Australian Survivor has always been Survivor, just bigger. There are 24 contestants. The season lasts well past 39 days. This season, though, Survivor AU has taken a note from Survivor South Africa and filmed domestically, mostly out of necessity due to COVID-related travel restrictions. Thankfully, those restrictions have turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
The outback location is quintessentially Australian, and it's a welcome departure from always-Fiji monotony. It's also a throwback to ancient US Survivor history, as Cloncurry is "close" to Goshen Station, where Colby and Tina played in S2: The Australian Outback. ("Close" as in they're both in Queensland, at least. Goshen Station is about 1000 km away to the northeast, much closer to the Pacific. But the landscape is similar, at least.)
The format, "Brains v Brawn," is also one used by a beloved US Survivor season (Cagayan). Here, the results are a bit more mixed. The traditional deficits in SurvivorAU casting persist — a pitiful lack of diversity, ridiculous over-representation of athletes — and there were a few missteps in the first couple of episodes. But by Episode 3, which closes out this first week of AU: Brains v Brawn, the season is succeeding despite all this.
There a lot to like here. (Also a lot, period ... if you missed out on week 1, you only have close to 5 hours of Survivor to catch up with, so ... better get a move on!)
There's a lot to like
Just look at the shot above, the final element in the Episode 3 immunity challenge. The arid, scrub-covered hill behind the contestants and JLP. The red dirt. You don't see this in Fiji. The camps are just as visually interesting, and the show has done an outstanding job of showcasing the Northwest Queensland landscape. The theme extends to other fun little touches, like:
- The full-screen "DAY 1" cards, with cracked earth visible within the text. The same treatment is used for the contestant's names as they launch into a deep dive biographical backstory. The message: The outback is big, and it's dry, and it's omnipresent.
- "Brains camp, 15C" - Similarly, the show has taken pains to let the audience in on just how extreme this environment is for these 24 people living out in the middle of it. Most obviously, they've added the temperature to the Brains/Brawn camp lower-third announcements. (Even if converting from Celsius is challenging for US viewers. Google is your friend.) Morning shots tend to hover around 15°C (59°F). Daytime temperatures are often around 35°C (95°F), with precious little shade. Each tribe appears to have a body of water nearby, and they each have a well. But it's nothing like the tropical beaches of Fiji.
Episode 1 takes: The big twist
Watching this show in the US, it's extremely difficult to avoid spoilers on twitter. So after seeing negative reactions, I was expecting the worst. George's advantage, which allowed him to leave Tribal, alongside five people of his choosing, wasn't all that terrible on its own. It's just that George used it extremely poorly. Most distressingly, he told nobody about it before using it.
That's important, because there was no downside to telling anyone. There was no idol nullifier or other mechanism that could have blocked it. In contrast, including others in his scheme beforehand could definitely have improved its reception. Wai probably would have been pleased to be included, had she known it was coming. Baden, obviously, was not. Had George reached out to Phil, they certainly would have preferred exile to expulsion. If George's goal was, as stated, to weaken and/or boot Mitch, he needed assistance, not just absence. Theoretically, he could have done this with just three allies, and a 3-2-1 boot. He seemed to be banking on the allies appearing in grateful rapture after they were removed from Tribal without prior consultation. Obviously, that didn't happen.
By not including anyone in his plans, and just springing it on them at Tribal, George just pissed everyone off. Also, by not explicitly outlining a post-exit plan and putting it into motion via his advantage play, he apparently just hoped the remaining five would vote out Mitch. Mitch received zero votes. Should the advantage be tried again? Eh.
In George's defense, he only had a little more than a day to figure out how to use this advantage, thanks to Australian Survivor's bizarre insistence on having the first boot on Day 2. And having a large, epic-scale reward AND a separate, equally time-consuming immunity challenge in the same ~36-hour period. US Survivor has its faults, but at least it allows its contestants a bit of breathing room before it expects them to start backstabbing each other on Day 3. The Aussies, despite having a circa-50-day game, seem intent on having the first person out be on as irrational basis as possible. Which brings us to ....
More Episode 1: The inexplicable purpling of Phil
One of the best ways SurvivorAU spends its luxurious early-season extra runtime minutes is with the long-form personal backstory deep-dives for each contestant. These segments help the audience connect with the players, which is important in a season with 24 of them, and they offer a chance for the early boots to at least get *some* time on screen. But for whatever reason, the show never did this for Phil.
