In many ways, Australian Survivor All-Stars is going to be a pace-setter for this year at large for the franchise. Not only was it the earliest to premiere (by one week), but it's only one of the 2020 seasons that brings together the best of the best (and some others) to see who comes out on top. And if we're to look at the pace set by this absolutely stellar week of television, Survivor in 2020 is going to be a full-out sprint.
In the preseason, I wondered how much Australia's first full returnee season was going to compare to the American version. Though the bodies looked much different (most notably the muscles), the skeletons seem to be the same. I got as giddy watching big characters like Nick, Shonee, and Harry interact as I did seeing Richard, Colby, and Kathy on a tribe. Past seasons came into play, as you could hear echoes of Jerri disposing of her Hershey bar while these Australians got their revenge. And just like the U.S., Survivor AU took aim at the winners immediately, making sure they had no chance of seeing the Final 2 again.
Mokuta Vakama - What a wonderful phrase
Before we get to the results of this week, let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). And indeed the sound of music brings us back into the epic cinematic sequences that have opened most seasons of Survivor AU. In honor of its most climactic season, the show has somehow outdone itself, with a beautiful line of torches rising out of the water transitioning us into the 24 castaways bounding across Fiji in their various ways.
Yes, we can quibble with the groupings (still not sure what the ubiquitous "something to prove" category means), and some of the tasks the castaways had to do were a little cheesy (you could practically hear Locky internally yell, "Parkour!" as he flipped off a rock into the water). But out of any series in the franchise, Australian Survivor makes it known that this is the "world's greatest game," and the lengths they go to in their introductions showcase that reputation in the style of a highly-anticipated sporting event or a big-budget action film.
Once everyone has dried off or brushed off the grass stains from their pants, it's time to finally get a look at our 24 contestants and two tribes. And the breakdown is the following:
Season 1 - Brooke, Flick, Phoebe
Season 2 - AK, Jacqui, Jericho, Locky, Tarzan
Season 3 - Mat, Moana
Season 4 - Daisy, David
Season 1 - Lee, Nick
Season 2 - Henry, Michelle
Season 3 - Lydia, Shane, Sharn, Shonee, Zach
Season 4 - Abbey, Harry, John
There's a lot to talk about from these tribe divisions alone. The first is the complete mirroring in the seasonal distribution, with Vakama skewing towards the older seasons and Mokuta the newer seasons. It ultimately has no bearing on the first week of episodes, but the abundance of those numbers on each tribe could mean that dynamics from previous seasons will play a large part in these early votes.
Which leads me to my second point. Survivor: All-Stars made an effort to separate any noteworthy rivalries (Jerri/Colby, Richard/Sue) or friendship (the Africa "Big 3," Richard/Rudy, Colby/Tina, Jerri/Amber) to not have previous events leak too much into the season. Australian Survivor: All-Stars, though, seem to be counting on that. It's clear that certain pairs (Brooke/Flick, AK/Locky, Locky/Tarzan, Lee/Nick, Henry/Michelle, Lydia/Shane, Shonee/Zach) were put together to create that initial drama and see whether the water becomes unruly or merely under the bridge.
I'll admit the divisions did worry me at first glance, creating anxiety that the early game would have these pairs putting on blinders and targeting one another rather than embracing the chance to reach across the seasonal aisle. But the more I've seen play out, the more that anxiety has eased on down the road. Revenge fantasies did indeed become reality this week, but players have also been able to seek counsel with others while accomplishing their preseason goals. In that way, the division has become the best of both worlds.
Whoops a Daisy
Speaking of those vengeance storylines, I apologize for jumping to the end of the week, but we have to start with the actions of Episode 3. With the easy targets out of the picture in the previous winners (more on that later), Vakama seemed to have their dynamics set in stone. In a surprising inversion, "Godfather" Mat was now distinctly on the bottom, and David was in the majority of a tribe, though I will disagree with his notion that he's never been in one, considering the downfall of the Sporty 7 in season 4. Seeing that, I was hoping the yellow tribe would avoid Tribal Council again, for fear of an easy picking off of the older members.
How wrong I was to underestimate the legend that is David Genat. I have to say that, in the predictions via writing and podcast that I did before the season started, I was incredibly incorrect as to how the Golden God would do in All-Stars. Coming in, I thought he was the biggest target, considering what this crop of contestants just saw him pull off in the premerge of season 4. But his affability and charm have really gone a long way, with everyone wanting to work with him from the jump. Not only that, but he's cashing in extremely early on that social capital, not sleeping on his time in the majority to pull off a high-wire act for the ages.
