A tribe swap and a blindfolded immunity challenge shake up the game

By Dalton Ross
March 28, 2018 at 09:01 PM EDT
Robert Voets/CBS
S36 E6
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I’m a bit of a Survivor hypocrite. And I sense I am not alone. But it’s not my fault. The show turned me into this.

I bring this up because I believe Survivor is at something of a crossroads, at least in terms of what the show used to be, what it has become, and viewers’ reactions to it that have put producers in something of a no-win situation in terms of pleasing everybody.

If you find yourself with a little free time, go back and watch some early Survivor. Take in an episode from season 1 and see how it feels. If you are someone who is younger and started watching much later, you will probably barely recognize what you see. Why is Jeff Probst narrating what is happening at the beach? Why is everyone hitting a stupid gong when they walk into Tribal Council? And who left that ridiculous trunk of cash just sitting there?

But beyond all these long-gone flourishes, the show feels sooooo different. If you grew up on the quick-hit speed of more recent installments you would probably be massively underwhelmed by season 1, having no context to realize or understand just how radical and mind-blowing that first season was when it aired as network television’s first-ever reality show in the summer of 2000. But the program has evolved and changed — as it had to, which is why Survivor still wins its night in total viewers 18 years later.

But what you feel sometimes now is two shows warring with each other, or perhaps two schools of thought coming from the fanbase watching. What kind of Survivor do we want? The old-school original with no bells and whistles and advantages and idols and constant tribe swaps? Or the new-school version with all of the above? You may think you know your preference. But do you?

Here’s what I’m talking about: I was pretty relentless in seasons 34 and 35 in opining that Survivor had gotten too advantage and idol crazy. I thought adding one advantage in per season was a nice touch, but as the show kept piling them on, it appeared to devalue strategy for mere luck and strong hide-and-seek skills. Plus, with all the idols also out there, instead of something being played as a rare occurrence, it now felt like every single Tribal featured someone pulling something out of their pants… which I realize sounds grosser than I intended. Remember all those Ben Bombs? Or that time when five out of six people had immunity at Tribal because of various idols and advantages? It was too much, I yelled into the endless abyss that is my Survivor recap.

But fast-forward to this season and here I was complaining about the exact opposite by having only one advantage pop up at Ghost Island so far. And this is from me, the guy who argued passionately that there should NEVER be more than one advantage in play per season. And I’m not the only one. I’ve heard from many of you in the comments and on Twitter who have also been bemoaning the fact that Ghost Island has not played a bigger factor (nobody was even sent there this week) and that people are not leaving there with random superpowers. Yet isn’t this mellowing out on extra items exactly what we asked for? Granted, part of the current frustration stems no doubt from the fact that Ghost Island was marketed as this huge thing that would shake up the game yet has not really impacted it at all. While I don’t like to see idols and advantages run amok, if that was the theme of this season, then why not lean fully into it?

But there is something else I have noticed in terms of the way I have been watching Survivor lately and the general fan reaction to what is happening on screen. I think we have now come to expect advantages and idols at every turn, and when that doesn’t happen, the dramatic landscape seems somewhat barren by comparison.

It didn’t used to feel that way. When Survivor was at its biggest, we had none of that stuff. There was not a single hidden immunity idol or advantage in the first 10 seasons of the show. Think about that. And that includes the aforementioned national obsession of season 1 as well as rock solid installments like The Amazon, Pearl Islands, and Palau. (I also love Marquesas. Sue me.)

The problem is that after watching advantage- and idol-manufactured fireworks for the past few seasons straight, we’ve been conditioned to view the show differently. We have actually been rewired as viewers. Now when we have a “normal” Tribal Council with a normal vote, it feels underwhelming. And it shouldn’t. We’ve been indoctrinated to constantly expect fireworks and #blindsides and people stopping Jeff right as he’s about to read the votes. It has become the rule rather than the exception. So when producers do pull back on that a bit after taking some heat for overdoing it, now they’re left with complaints that an episode is “boring” and “predictable” because nothing crazy happened.

And you could easily extend this to the tribe swaps as well. We complain when the show overswaps, yet then also complain when a season becomes too predictable because a majority takes control and votes off the minority alliance one by one. The swaps are put in place to prevent those down-the-line votes that often put the show in a holding pattern for a month or more while the people we knew were going to get voted out then got voted out. Sometimes the swaps work in terms of making things less predictable, and sometimes they don’t, but the swaps now operate somewhat like the mythical Hydra creature in that for every complaint about too many tribe swaps that gets cut down, two more complaints about how boring and predictable things are when things are not shaken up spring up in its place.

