised objections. Some have even set them free before (Jeremy Collins, who won the last season Kelley and Joe played, had one of the greatest secret scenes ever, in which he released Bayon's chicken, Juicy J). It's always roughly the same, and it's always shown.
(3) Tai's friendship with Mark the Chicken was part of what inspired Sia to start presenting her personal favorite contestant with a cash award after almost every season. Conflicts like Tai saving a chicken (and the resulting grumbling from his tribemates) generate a high amount of fan interest. People talk about it, whether for or against it, so it gets attention, including from Sia. Therefore, it's hard not to overlook the possibility that a contestant might see all this as a motivation to be very publicly pro-chicken, especially someone who's only been a vegetarian since they started playing. While Wendy does seem sincere in her chicken stance, that's definitely not the first impression a good portion of the audience had when the episode aired, so although Wendy's probably not the first person to consciously angle for the Sia Prize, someone soon may be.
(4) Conflicts over food and/or camp supplies always get shown. See: Brandon Hantz, J'Tia Taylor, Kyle Jason, Scot Pollard. If you're going to be voted out anyway, the obvious move to acquire additional screen time before leaving will always be to make a huge, camp-sabotaging fuss. (On the plus side, at least Wendy's time in the spotlight has not come from a place of malice, she just seems like she's having fun. Nobody else on the tribe, except maybe Rick, is though.) Survivor loves fights, as long as they're mostly yelling. No contestant-generated mayhem ever gets left on the cutting room floor. (Except Juicy J's escape, apparently.)
All in all, this chicken drama, which pecked away at least a quarter of the hour (and continues into next week), seems like the entirely predictable result of a tribe with an established hierarchy choosing exactly the reward production hoped they would choose in order to generate a by-the-numbers Survivor mini-drama. It's not novel, it's not even all that entertaining. It's been done before, and it's been done better and more efficiently. Is there any way we could just skip it in the future?
Two tiny points of lights, both in the otherwise ignored Kama
There were two payoffs to Kama's repetitive, one-note season-long melody of "the newbies want to vote out the returnees" this episode.
The first was the hilarious scene where Victoria discusses targeting Joe, inadvertently right in front of Joe. Would that have worked without multiple scenes showing the exact same divide since the premiere? Yeah, probably. But at least this one was worthwhile.
The second was Aubry's tear-filled first step in catching up with Tai Trang's idol-finding count. A rare moment of actual emotional depth this season. The flashbacks to her past (unshown) searches in Kaoh Rong and Game Changers were fun, and to be fair, her tears and legitimate fears of being voted out probably wouldn't have made much sense without the last episode's "Aubry tries to open a dialogue with everyone, gets nowhere" montage.
Together, these two scenes were probably some of the best, most rewarding content in the episode. Sadly, that was pretty much all we saw of Kama. The good news: With a swap coming up, the show will theoretically have to come up with something else to say about the original Kamas. Maybe they'll even deign to let Julia actually have a confessional!
Or more likely we'll spend even more time at Extinction, and the Kama newbies will start being dispatched will little to no coverage on the part of the show they signed up for, just as Chris was. Obviously, let's hope not, but don't hold your breath.
Already out on Extinction
Based on Jeff Probst's pre-season comments, we were expecting Edge of Extinction's episode-by-episode presence to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
That's largely been true, except for the "short" part. This week's exciting update showed that, as more people show up there, new twists are being added (Surprise! We're not going to starve these people to death after all!). As a result, the real Extinction taking place is the time allotted for the rest of the episode.
Every new arrival needs to be introduced to the current inhabitants. They'll be warned about how terrible Extinction is, probably every time. Then they'll receive some new message in a bottle (or set of bottles, for some unknown reason). Edge of Extinction is becoming a black hole, gradually pulling in time and photons from the rest of the episode as it gains mass. You need more time on Extinction? Then some scene you'd normally see elsewhere in the regular Survivor game has to be cut.
That's just if it maintains its current pace, though. How much more time will this take up once people start hoisting the sail and leaving? Especially when the first person departs, that's guaranteed to chew up a lot of screen time. And it will almost certainly require a Probst visit, which will take up even more time. That probably won't come before the merge, but what if it does? What if it's while there are three tribes? What will that mean for the people still playing the actual Survivor game? No scenes at all for two of the tribes? Cut a reward challenge to make room?