I've figured out this week that my favorite Survivor AU episodes are those that put out a big idea at the beginning of the episode, and show every step of that plan through to its final success. It happened with Henry's blindside in season 2, Mat's blindside in season 3, and it happened here. David calls his shot from the get-go, reaching out with an olive branch to the Godfather rather than a dagger. And while the whole "unlikely partnership" idea is more popular in Big Brother than Survivor, I think it works well here. The show builds up that these are the heads of two sides of the tribe, with their playful acrimony signaling a true rivalry. David also knows Mat is a man of morals and has the back of those who support him, so he knows Mat will see through to his part of the protection deal. And, even after this vote, Mat's alliance is still down 6-4, meaning their vulnerable position disincentivizes him from outing David's involvement in the plan, since he doesn't have the numbers to arrange a hit on him. Through his actions, David just earned a key ally in the opposition who really has no choice but to stay loyal to him.
While I am very high on the David/Mat partnership, the rest of the elements from this plan were not as solid, even if they did create incredible television. It seems odd for David to want to adamantly target Daisy at this point. His rationale of wanting revenge for his blindside is like the POV of the Grim Reaper from Final Destination, feeling she should have gone in his place back in season 4. Moreover, Daisy seemed to trust David as two of the newer players, and she showed no sign of wanting to remove him from their alliance. Being able to determine where the minority votes went, it could have been an opportunity to gun for a more dangerous player like AK or Brooke, creating some chaos that would allow David to become King of the Mountain. On top of that, his adamancy to simultaneously flush Brooke's idol so he could get a hold of it don't seem entirely thought through, considering that she was willing to use it on him anyway. David's desire to have literal power in his hands is understandable, though, and I wouldn't be surprised if he succeeds on his gamble and does indeed find the idol next week.
Now, was this Tribal Council the best in history, as indicated by the marketing? It was certainly the most entertaining in recent memory, a Survivor magic trick that we were in on. Mat and David do a great job here of selling their ruse, simultaneously showing there's no chance they would work together (untrue) and that David will be the target of the minority (doubly untrue). They wisely include other members of the tribe on their conflict, like when Mat pitches getting rid of David to Locky and David frantically asks Brooke and AK if he should stick with his vote. That way, when Mat pulls out his idol and gifts it to Jacqui, there is support across the entire majority alliance for the idea that David is the target. What follows is a simultaneous cocktail of despair from watching Daisy get brutally blindsided and giddiness at David becoming the new shocked Pikachu meme with his fake surprise.
In the final words of the episode, Flick tells David, "We need to be smarter than this." But it's clear he doesn't need to be included in that "we." Vakama translates into "to blaze," and David has indeed used the fires from his Tribal Council nursery to heat up this game.
The passing of the cookies
As we move further back in time, let's see how we got to Mat and his alliance being in the minority in the first place. Just like the first vote in Survivor: Cambodia, the tribe seemed strictly and surprisingly split. I know the show described it as being divided primarily by age (with David serving as our resident Steve Buscemi in 30 Rock), but I would more so call it "maturity." Not that Mat, Moana, Jacqui, Tarzan, and Jericho aren't up for a laugh or two (Jacqui's "I'd kiss you on the lips if you weren't married" line was particularly chuckleworthy), but I feel like their respective life situations make them congregate. AK, David, Locky, Daisy, Brooke, Flick, and Phoebe seem to be the more juvenile and goofy group, keen on acting out scenes from the beachside Bachelor and deadlifting one another.
It demonstrates what I feel is an underrated element of Survivor, especially in today's era of voting blocs and complicated strategies. Generally, people want to work with people they can get along with. Watching this first week, it's clear that in both of these groups, their members like hanging out and working with each other. It was very interesting to see AK and Phoebe become the ideal swings from Mat's alliance, and we weren't given a particular reason why. My best guess is that AK has those season 2 connections more than Locky (who Tarzan is probably unhappy with taking charge once again), and Phoebe isn't as closely associated with Brooke and Flick to make her someone unable to flip. While I think sticking with their original alliance was a fine move to make, I'm not entirely sure why AK has to vocalize his vote was live, as it could have been taken as a signal to his alliance that he felt on the bottom.
Let's talk about Jericho. Of the two winners this season, I think he had a much better chance of surviving than Shane, mainly because of his likability and comparative challenge strength. And, from what the edit told us, he almost made it out of Vakama's first TC unscathed, as it seems he was taken out as the least likely person for the other alliance to suspect as a target. But the Survivor skeptic in me feels like everyone had to be eyeballing Jeri as soon as they saw him wearing that yellow buff. When David suggested the idea of booting him, everyone seemed upset for a second, but quickly wiped their tears away by the time they toasted with cookies.
For what it's worth, I think Jericho saw the writing on the wall as well, hence the crocodile tears he pulled out at Tribal Council. My guess is he knew his name would at least be out there as a threat, and staging an emotional breakdown where he talks up compromising his morals could show him as weak enough to be kept around. It's a tactic that certainly worked on his first season, as his perceived helplessness never made him a target until the end. But considering how both alliances allegedly went after the person the other group would least suspect, it's clear that the All-Stars contestants saw right through that this time around.
