Jeff Pitman's Survivor 39: Island of the Idols recaps
Tracking the story with inconsistent narrators
By Jeff Pitman | Published: October 7, 2019
Survivor: Island of the Idols Episode 2 recap/ analysis

Everyone has a story here

This week, we started to get a look at how Survivor: Island of the Idol's structure will work when it's not a 90-minute episode: You'll see the tribe returning from last week's Tribal, at least as long as someone is mad (which should be fairly often, and to be fair, that's a huge improvement over Edge of Extinction). You *might* get to spend some time with the tribe that doesn't lose the immunity challenge, but most likely that'll only be if someone finds an idol. (Well done in securing some screen time for Lairo, Chelsea!) After that, the rest of the time will be: an extended visit to Island of the Idols, the immunity challenge, plotting at the IC-losing tribe, and Tribal Council. Should reward challenges ever start happening, we'll be lucky to visit either camp for more than a few seconds.

Even so, it's still too early to fully evaluate the Island of the Idols segment. It's promising, and it is still finding its feet. It's a welcome development that the weekly tests are more than just basic survival skills. If we wanted a lecture on optimal firestarting with flint and steel, we'd watch a YouTube video, like any normal person. This week's surprise task — paying attention to the people around you — made much better use of its veteran hosts/Idols. Boston Rob and Sandra were allowed a little more latitude to be themselves, testing their victim, er, "visitor" Kellee mentally, rather than rigidly demonstrating a rote technical challenge. It helped that they were just conversing normally, rather than reading scripted instructions off of cards. Bonus: Sandra actually got to say something, which was fun, even if it was mostly about her dogs. Hey, we'll take our progress where we can find it.

It's not clear how listening to Rob and Sandra's chatter for 10 minutes necessarily correlates with politely paying attention to every word Noura utters over a 72-hour period, but at least Kellee passed the test and came away with an idol. In her hair.

As the second episode in a 14-episode season, it's probably fine in the long term that we saw almost nothing of the Lairo tribe. It's a bit like having multiple POV narrators in a novel. Last week was a Lairo chapter, this week the narrator was Vokai. That's fine, and once the full season is available for streaming on CBS All Access, not hearing from Lairo for 40 minutes will probably seem like a minor concern.

But Survivor is still currently a broadcast network, non-bingeable show in its first run, and as such, it's a bit disorienting to have narrative threads disappear from week to week, particularly with respect to last week's key Lairo topics: Elaine apparently being too likable (no mention whatsoever this week after being saved), Elizabeth's Island of the Idols lie & "no vote" at Tribal (also no follow-up), and so on. Some of that may reappear in Episode 3 or later, and this episode's focus on Vokai did offer the audience an opportunity to get explore the Vokai tribe's dynamics in greater depth. Although, again, Janet proving her worth and Dan's unwanted touching were both unmentioned this time, and neither had a confessional. Oh well.

At least we did get a lot of Boston Rob and Sandra, right? That was consistent. Maybe they're our real narrators this season.

Fact check: #DontSleepOn39


This cast's self-generated season-long hashtag is not yet as annoying as #Dirty30, but give it time, it's only week two. There's still plenty of time to grow weary of its incessant repetition.

That aside, is it accurate? The True Dork Times investigates:

Noura: Stayed up all night tending the fire.

Results: Votes out Molly, her #1 nemesis, while receiving only one vote against herself (from Molly).

Jamal: Naps before Tribal.

Results: Blindsided, closest ally voted out, game apparently stuck in the wrong gear.

TDT verdict: Dont Sleep On 39? Story checks out.

Note added in proof: Boston Rob and Sandra also seem quite averse to sleeping on Island of the Idols:



This season's theme has unintentionally highlighted how much Survivor casting has changed over the years. The contrast between the veteran players and the new was obvious as Rob and Sandra chatted with the first two visitors to Island of the Idols: Elizabeth the Olympic swimmer, and Harvard- and Wharton-educated Kellee, whom Rob called "smahtypants."

We're now on Season 39 (don't sleep). Rob first appeared on the fourth season, Sandra on the seventh. Neither was an Ivy League alum (but there are three this season, and Vince is the latest in a string of Stanford grads). Neither competed in the Olympics (but we have an Olympian this season, and another four seasons back). Neither was a professional athlete (but we have one this season, as we do almost every season), or even a Division I college athlete (although Rob was briefly on the BU hockey team as a freshman). Neither had a career in Hollywood prior to playing (as opposed to Mike White or Dan Spilo).

Instead, Sandra was a 28-year-old working mom, an office assistant who moved frequently as a military spouse. Rob was smug, 26-year-old construction worker/ hockey coach. They were normal people. They didn't even live in LA or NYC! None of their castmates went to an Ivy or Stanford, or were Olympic or professional athletes. Yet, despite being just regular folks, as of this season (i.e. not counting the next one) Rob and Sandra somehow have seven seasons as contestants between them, 211 days played, and are literally on the Mt. Rushmore of Survivor players.

Yes, the show itself has changed. In those early post-Borneo days, getting on Survivor was seen as perhaps a path to semi-stardom, although that feeling had started to wane by Pearl Islands. Today, just to be considered for casting, you need a *STORY*. Casting is now an elite club where the entry requirements include having already faced significant adversity in life, or already being moderately famous, or having an impressive résumé. It helps if you're also model-pretty and/or have muscles upon muscles upon muscles. Being a regular working person is something that's been so lost over the years that it's almost shocking when someone like an Elaine shows up wearing a buff. Would Rob or Sandra even get a callback today, if their younger selves were applying for the first time? Who was cut from this cast to clear a spot for handsome young Columbia alum Dean? (He's on this season, honest!)