This is extremely disappointing, for multiple reasons. Phil is a huge Survivor fan for one thing, and the slight did not go unnoticed. Phil also barely had any confessionals. Maybe this was to some sort of sleight-of-hand to distract from their surprise boot after George played his advantage, but it still feels insulting. Why, for example, did we need Cara's backstory in the premiere, when she's still there three episodes later, still hasn't cast a single vote, and hasn't played any discernible role in the season yet? Why couldn't Phil's story have been there instead?
It's also a complete missed opportunity for the show, by not even mentioning that Phil is non-binary, and most likely the first such contestant in (English-speaking) international Survivor history. Joan Caballero (2017's first boot) had a backstory segment. Matt Dyson (Champions v Contenders, 2018's first boot) had a backstory segment. Anastasia Woolmer (Champions v Contenders 2's first boot, in 2019) had a backstory segment. Phil Ferguson did not. What the hell, SurvivorAU? (Update: Phil's backstory is now a secret scene on 10play. Better than nothing, but still not great.)
Not only that, but the show also omitted all mention (despite highlighting it in a pre-game ad!) of Phil's crocheting empire. Specifically omitted was their crocodile hat, which they wore to the IC. But the hat was not even mentioned until *AFTER* they were voted out. Then it becomes a topic. Audience members may well ask "where did that come from?" The show sure didn't offer any clues.
Episode 2 takes: Cannon fodder Janelle
The two tribes are spectacularly unbalanced relative to each other by age (especially so after Episode 3, once the two 35+ Brawns have left). Janelle was the only woman over 34 on Brawn, and she's 43, almost a decade older than the next-eldest, Dani. She was also the only mother on Brawn. Gavin is the only other 40+ Brawn, and sadly, Janelle is not an AFL legend, so she doesn't have that helping her connect with people. We see her trying to work with Benny, who at 38 is the closest to her in age. Yet if Janelle had she been on the Brains tribe where the only person UNDER 30 was booted on Day 2, she would have fallen squarely in the middle, age-wise, and been surrounded by other parents.
On Brawn, however, Janelle's both isolated demographically AND her age is seen as a detriment, then to make things worse, it's held against her. She's forced to be the first Brawn to sit out, then is criticized by Emmett at Tribal for doing so. Simply put, Janelle was cannon fodder, put on this tribe to fail. She didn't do anything wrong, she just was too different from the rest of her (production-assigned) tribe to be anything but a target. Being an "Aussie battler" only gets you so far.
At least she received a backstory segment on the show, though.
Episode 3: The intra-Brawn power struggle pays off
As disappointing and unfair as the first two boots appeared, Episode 3 starts strong with a hilarious admission: poor Gavin belatedly realizing he'd screwed up on the Janelle vote, where he was supposed to vote for Shannon. (Accidentally voting wrong seemed implausible when Natalie Anderson told her tribemates she had done it in San Juan del Sur, so on the plus side, this increases the chances that some future player can credibly claim to have done it again.)
Episode 3 then finishes exceptionally strong: An idol-aided blindside of an overconfident group of smug men who thought they were in charge, by a trio of women (and friends). The complicated nature of the blindside, and the additional stealth required to grab idols in the minimally-vegetated Outback, made this episode a lot of fun.
It all kicks off when Kez finds an idol clue tied to a tree at eye level (*ahem*) while gathering sticks. She later tracks down the location described in the clue, and notes it's in clear view of the entire camp. With an 11-person tribe, the old Yau-Man/Earl trick of a "field trip" for the tribe to allow a straggler to dig up an idol in privacy seems inoperable here. So instead, Kez enlists Flick's help, by simply sitting and chatting at the spot where the idol was buried. Kez digs it up, but then is faced with further complications because she doesn't have a good place to hide the bulky idol, not while wearing a form-fitting top and shorts. After some lengthy "sun-bathing" to avoid showing off her idol bump, Kez again requests Flick come to the rescue, by delivering Kez's shoes in the water. All in all, the idol heist turns into a collective, alliance-strengthening effort. It's well done.
There's another wrinkle, though: The Brawn tribe has 11 people, so the next trick is securing Daini, the obvious swing voter. (Why was he not included in Simon, Emmett, and Gavin's original alliance? That may be why he instead allied himself with the Shannon/Flick/Kez contingent.) But first, Daini agrees to vote with the bros (and Dani, and Chelsea) if they'll vote Kez instead of Shannon. (Did he know about Kez's idol, and was this intentional?) In the end, Daini votes against Gavin, and Kez plays her idol, voiding all five minority alliance votes against her. Victory for the underdogs, even if they weren't numerically so.
One thing to keep in mind going forward: We keep getting Dani talking about payback if people betray her. Flick secretly flipped on their group in the Ep2 vote, then very publicly was aligned with Shannon and Kez at the next Tribal. So far we haven't seen any consequences. In an even bigger betrayal, Daini got their entire group to vote Kez, apparently knowing she had an idol and that the plan would fail (while himself voting for Gavin). That also seems like something that will raise Dani's ire ... but will it also piss off Kez, Flick, and Shannon? In theory, they would have preferred not to play that idol yet, right? So while it looks like Simon and Emmett are currently doomed, there's a chance for some repositioning within the tribe as people exact their vengeance for the events of this week. Should be a fun tribe to watch, either way.
That's not a Brains tribe, THIS is a Brains tribe
Through three episodes, the Brains tribe is still poorly characterized. On the one hand, thank goodness for George's willingness to eat up screen time. On the other hand, who are the rest of these people? Hayley and Wai are both solid players and interesting, distinct people. But we've heard nothing at all from Georgia, seen only brief glimpses of Laura, Rachel, and Cara. For the men, Joey is emerging as an energetic narrator, and we've had a bit of Mitch (albeit almost entirely through George's eyes). But while we know Baden's and Andrew's backstories, we haven't really seen their approach to the game, apart from wanting to win challenges and have fire. That's close to 3/4 of the tribe with limited screen time, and they've already lost Phil, who suffered the same fate.
Perhaps the general feeling of indistinct fuzziness is because in contrast to the two action-filled Brawn votes, the one Tribal Council the Brains have attended was intended to be a boring, unanimous vote, and even that was kneecapped by George's arbitrary advantage. So we don't really have any sense of who these people are, nor how they are connected to each other. There are none of the "lines in the sand" the Brawns keep jabbering about. Could there be a women's alliance brewing, to take down an Andrew/Baden/Mitch bromance triarchy, just like on Brawn? We don't know, in part perhaps because we haven't needed to know, yet. So for now, the grade here is "incomplete."
That said, it might have been helpful if SurvivorAU could cast more diverse characters like George and Wai, instead of dipping back into Australia's seemingly limitless well of retired athletes, and trying to pass them off as "brains." It's great that Baden is a former pro cyclist. But it's hard to see how that makes him a "Brains" person, when what he cares most about in Survivor is challenge strength. Similarly, Joey can talk about "business" all he wants, but to do 100 marathons you have to train pretty much full-time. He's an athlete. Sure, Aussies value sport above all else, but come on, guys. At least US Survivor had a widely reviled sports *executive*, not a player, on their first Brains tribe.
Standout characters ... plus and minus
The King George experience: A solid plus
Shannon Guss said it best on RHAP (paraphrased here): As audience members, we're supposed to both pull out our hair at George's odd, antithetical (for a social game) behavior and poor decisions ... AND cheer for him when his insights on the brainteaser win the Ep3 Immunity Challenge for the Brains tribe. He's a fan of the game, even if his decisions makes no sense, like the choice to wander off alone while his entire tribe is making fire. Or his insistence he could score in "Battle Dig," when Mitch was picked up and carried for a point. Despite all this, George's protestations ring true that — especially on a "Brains" tribe — physical prowess should not be the sole measure of worth to a tribe. He's eccentric, but he's also right about a thing or two. Assuming this is not all just an act to gain attention, he's a great character, and an outstanding addition to this cast.
The "iron pyrite god" experience: A minus
It's a lot harder to get on board with Emmett's antics, simply because they're so transparently inauthentic. He dramatically over-emotes in confessional, just like David Genat. He's a model, just like David Genat. At the Episode 3 Tribal Council, he bedecks himself in a wide-brimmed hat and Steven Tyler-esque scarf, just like David Genat. It's almost as if he's intentionally trying to replicate the behavior of a highly popular player on the past two seasons. You remember that guy, right? His name is on the tip of our tongues, but we just can't quite place it. Oh well, it'll come to us eventually.
Emmett may yet turn into an interesting character, but let's just hope that character is Emmett, and not this cosplay version of someone else.
- Also only possibly male: We know the Brawn tribe leadership likely convinced itself that only men had muscles (despite having a bodybuilder and an MMA fighter among their female tribemates) and/or value to the tribe, but why did they think only men could solve a brainteaser? (Above.) The Brains at least had a mixed group on that. If it's an "oh, that puzzle was too high" thing, Shannon is taller than several of the men on her tribe.
- Losing more quickly: Every Brawn member who was shown competing in "Battle Dig," the Ep2 reward challenge, was part of the losing alliance at the Ep3 Tribal Council: Chelsea, Simon, Dani, Gavin, and Emmett. They were the people regarded (perhaps) as the brawniest of the Brawns. Maybe the others voted against them because, like George, they were disappointed in not getting to compete?
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