From Champ to chimps
Compared to the straightforward chaos of Vakama, we saw little of Mokuta by comparison (chalk it up to Survivor AU weighting its edit towards the action of TC). But the actions of the green tribe from the first few episodes are certainly intriguing, even if they did have an easy consensus boot served up to them on a silver platter in the form of a gold medalist.
It's tough to say how screwed Shane was going into this vote. Taking to the jungle in an obvious idol hunt is never a great thing to do on Day 1; though others have recovered from it, it's not a hole you want to put yourself into. And it seemed Henry was game for keeping her around as a vote to dispose of bigger threats. But she was on a tribe with four people she beat, and I'm sure they wanted the consolation of getting one over on their season's winner (Shonee's confessional in particular was a delight to watch). Not to mention the challenges this season seem more physical than ever (more on that below), and a guaranteed losing round could be the difference between being safe and going to Tribal Council. I will say, though, her being asked who to gun for, then pointing at Harry when he was only two paces ahead of her reeked of "Don't fuck with Shane Gould" realness and I absolutely loved it.
The late, great Rudy Boesch said on the Survivor: All-Stars DVD commentary that, when it comes to a first boot, it's almost always about self-preservation and just hopping on with the first name you hear. I would imagine that was why most of Mokuta went the way they did when Lydia and Harry started throwing Shane's name out there. I thought the premiere was a very good look for Lydia. She wisely targeted someone who contributed to her boot last time and seemingly would easily do it again. But she used Harry as a method to disseminate information, knowing his forté in gathering numbers. I wasn't sure what Lydia would bring to the All-Stars table besides her physicality, but I think she's accurately assessed her strengths and weaknesses and is framing her game around that.
In my preseason assessment, I said that Henry had a chance of victory as long as he was able to learn from his mistakes of being too flashy and thinking too far ahead. Evidently, a Zen Hen can't change his feathers. It seems the only thing Henry really learned from his first time out was, "Play your idol." And he goes a bit overboard on that idea in the first vote when he has the opportunity to grab one. I'm not entirely sure how much he legitimately debated playing the idol on Shane in Tribal Council. While Harry does have a dirty reputation, Henry would be making a definitive statement to the tribe that: A. He's wily enough to find advantages and B. He's willing to defy groupthink to get what he wants accomplished. I'm curious what the post-TC conversation was like, considering that Henry voted for Harry. And I think Henry absolutely has the skills to climb out of this situation. But once again, it's a hole he could have avoided falling into in the first place.
Perhaps that's why it seems Nick has ditched their brain trust for greener pastures. After his so-called "snakiness" made the cover of literal magazines, Nick has found himself in a great position as someone to go to for strategy. I can imagine his podcast reputation and the numerous connections he's made off-screen have certainly helped, as it seems everyone wants a piece of the "Know it Oz." That leads him into the only solid alliance we've seen so far on Mokuta: The Little Rascals. Aside from being an AU fan's wet dream, I feel like this is a very capable triumvirate that can take control of the tribe. Like the best alliances, they have individual connections outside of the trio (Henry with Nick, Lydia with Harry, anyone with Shonee) that can make sure they're always in the loop,. This could also be the saving grace Harry needs, as while David was able to escape his season 4 reputation, it's been following the cockroach like a slowgoing ice cream truck.
Next time on ...
I can't speak highly enough about how much fun this first batch of episodes was. Running an hour 25 minutes, there was plenty of time to re-introduce these characters and show some brutal challenges, laugh-out-loud sequences, and complex strategy. Though the editing still leaves something to be desired (looking at you, 0 confessionals for Flick, Abbey, and John!), the excitement I and a lot of the community has had prior to the premiere has been met and exceeded, especially with the actions of Episode 3. Considering that the first vote after the elimination of the two easy targets was a stunning maneuver, we should be in for a wild ride.
Since I've already shown how great I am at predictions (/s), I figured I would try to prognosticate what's going to happen in the next batch of episodes. That being said:
Here's a section where I'll dote on some of the smaller elements from the week's episodes in bullets. And considering how much Survivor AU packs into their episodes, there's a lot!
Mike Bloom is a television writer, podcaster, and Survivor obsessive. His work around the show can be read at Parade, where he provides exit press and other exclusive nuggets. He can be heard talking way too much about domestic and international Survivor weekly on Rob Has a Podcast, as well as the long-running Survivor Historians podcast. Mike also covers other island-based shenanigans with his LOST rewatch podcast “Down the Hatch” on Post Show Recaps. He feels BrantSteeles are a good way to keep the blood pumping. Banter with him on twitter: @AMikeBloomType