I’ll be the first (and hopefully not the last) to admit that I have complained both ways on these issues. I don’t want too much manufactured drama — because the idols, advantages, and tribe swaps essentially act as low-hanging dramatic fruit — but what I recognized recently is I have been so conditioned by it over the past few seasons that I end up being subconsciously critical of the alternative when they’re not there. Which makes me hypocritical and contradictory and confusing all at the same time. And I have a feeling I am not the only one.

My point in all this is to neither praise nor condemn producers, but rather to act as something of a self-reflective exercise in pointing out how the show’s evolution has changed the dynamics of watching it. We say we don’t want every Tribal Council to come down to an idol or an advantage, yet because the expectation of constant Tribal insanity has now been raised to an almost absurd level due to those items, we often are left wanting when it doesn’t happen. I know this because I saw scores of comments talking about how boring last week’s episode was and expect to see more of the same this week as well.

Anyway, your reaction to all this is likely one of the following.

  1. That’s interesting. I never thought about how we have been conditioned to watch the show and how that conditioning may have changed over the years, thereby giving us withdrawal symptoms when we are left without the things we thought we didn’t want or need.
  2. You’re an idiot. I know what I want and how I want it.
  3. It’s simple: I like the extra bells and whistles when they help players I like, and hate them when they hurt players I like. Why are you always overthinking things?
  4. WTF? I don’t give a crap about ANY of this. I just came here to see you make fun of the way Chris Noble attempted to say the word beneficiary!

My guess is most of you fall into that third or fourth category. But when you’ve watched and recapped as many episodes over as many years of this show as I have, these are the wormholes you sometimes fall into, so thanks for indulging me. Okay, let’s go through what went down this week and how it may (or may not) relate to any of that nonsense above. But before we do that I’ll also sneak in a plug to go check out the fan rankings of all 35 completed Survivor seasons from first to worst. The results are pretty interesting. 

Tribe Swapalooza
Drop. Your. Buffs. First off, someone needs to make a techno song using only those words throughout. C’mon, we can all go meet up with Molly and just get weird with it. But bizarre Jeff Probst dance remixes put aside for the moment, this latest tribe swap caught me a bit off guard. I remember being surprised when they did not go to three tribes at the first swap at 18, and yet then they went and did it here. Why at 15 and not 18? I have no idea.

As referenced in the above tangent, the goal in such swaps is clearly to keep shaking things up to avoid the predictability. In this case, Malolo had been losing and the next two going home were obvious. Maybe a swap would change that up! (It didn’t.) Each of the new tribes featured three original Naviti and two original Malolo. The breakdown was as follows.

NAVITI (purple)
Bradley, Dom, Chelsea
Donathan, Libby

MALOLO (orange)
Desiree, Angela, Kellyn
Michael, James

YANUYA (green)
Chris, Sea Bass, Wendell
Jenna, Laurel

Just at first blush, Yanuya seemed to have the best mix of strength, skills, water talent, and puzzle solving ability. Plus, they had the brilliance — just ask him! — of Chris Noble.

A Noble Man
“You know when you’re a big athletic guy and charismatic as I am, I won’t lie to you, it’s exhausting.” —Chris Noble

I mean, I wouldn’t know so I guess I believe him. Judging from what we saw this episode, not only is it exhausting for Chris Noble to be so perfect, but it’s pretty exhausting for the rest of his tribe as well. To which I say, SUCK IT UP, FELLOW YANUYA MEMBERS! If Chris Noble wants to tell you about his beach volleyball tournament in Chicago, then you will hang on every single word he says, dammit! If he chooses to share stories from his most high-profile modeling campaigns, you will fawn over those stories and feign interest at the way he makes love to the camera any time he takes a job.

Your disrespect will not stand, Yanuya members! You are in the presence of greatness and you will act accordingly. Especially after Chris Noble took such a risk in bragging about his modeling career to you all. “I do hesitate to tell people I’m a model because for some crazy reason people think that models might be self absorbed, might be dumb, just a lot of things that might not be benificerary to me in a tribe setting.”

That’s exactly right, Chris Noble! It might not be benificerary at all with these super jealous know-nothings. First off, what could possibly make people think that about you? That’s crazy talk! What would be benificerary to them is to stop being a bunch of stupid jerk-faces, if you ask me.

