There was a lot to like in this week's episode of Survivor 41, from a stressful three-person Tribal Council where someone was voted out (sans advantages or idols or shots, even), to an emotional journey for Shan and Liana as they bonded on their hill hike, to Naseer's surprise idol find and heartwarming flashback to idol training with his daughter. It was an episode highlighting Shan's masterful social-strategic game, as befits the only member of Ua yet to be voted against, even after four Tribal Council visits.
Ryan Kaiser did a great job extolling this episode's virtues this week. At the risk of coming off as a good cap/bad cop routine, rather than repeating the same praise, I'll look more closely at what didn't work (and some of what did, I swear), what was objectionable (the new advantage), and some stuff that was revealed that you may have missed.
The dilemma selection has a system
When Probst asks Yase to select someone from Ua (the losing tribe) to go on the "journey," he lets slip a bit more information than usual: "Who you gonna send? Anyone can go. Nobody of the three has been on a journey yet."
Two seasons back, when one person per episode was taking a trip to the Island of the Idols, it sure *looked* like this was the case: A player could only go once, nobody could go twice. Even though it looked like some of the visits were "random," like Jamal seeing a note tied to a tree right in front of where he was walking — it felt like they had restrictions, but those restrictions were just never mentioned.
(For that matter, it's also a little suspicious that the positive rewards coming from EoE in Winners at War always seemed to go to different people, too, even though Natalie found most of them.)
So far this season, there haven't been enough visitors to know if Dilemma Island was a single-use only reward, too. But now it looks like we know. Did the contestants know beforehand?
Why can't Survivor just level with the audience (and cast) and announce these things ahead of time? Just have Jeff Probst just say in his pre-season hype, "This season we have a fantastic new twist where one person from each tribe has to take a long, boring hike up a hill to make a prisoner's dilemma decision. The prize they can win will change as the season progresses, so it's luck of the draw if they get a good one. But they can only go once. Do they waste their one shot playing nice, or do they go for broke?"
See? Simple. The audience is informed, we know the actual stakes, we don't have to track the visitors, read between the lines, figure out the hidden rules on our own. The show can stop pretending it's all just a massive coincidence that there are never repeat visitors. It looks like we've finally reached that point, three seasons into an-advantage-every-week Survivor?
(Whoops, that must be a mistake, since this is a "new era.")
This is the biggest flaw in recent Survivor. When the show intentionally obfuscates the rules, goes out of its way to make the actual game mechanisms opaque, it's easy for the audience to lapse into cynicism, and conclude it's all rigged. Especially when much of the game now depends on "luck" that based on "secret" packages that people "find."
Jeff Probst loves to brush away as conspiracy theories any complaints that it sure looks like idols (and now advantages) are placed where only certain people are likely to find them. (A problem ever since Russell Hantz's deeply suspicious second idol find in Samoa.) But when it looks like Jamal and Karishma (both of whom were still eligible to visit) are walking on a path together, and find a ticket to Island of the Idols hanging right in front of them, it's hard to see that as "luck." Just as it's hard to believe it's all a happy coincidence that after Angelina (and others!) complained about the gender imbalance in idol finds, all of a sudden women started finding them in droves.
(See also Naseer's idol below. He was the only one up when he found it, and it wasn't remotely "hidden." We'll let it slide because it's Naseer, and it allowed him to tell the sweet story of his daughter helping him train, but come on, Survivor. Stop gaslighting your audience.)
How can Survivor soothe that mistrust from its own viewers? Start by being more transparent, for one thing, and telling us how things actually work. It's never too late for Jeff Probst to film a video in his backyard explaining, say, that people can only visit Dilemma Island once. Fans would love to hear that officially! And you know, if you want people to stop accusing you of "planting" idols where specific people will find them, maybe stop doing that? Just a thought.
