I thought I was through with Survivor. I truly believed the days with my formerly most-beloved reality show were over. Season after season following Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, there was only one common denominator: torturous boredom. Every challenge felt bootlegged from an earlier season, each contestant — not including the returning players — was a bland, self-righteous tool; and predictability became as common to Survivor as injury is to Michael Skupin (love ya, Boar Hunter!). Personally, I felt the show’s infamous motto needed to be altered to this one: Outwit. Outplay. Outlast. Out of Gas. But then something miraculous happened. Somebody at CBS — maybe Jeff Probst himself — thought of a great concept that could potentially get former fans-turned-disgruntled viewers (such as yours truly) invested in a show that at one point drew 50 million spectators during its inaugural season finale (Survivor: Borneo). Bringing back three former players who were booted out of the game due to injury (an unfortunate circumstance through no intentional fault of their own) was a genius way to bring together Survivor fans of old and new.
Alan Alda Penner, Russell Swan, and Survivor: Australia‘s (going way, way back to Season Two = nostalgia at its finest) man who survived the flames but not the game, Michal Skupin, are former players who were injured in their seasons and forced to withdraw, now back to give the 39-day challenge another shot. Some argue that Penner’s been granted too many opportunities to play this game (this marks his 3rd go-around) and Russell Swan is just a horrible player of Survivor (see: last night’s premiere), but I don’t mind them around if it means giving Michael Skupin the opportunity unfairly yanked away from him twelve years ago. Skupin is one of my all-time favorite players: a true outdoors guru who can properly lead, and he is someone I idolized on the show at the very impressionable age of 11 (Survivor: Australia began its season in early 2001). To say his return makes me happy would be a massive understatement. This man defines the phrase “second chance.” However, a season is not made by one great player (see: the horrific Survivor: Redemption Island) but by its summation of quality in all areas. Not only is Survivor: Phillipines the best Survivor premiere since Survivor: Samoa, but it’s probably in my top five favorite Survivor openers ever.
You know we’re in for a good ride when a new season of Survivor begins with Probst tossing the Survivor hopefuls off the boat. Part of the reason why Survivor: Pearl Islands is my favorite season in the show’s history was because of the shock wave Probst caused from the get-go: forcing the cast to jump into the water with nothing but the clothes on their backs (the contestants thought they were shooting press pictures before beginning the game). You had a chick in a formal dress and high heels, and a few dudes in attire befitting of an audition for The Lincoln Lawyer — it was hysterical. Although the proceedings in the premiere of Philippines were less chaotic, the suspense managed to sustain itself since the teams were divided into three tribes, with each tribe containing one returning player. All three tribes were rushing to get the necessary supplies — chickens and fruit, for instance — off the boat and onto their wooden raft. Those beautiful underwater shots of all the melons sinking down into the ocean floor pitted you right into the hectic mess of it all. Jeff Kent, a retired Major League Baseball player, introduced us the premiere’s first of several injuries by popping his leg painfully after his raft toppled over it — Ouch! I am not a sports follower in the least, so I had no pre-season bias for Kent one way or another, but he came across a bit whiny to me. Even his speech about preserving the newbies and not letting the veteran players win seemed rather pompous and elitist. If we’re talking about who’s deserving and not deserving, how about a guy who doesn’t need $1 million dollars since at his prime he made thirty times as much? See, this whole “deserving” idea is just rubbish to me. You are there to play the game, and should be rewarded the win if you played the all-around strongest game, regardless of your back story, former ties to Survivor, or financial status in the “real world.”
In fact, “celebrity” seems to be this season’s middle name. Besides Jeff Kent, many viewers who were old enough to remember the popular 80′s show “The Facts of Life” will recognize the now older, but still beautiful, Lisa Welchel (she played preppy teen, Blair Warner). Bless her heart, but the woman is way out of her league on this show. For someone who has “never missed a show” (I assume she means episode) of Survivor, she sure doesn’t seem to employ the social skills that are essential to make it through these tough first days. Without a solid alliance, if you’re elderly, weak, or both, chances are you’ll end up voted off to preserve the tribe’s strength. Therefore, I was shocked to see Lisa distance herself so much from the group. I realize she’s a bit older than most of the youngins’, but that’s no excuse not to at least give socializing a fair shot. Michael practically begged Lisa to talk with him and share her former “teen star” glory with the rest of the tribe, but Lisa refused. It’ll be interesting to see if this strategy of hers to keep her “celebrity” status under wraps helps or hurts her game. If I were a betting man, I’d say she has only a few episodes left before getting the heave-ho from her tribe. However, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected when it comes to Survivor, so Lisa could very well ride it out to the end. The thing with the physically weaker players on Survivor is if they make it past the merge, they instantly become a non-threat in the game and end up coasting to the finals. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Lisa’s journey could mirror my aforementioned scenario. Still, I like the decision CBS made in casting her. She’s a bit delusional when it comes to playing Survivor, but somehow this makes her even more entertaining to watch. I kind of hope Lisa Welchel sticks around awhile.