And what would be benificerary to viewers is to get our own Chris Noble spin-off. I’m thinking maybe something where Chris Noble is a police detective who lives on the edge and doesn’t play by the rules. You know, the kind of guy who chews on a match instead of a toothpick because he saw it on a Sylvester Stallone movie poster once and realized it would make him look LIKE A TOTAL BADASS! Either that or you just hide a camera in a mirror and let Chris Noble look into it for an hour each week and release the raw footage on CBS. Honestly, I’d watch either.

Chris Noble Lite
Chris Noble is not the only guy out there who loves nothing more than to give himself props. Bradley was ecstatic to finally be out of the “slum” of Malolo and back on Naviti with his biggest ally in Domenick. And he was also thrilled to pat himself on the back for a game well played. “In terms of this game, maybe I’m a little better than I thought I was,” Bradley told us before quickly correcting himself. “I thought I was fantastic, but maybe I actually am as fantastic as I think because I really feel like I am playing an A+ game.”

People will no doubt jump on that and continue to jump on Bradley as insufferable. And that quote would seem to put him in the same mold as Chris Noble, but I don’t see the two as comparable in the least. Because there is a one huge difference between the two, and that difference is this: Bradley knows exactly what he is doing. Not in the game, necessarily. I have no idea if he’s actually any good at this. He’s been in the majority the entire time so we haven’t had a chance to see if he has any skills. But he knows exactly what he’s doing in terms of exactly what he says and exactly how he will be perceived.

Bradley wants to be a Survivor villain. He is completely self-aware and loves playing up his cockiness. He’s clearly just having fun with it. He knows it’s going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, but he doesn’t care. To him, that is part of the Survivor experience. I don’t get the sense that Chris Noble always knows how the things he says will be perceived by others, but Bradley does. That’s what makes the two so different.

I’m not saying you have to like Bradley at all. In fact, I think he’s happier in a way if you don’t like him. Some would say it is better to be loathed than simply not noticed, and Bradley has found a way to make that happen. 

Parvati 2.No
As much as Domenick was trying to sell Libby as the new Parvati 2.0, I’m still not buying. The edit a few weeks back tried to make Libby look like some super-strategic backstabber for ousting her new bestie Morgan, but that was James’ move all the way to flip the script, and Libby actually tried to convince her tribe not to do it even thought it was clearly the best strategic play.

So why is Dom talking her up as “the devil in an angel’s body. Libby is out for blood”? Well, whom else is he going to target? Bradley and Chelsea are original Naviti, while Donathan (with Laurel) came to Dom with a new fearsome foursome alliance before the tribes swapped again. So who’s the only person in this new Naviti tribe that Dom is NOT aligned with? Yep, Libby. So of course he wants to make sure Bradley is on the same page with getting her out, and if he can give the producers some juicy quotes about the opposition to pump up the drama, sure! Why not?

Make no mistake, I’m not dissing and dismissing Libby. She has not shown me any bad gameplay to make me think she has no idea what she is doing out there. But we certainly have not seen anything to put her even remotely in the same conversation as Parvati. At least not yet.

Blind Ambition
God, I love blindfolded immunity challenges. It’s not because I want to see contestants enhancing other senses when one of them is taken away. It’s not because I enjoy witnessing players overcome adversity to succeed in less-than-optimal conditions. No, I just like watching people run into things. And make no mistake, the challenge is designed to give us exactly that. Why else would there be random barrels and other obstacles sitting out there in the field with no other purpose whatsoever? Why would there be bars and poles situated at perfect crotch level throughout the course? And why would cameras make sure to show us every single time someone almost lost a tooth when bashing their face into something?

So I say don’t fight the feeling! Just embrace the carnage from the safety and comfort of your living room. After all, these reality stars are there to suffer for our enjoyment, so let them suffer! Dilly Dilly! And suffer they do. Libby went chin first into a pole, Chelsea banged her face into a post, and everyone else had to endure inner ear bleeding thanks to Desiree’s incessant shrieking.

Which begs another question: Why the hell did Malolo allow Desiree to be the caller since the caller also had to double as the puzzle solver, giving instructions to still-blindfolded teammates on what pieces to put where? Desiree told us flat out at the start of the season that she was not good at puzzles after Chris Noble chose her to do it in the show’s first few minutes. She then went on to prove herself correct. She was not good at that slide puzzle then and she was no better here, going from first to worst and losing the competition for her tribe.