Naseer and the glorious surprise of the third idol
Our qualms about the idol "find" aside, the editing decision to make it a surprise to everyone, including the audience, when someone finally talked about goats on Astroturf, activating all three Beware Idols, was a really clever choice. It amplified the perceived riskiness of Shan's decision to open the Ua idol (that Genie found). And the best part of course was ... that is Naseer!
Who could possibly dislike taking a few moments out of Probst's boring pre-challenge spiel about nets and sandbags and slingshots (zzz...) to dive into the heartwarming backstory of Naseer's daughter Raya helping him practice for Survivor by hiding idols in their backyard? One of the sweetest moments in Survivor history. (Please hire Raya to hide idols for the actual show, she undoubtedly does a better job, even though she's a kid.)
If there's one person you're rooting for to have an idol on Luvu, it's Naseer. He's the lovable misfit, so happy to be playing, but somehow still a frequent target. Like first-season Keith Nale, he's not the most natural Survivor player. He trusts people he shouldn't (Sydney), and often, he talks strategy and throws people's names out before establishing trust. It feels at times like he's off on his own island, playing the game solo.
My one hope is that the reason Naseer hasn't wanted to throw immunity challenges to boot Erika is not that he just can't stomach losing (although losing does put him personally at risk), but rather because he secretly has an alliance with Erika. (Obviously, they have hidden parts of Naseer's game from us before, and she was the one person who spoke positively about his catching Danny and Deshawn hunting for idols back in Ep1.) If not, hopefully Naseer can put the idol to alliance-making good use, and the public aspect of it doesn't make him a target.
I know, these are big dreams, almost as big as Naseer's. But if some Naseer-related dreams can come true, why not these?
The unwelcome and unfair addition of the idol-steal advantage
As Evvie did for Deshawn in their visit, Shan gifted her new friend Liana a guaranteed free advantage, mainly because Shan knew she needed to vote in Ua's three-person Tribal, but also perhaps because Shan already had a newly-activated idol and (maybe) an extra vote. She wanted to build trust with Liana by sharing the wealth. Perfectly logical thinking. Then it all goes wrong, when Liana's advantage turns out to be the "Knowledge is Power" or idol-steal advantage. (Technically also advantage-steal, but nobody would waste in on that.)
The problem with this is the advantage itself. It's terrible for everyone involved. It's basically the idol nullifier with additional, even crappier powers. Liana can cancel out any one person's idol or advantage (before it's played) by simply asking them if they have one, and if they do, they have to give it to her. As it says in big bold letters above, "THE PLAYER CANNOT LIE." Great idea, Survivor!
There are a lot of things wrong with this. Let's start with just how dumb the mechanism is: For one thing, Shan already got JD to give her his advantage (twice!) this season, and even voted him out the second time. It's a little insulting for production to be putting training wheels on something the players are already doing on their own, something they're achieving without the weight of production's Rules behind them.
Secondly, we note that right before this week's episode aired, Jeff Probst polled his Future Survivor Player audience about whether they would go through someone else's bag. Doing so is of course perfectly legal in Survivor. But it's galling that doing so is legal at the same time as there's this new advantage going into the game that clearly rewards knowing (for sure, by going through their bag) someone has an idol. Most idols are common knowledge eventually, but there's still some degree of difficulty, some element of risk of wasting the KIP advantage by asking someone if they have an idol when they don't. But here we have Liana, who has already gone through Xander's bag, and knows for certain he has both an idol and an advantage. So she is guaranteed to get whichever one she chooses to ask about. There is zero risk. (Unless word leaks out about this new advantage, and he hands them off to someone else in secret.)
Most worryingly, this is a terribly unfair advantage to throw into the game right after three people have very publicly announced to the entire cast that they have now-active idols. An admission they were forced to make by production in the first place. They thought their troubles were over now — sure, everyone knows they have an idol, but at least they could finally vote again. Guess what? Soon one of them won't have their idol!