We wonder whether, now that Chris is about to arrive, the next set of twist bottles will contain a map to a Hawaiian sling? Chris has actual outdoor skills, and can probably keep everyone present alive until the merge. Perhaps even whip together a decent shelter. Which the newly expanded third tribe will also be expected to do this episode.
As bad as the Redemption Island twist was, at least the show wasn't dumb enough to try to also cram in three tribes during those seasons. Not that four tribes is necessarily bad. A four-tribe start is a simple, logical way to avoid both the #TribeNameStrong two-initial tribes strategic rigidity and the predictability of two tribes ganging up on the third at the merge in a three-tribe season. For some reason, though, Survivor has resisted that since Cook Islands, complaining of too little time. And yet, as of next episode, that's exactly what we'll have.
(Either an unbalanced two-tribe swap, or a two-tribe swap with one person left over would have made a lot more sense time-wise, but hey, why would the audience need to know who any of these contestants are?)
Extinction rant 3: The case of the missing votes
Last week, not showing the votes for Keith *sort of* made sense, because the narrative focus was on Keith's brief hesitation and praying over his (as of that point unshown) decision to go to Edge of Extinction. Fine.
This week, Chris was blindsided, and one stray vote for Kelley was cast, but not shown being made. There was no cliffhanger, as Chris immediately decided to head off to Extinction. Despite that, instead of seeing the standard voting confessional display over his parting words, we were forced to watch the same sequence of events we saw at the end of Episode 1 and at the start of this very episode: Castaway holding a torch in a boat, castaway walking onto the darkened Edge of Extinction beach with that torch. Groundbreaking stuff. We also got to hear Chris repeat the thing he said at the signpost: "Screw those guys."
Why was it necessary to repeat both the Extinction-related video and audio in a single episode, while hiding the votes, which, last time we checked, are still a critical part of the actual game of Survivor?
Apparently someone decided that Wendy being out of the loop was so obvious it didn't need to be shown? That's weird, because we still haven't actually seen Wendy vote for Kelley (or, to be more accurate, "Kelly") yet. Are we supposed to think maybe David is doing it, and everyone else keeps abandoning him?
Whatever the case, this newfound departure from showing the audience how the vote actually went down makes no sense. Long gone are the days where we saw people speaking to the voting booth camera during the vote. That's fine, it cuts down on grandstanding for screen time. It's unclear why we can't have an online video/ secret scene of the voting each week. Is it supposed to be a top-secret mystery now?
Whatever the case, not showing the votes is a huge, inexplicable loss, one that makes the gameplay less penetrable, less possible to follow along with at home. (As Gordon Holmes notes, we're also losing the usual episode-opening post-Tribal discussion, because, again, we have to go instead to Edge of Extinction. Another loss of potential insight into the vote.)
Just show the damn votes.
- Anglim Bridge-Burning Avoidance update: Through Episode 3, Joe has now played 45 consecutive days of Survivor without voting anyone out. That streak stretches all the way back to the merge episode of Worlds Apart, and even that vote was a bit of a fluke, because that's where Jenn Brown idoled out Kelly Remington. A lot of Joe's streak has been achieved by not going to Tribal at all in the pre-merge in Cambodia (and, so far, this season). But also being on the wrong side of votes there, like voting with Andrew Savage for one Kelley Wentworth, who idoled Savage out. Or when Joe was unable to vote, due to Stephen Fishbach deploying the vote steal against him (after which Stephen was promptly voted out himself).
For contrast, David Wright has now played 47 total days of Survivor in his career, and he's voted out 15 people in that time, including three already this season. That's good enough for #18 all-time. The only times David has missed on voting someone out were the rock draw that sent Jessica home in Millennials vs. Gen X, and of course the F4 vote there, where David was voted out himself.
- How to destroy the potentially epic Season 40 in one easy step: Edge of Extinction. Maybe it's too early to make this call, but with Season 39 about to start filming this month, the creative decisions for Season 40 are probably close to being locked in. So maybe it's already too late. So far, Edge has been an unwelcome distraction and massive time suck, with its only selling point being a weekly spotlight on human misery. It'll be even worse when people start dropping out, and worse still when someone returns to the game close to the end. Try. Something. Else. Please.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, you can do so on twitter: @truedorktimes
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