Russell Swan’s team, Matsing, fell apart as soon as they landed on the beach. Let me be clear: I am so glad Russell is back, only because his tribe’s dysfunction — caused by his ineptitude as a leader — is television gold. Russell is an unintentional hypocrite, and I’d almost feel sorry for the guy but he just digs a deeper grave for himself every time he attempts to communicate to his tribe. Saying “there is no leader” one second and “YOU’RE DOING THE PUZZLE!” immediately thereafter shows how out of his sync his words are with his actions. Nobody on his tribe respects him, and if not for the boneheaded move of the comically wacky Zane (note to former Survivor players: there’s never anything good to come of volunteering yourself as the person to send home at tribal council), Russell would have been sent packing. Thank god Russell’s tribe can cast aside their pride for a second and think about their long-term future in this game. So many times in Survivor, a tribe has ruined their chances of keeping their numbers strong by either voting off a physically strong player because they simply didn’t like them or, in the far worse offense, thrown a challenge just to get rid of a player (maybe this bit of bad karma is why that overrated loser — yes, I said it — Ozzy never wins Survivor). I am glad CBS cast an intelligent crew this time around, because it’s almost no fun seeing a mastermind beat out and control a bunch of helpless dummies.
Finally, Jonathan Penner is back to his old sneaky habits. He’s still as poor a social player as ever, but unlike Russell Swan, Penner knows how to adapt to a dire situation and survive far longer than people expect him to. Look, Penner was probably never going to be embraced by his youthful tribe, so it was in his best interest to find the hidden immunity idol. He found the clue, as did Russell Swan, but somehow I still believe Michael Skupin is playing the stronger game at this point despite being “clue”-less. He’s the only returning player whose tribe doesn’t want him gone immediately, and in fact has managed to be involved in a solid foursome alliance with RC (?), Pete, and Abi-Maria. Michael is still as great a leader as he was in Australia, and knows how to be on the ins with his tribe. His social game is fantastic as of now, and for the first time (because Survivor nowadays is less about “surviving” and more about who can create an alliance the fastest) Michael is being forced to shift his game in a more strategic route. I’d say he’s even got talent in that department. I hate to rave on and on about Michael “Boar Hunter” Skupin (no I don’t), but his position on the show is looking incredibly solid following the premiere. Can we all agree that Survivor’s editing department did a fantastic job with the “Skupin-getting-hurt” montage? Poor guy may be a born leader, but he’s also a born clutz. The guy couldn’t move two feet down the beach without gashing his head, slicing his feet, or cutting his finger with a machete. And yet, that’s Skupin’s charm, but I pray he doesn’t take it past a few cuts and scratches.
The immunity challenge felt a lot more like a great balance of brawn and brain, something that requires all participants on a tribe to really come together and prove their strengths in a variety of areas. My only gripe with the episode was the editing during the pre-challenge segment. Yes, I suppose that fight Russell had with Roxanne concerning who was to work on the puzzle was integral to the episode’s narrative, but its aura of significance made it abundantly clear they were losing the challenge. Therefore, the immunity challenge wasn’t as gripping as I would have preferred it to be, weakened by the predictability of the editing. Thankfully, tribal council was well cut, and we never really figured out who was leaving until Probst notified Zane that “the tribe had spoken.” All the harsh sentiments flung at Russell nearly had me convinced that the Survivor: Samoa alum was getting the boot, but then I remembered Zane’s antics all throughout the episode (he attempted to be Russell Hantz Jr., making every alliance possible from the get-go to have his bases covered) and realized that this premiere was his giant blaze of sinking glory. I hope Russell Swan will correct his leadership mistakes after hearing the brutal remarks from his fellow tribesmen, but I reckon he’ll still be as clueless and completely out of touch as he always is.
Overall, Survivor: Philippines was one heck of an opener, featuring some standout characters (Malcolm, RC, Angie, Denise) who are actually intelligent for once. The returning players are entertaining in so many ways: nostalgically they titillate my inner Survivor geek, and yet all of them enthrall me as a viewer in some way or another. Michael Skupin, I respect as a terrific player of this game who hands down would have won Survivor: Australia had he not fallen into the fire (his tribe had the numbers advantage going into the merge, but then Skupin’s injury took him out just before the two teams became one tribe). This should be obvious, but I’m rooting for Skupin all the way. Penner is just a wise guy whose antics crack me up. I sort of love his desperation this early in the game, and I cannot wait for him to go batshit crazy in a matter of episodes. Russell Swan is delusional, but harmlessly so, which is why I can never truly hate him. I just love watching how people respond to his bouts of idiocy, because his intentions are in the right place but he so does the complete opposite of his intended goal. The results are too priceless for words.
My season pick to win it all is Michael Skupin. Currently, he’s in the best position of the returning players, and veterans usually make it to the final three anyways. For the newbies, I’ll go out on a limb and say Malcolm. He seems like an incredibly astute player, who has formed several strong bonds with many members of his tribe. He’s also a major threat in the challenges. I hope everyone enjoys this sure-to-be comeback season of Survivor!