Beyond all that, this is also a terrible advantage for the person using it (as is any "___-steal" advantage), because unlike the idol nullifier, this has to be played in public. It's active until Final 6, and really, it's hard to imagine any time where playing it would be well-received unless it's a situation where Liana's back is truly up against the wall, she's the target, and she needs that idol to stay alive. Otherwise, it's taking away the ability of someone most likely trying to save themself (like Janet in Island of the Idols). So the idol-steal has all the downside of the idol nullifier, just now with added consequences against the person who plays it.
The show hinted very strongly that Liana wants to play this against Xander, probably to take his finally-active idol. That's fine, although it seems like a pretty cruel fate for a kid who's already on the outs, but that's the best-case scenario. We don't yet know how the upcoming not-quite-a-merge works, and it's possible it's just a swap, and Liana and Xander might soon be on separate tribes. So what if, say, Evvie and Liana end up with a bunch of Luvus, including Naseer? The only two targets are Liana and Naseer. Liana has to steal Naseer's idol, right? Or even worse, there's some scenario where Shan and Liana end up on opposite sides, and it's clear the two targets are Shan and Liana. Liana has to steal Shan's idol, right? Using the same advantage Shan just gave her?
It's just pretty grim all around, and it turns an idol, previously something to celebrate — the last respite of the desperate — into something potentially pretty toxic. It's hard to understand why Survivor is doing all this to people who find idols. They were stoked when it was Russell Hantz finding idols and flaunting them at Tribal. Now that same idol-hunting behavior makes you lose your vote for a while, then if you're dumb enough to wear an idol people didn't know about, that's a good way to have it taken away. To what end? Already Genie shied away from opening the Beware Idol, having seen how it hamstrung Brad.
Is this ... fun? Does production really want everyone just sitting in camp, starving, staring at each other, terrified to get water lest they stumble on a package that could end their game?
- Information fatigue at old CBS: Once upon a time, the people who run the official Survivor channel on YouTube (CBS? SEG? Someone else?), used to put each challenge up after the episode aired. This was useful, because the video clips carried the name of the challenge. (Before that, each challenge's title was also in the episode recaps that are no longer posted at CBS.com.) The only way we'd know the Borneo F3 IC was called "Hand on a Hard Idol," for example, is because Survivor told us. This season's Ep4 IC is the last one that was posted on YouTube. It was called "Victory in the Bag," a play on landing sandbags. Cute. That's the last time any challenge video was posted. Neither of the challenges in Ep5, nor this week's one, are on YouTube. The official photos on CBSPressExpress are no help. It's just one more piece of episode-by-episode information that's slowly being lost. First it was the intro/main titles, which told you the contestants' names. Then CBS.com stopped posting as many secret scenes (they're now down to two per episode, they're the same ones as on YouTube, albeit about a week behind, and there are none at all on Paramount+.) Now it's the challenge titles. Several of the challenges have been edited out of the past three seasons, as well. Where will it end?
- Role reversal in a duo ahead? One of the most interesting lines at Tribal Council was Ricard stating that he was the one designing all the plays, while Shan was the one receiving credit for them, because she put in the footwork in "closing" the deals. This received no pushback at all from Shan, so it suggests we could see an interesting reversal of the usual male-female power couple credit-assignment system, where the man invariably gets all the credit, even when the woman does equivalent or even more work (Yul/Becky, especially Cochran/Dawn in Caramoan, for example). Obviously, there's more to it than just a gender thing: Everyone departing from Ua deeply trusts Shan, almost nobody seems to trust Ricard, including Shan. (And previously, Yul had the god idol, and Cochran had a lot of challenge wins to pad his résumé.) But there's clearly also something else going on, when Natalie Anderson and Chrissy Hofbeck are the only women to receive jury votes since the dawn of forced F4 firemaking. Shan overcoming those forces, at least relative to Ricard, would be a welcome development. (Sorry, Ricard! Shan's just really good!)
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, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes