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Warning: Contains Spoilers
I was with Survivor from the beginning. I remember the first time I read about the show (in Entertainment Weekly) and I remember being seriously intrigued from the start. The first season of Survivor, lusciously shot in Borneo, became a cultural sensation during the summer of 2000. Millions of people wondered who would win the million dollar prize. There were fake leaks from CBS, internet rumors (one of the earliest times I can recall a glut of internet rumors over something), and water cooler chatter about the potential winner. Eventually, Richard Hatch, the outspoken, nude Rhode Island native took home the prize (and would be followed by years of controversy over not paying his taxes). There have been twenty-four seasons of Survivor since the first. Obviously the audience eroded over time as all shows do, but Survivor has taken great strides toward continual cultural relevance. There have been celebrities, sports figures, returning players, entire All-Star seasons, hidden immunity idols, finals threes instead of final twos, tribal swaps, and many other gimmicks to keep it fresh. Survivor: Philippines has combined several of these gimmicks into one ultimate season, and my hopes are extremely high, especially after this first excellent episode.
So it’s episode one, and that means splitting into tribes. Usually it’s two tribes, sometimes even men versus women. This time, it’s three tribes, divided up by convenient shirt color. But that’s not all, as three returning players (Russell Swan – Samoa, Michael Skupin – Australia, and Jonathan Penner – Micronesia and Cook Islands) are here to lead the tribes. These men have something else in common as well — all three of them were removed from their respective games due to injury. What is interesting is that the new players initially grouse over the returnees, and only one tribe, Tandang, is welcoming of its returning player (Skupin, who fell in a fire way back in 2001). Kalabaw is skeptical of Penner, who has always come off as a bit of an entertaining jokester (and who always plays the game just a bit too wild, as if Survivor was a hand of poker instead of a grueling 39 day experience). Russell comes back to the game as a part of the Matsing tribe, and immediately resolves himself to *not* be its leader, which is exactly what he ends up being, whether he realizes it or not. This alienates his tribe mates, especially the young Malcolm, who then plays Swan’s leadership angle against him when they build their first tribe fire (loved this particular scene, by the way — also an incredibly smart move by Malcolm).
This isn’t the typical season of Survivor. In addition to the returning three players, there are also a few celebrities on board. Jeff Kent, the 2000 NL MVP recipient and multiple All Star second baseman), is on the Kalabaw tribe along with the returning Penner. Kent almost immediately injures his knee, and later confides to the camera that he’s going to hide the injury, having played many seasons in MLB with various injuries. Former child television star Lisa Whelchel is on board too. I wouldn’t have recognized her, but that’s because I’ve never seen an episode of The Facts of Life (where she played Blair). Whelchel seems like a nice sort, but clearly isn’t cut out for this game. She doesn’t fit in with her tribe and seems to make no effort to do so, opting instead to stay behind and try to start a fire rather than wander off into the jungle, bonding with her tribe mates. When RC, a young investment banker on Wall St., proposes a four way alliance that includes herself, Skupin, the Brazilian immigrant and sexpot Abi-Maria, and young would-be alpha male Pete, RC specifically warns the new found alliance that Whelchel has the potential to be dangerous as a social player.
Meanwhile, Penner’s going nuts looking for the hidden immunity idol, which will rear its ugly head once again this season (can we just get one season without a goddamn idol? they’re much too powerful), drawing the ire of his teammates. Russell Swan, however, takes the cake as the most annoying leader of the evening. Him barking orders at his tribe mates (he pretty much forced Roxy and Angie to work on the puzzle — much to their chagrin) is entertaining, but seems to seal his fate as the first victim of the season. He is saved, however, by the lunatic Zane, who seems like a mix between Jon “Fairplay” Dalton and ex-Federal Agent Philip Sheppard. Zane is the classic Survivor buffoon. He forms loose and haphazard alliances everywhere, stopping just short of the pinky swear as a viable cog in his Survivor strategy. At one point he forms an alliance with a tribe mate while another person, whom he had just allied with moments earlier, is still within earshot. Though Zane has some sort of method to his extreme madness, he’s ultimately the first to go (and gladly as far as I’m concerned). Swan is saved, but he’s going to have to change his game up if he wants to last much longer in Survivor: Philippines. Penner and Skupin are safe so far. Safety in numbers only lasts so long though…
Join us next week, when Penner goes a bit cuckoo over the idol and Whelchel laments being left on an island to fend for herself.