This is not to say that the show's focus on story and competitiveness hasn't paid off; there's certainly a balancing act here. The level of gameplay is noticeably elevated now relative to that of Marquesas. Just look at this episode, where a cadre of budding Boston Robs took out their tribe's presumed Hunter Ellis, and on the very first vote! That's perhaps because (almost) everyone on this cast is reasonably aware of the show's recent, "big moves"-era past, and have planned out their games accordingly. Game awareness is good, it leads to surprising blindsides, which are entertaining to watch. (Even if we didn't actually know that Molly/Jamal/Jack were "in charge" at Vokai until the episode started.) Maybe that still would have happened if Survivor still cast 28-year-old office assistants, considering the show is in its 39th season, but who knows?

In the end, though, one does wonder how many potential Robs and Sandras have been lost in the shuffle over the years, while the show raced to fill its casts with purple Ivy Leaguers and ex-Big Brothers/ -NBA players/ -NFL cheerleaders. Is it bad that we're getting Boston Robs and Sandras from a starting set of already accomplished people? Not really. But it does dim the original allure of shows like Survivor as a place that featured real people "from all walks of life."

Fire is life Glimpses of fire are apparently death

Glimpses of fire are apparently death

As a west coast viewer, I'm struggling to understand all the hullabaloo about CBS airing a promo that showed a future scene *from the same episode* during an ad break of the premiere. First off, almost every tribe goes to Tribal Council eventually, so it wasn't even necessarily a spoiler for that episode. In the context that it actually was though: Yeah, sure, it was a dumb decision for CBS to show Lairo lighting their torches, and if CBS is going to air spoiler-laden promos, it might be wiser if they sought approval from the showrunner before doing it. That's all fine. But it's not like — I dunno — they showed Rudy with a full beard in the intro, or something. (Oh right, they don't have an intro any more. Problem solved!) Furthermore, CBS had already spoiled which tribe was going to the first Tribal Council in their pre-season ads, when they showed a bag-toting Elizabeth gasping, at what could only have been her arrival at Island of the Idols. Which would only happen if her tribe lost immunity, which meant her tribe was going to Tribal ... which would be the exact shot that made everyone on the east coast so irate.

This *one shot* of Lairo dipping torches in the fire required Jeff Probst to go to war with his network?! That seems a teensy bit disproportionate to the "crime." (Also: You poor, delicate people.) Try watching the show three hours later, while occasionally tweeting your live reactions! See if there's anything that's still a surprise by the time Tribal Council finally rolls around on the west coast! Even with iron-clad twitter avoidance between 5 pm and 8 pm Pacific on Wednesdays, it's still nearly impossible, and the #1 item that is unavoidable is the biggest spoiler of all: the person who was voted out. Your timeline is filled with people lamenting/celebrating the boot, the booted player thanking people for their support, and so on. Good lord, the entitled expectations of pristine viewing purity you east coasters have!

Yeah, it's more fun if everything's a surprise, but it was not *that* big of a spoiler. The entire thing seems like a significant over-reaction. Which leads us to the final concern: Considering that Probst just got done trotting out Edge of Extinction over everyone's objections, and is poised to do it again quite soon, and considering that despite the show being on for 20 years, it took a massive ratings hit in the premiere (so his standing could be somewhat tenuous in battles with network brass), could this all be a "go ahead and fire me, CBS, I dare you" attempt by Probst? A dumping the rice in the fire move?

Shorter takes

Shorter takes

- That is *not* a good place to hide an idol: Stop being results-oriented, people! Just because Kellee managed to do it undetected (?!), hiding an idol in your hair is not a great idea, especially on a tribe with notorious hugger Dan. It could have fallen out, it could have been knocked out by any one of the many embraces the returning Kellee received. Just don't put it there! (Not an issue for people with short hair, obviously.) Dear future Survivors: While we give Kellee points for creativity, just hide the idol in your crotch, like everyone else. Then again, that can fail in a catastrophically embarrassing way, too, as Sharn found out in SurvivorAU: Champions v. Contenders (2018). The lesson is: Never try.

- The funniest part of the Island of the Idols sequence was Rob actively pooh-poohing Sandra's story, trying to discourage Kellee from listening: "I have to hear this story every day." Keep an eye on that one, he's sneaky.

- It's too bad we didn't get a glimpse of the two remaining questions, but they were probably just "On which season did Rob meet Amber?" and "On what network was Rob and Amber's wedding shown?" Rob probably wanted a question about The Amazing Race, but was overruled, because nobody dare utter the title of the Show That Must Not Be Named Because It Stole All Survivor's Emmys.

- Idol gender disparity update: Women are 2-for-2 now this season, bringing the grand total in U.S. Survivor up to: 87 found by men (80%), 23 by women (20%). Given that Island of the Idols attendance is completely random (assuming all names are in the bag, of course), it does seem like a more equitable way to circumvent the inherent social biases that give men more opportunities to find them near camp. It's not perfect, because only one person has access to idols at a time, and so far idols have only been offered 1 out of 2 times. But it does help even things out, a little bit at a time. And Chelsea's find proves that there are regular idols in the camps for anyone to find, not just short-term ones on IotI. Good, good.

Jeff Pitman's recapsJeff 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, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes

Other Island of the Idols Episode 2 recaps and analysis


Exit interviews: Molly Byman

  • Dalton Ross at (10/3/19): "Molly Byman says she did not nap before Tribal Council in Survivor"
  • Gordon Holmes at (10/3/19): "Molly - 'I'm Honestly Okay with Being Known As the Girl That Was Spit on by a Clam'"
  • Mike Bloom at (10/3/19): "Molly Byman Gets Played from the Outside In"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP (10/3/19): "Survivor 39 Exit Interview with the Second Player Voted Out"