Of course, we know it always comes down to the puzzle, which Wendell proved for Yanuya by forgetting one of his tribe’s bags, wasting time running back to get it, and then still comfortably winning anyway. “What’s up Probst?’ he crowed while showing the host the completed puzzle. What he should have been asking is why the first place finishers didn’t also take home a reward, which should be standard issue in three-team challenges.

Anyway, this was a fun one to watch as their pain was our gain. Also, anytime you have multiple players fighting over a bag that is not even theirs, it’s a good day.

Ghost-Free Zone
As previously mentioned, nobody was sent to Ghost Island this week and the reason is pretty obvious, as there was simply not enough time with the tribe swap, challenge, Tribal Council, and three different tribe beaches to check in on. That’s too bad because had Kellyn, Desiree, or Angela been sent there after losing the challenge, it would have created a 2-2 deadlock and who knows what would have happened at Tribal.

I do remain hopeful that G.I. will become a bigger factor as we move forward, seeing as how so far it has served more as a place for players to experience their own #SurvivorBreakdown than anything else. Seriously, I don’t know if part of the Ghost Island experience involves watching a double feature of Brian’s Song and Hachi: A Dog’s Tale while slicing onions, but somehow, some way producers seem to turn everyone who goes there into a big blubbering mess. That’s fine, but I want more. And hopefully we get it. 


James’ Last Stand
The narrative at Malolo heading into Tribal Council basically centered on whether Angela would stay #NavitiStrong (which sounds like something that should be on a T-shirt or car magnet) or if she would side with James and Michael since James saved her from being voted out by the other Navitis a few weeks back. “Basically, I’m here because of Malolo,” she explained at one point.

So even though Kellyn and Desiree were targeting James, the college track star thought he could flip the script and win Angela over. He talked about moving back to the United States from South Korea when he was 16 and how that taught him how to reach out to strangers and “prepared me for this moment, because Survivor is about connecting with other human beings.”

Angela definitely seemed in play. As Kellyn said about her: “I’m not even sure she fully understands what is going on in her own head, and someone like that is just dangerous.” But it didn’t appear like Angela had necessarily bonded with James either. So it was off to Tribal Council to find out which way the Army vet would go.

Probst greeted the tribe with hands on his hips and a very stern look on his face, as if they had just been caught sneaking back home after curfew. He then proceeded to mock them right to their collective face. “So we all know the headline,” he began. “Malolo may be one of the worst tribes in terms of challenge performance that we’ve ever had. You may never win a Survivor challenge as a tribe.” Hey, that’s not fair! They totally won a challenge. Once. At least let them have that one! Remember how happy Kellyn looked when she ran over to get the tarp that came with it?

WHY WON’T YOU LET THEM HAVE THEIR ONE MEASLY VICTORY, PROBST?!?! In any event, even though Desiree took full responsibility for the loss, and even though James made a salient point about how Angela should have no allegiance to Naviti because they were put together randomly at the start of the season and not by any sort of personal connection or history, James was unanimously voted out. Yes, unanimously, as Michael — clearly in cover-my-ass mode the past two weeks — voted him out as well.

You could see the genuine shock on James’ face. It was one thing to not get Angela, but to even lose Michael? Ouch. (I wonder if James knew that Michael and Jenna also voted against Stephanie at the previous Tribal.) But did James scream, bitch, or moan on his way out? God, I wish he would have, but no, he had to keep it classy like my man Freddie Blassie. “Great blindside, guys. It’s been a true pleasure playing with you all. Good luck,” he said after having his torch snuffed.

That reserved and respectful exit doesn’t make for particularly riveting television, but I’m happy that James got his own redemption arc this season, even in his limited time on the show. His water challenge meltdown on day 6 was about as low as one can get in a competition, especially for a proud athlete like James. But he engineered the best ouster of the season so far in turning the tables on the Naviti majority, and then lost out in a numbers game after this latest tribe swap. So he should leave happy, and I’m happy for him in that sense.

And you must be the happy one at this point because we’re almost at the end of another recap. But the Survivor coverage keeps on rolling. We’ve got an exclusive deleted scene from this week’s episode as well as some other video goodies sprinkled throughout. Don’t forget to read this week’s Q&A with the Hostmaster General, Jeff Probst. I also spoke with the ousted James on EW Morning Live (SiriusXM, channel 105) Thursday morning and you can read that interview right here. Plus, check out the results of the fan poll where you all ranked all 35 completed Survivor seasons from first to worst. And for more Survivor scoop, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

But now it’s your turn. Are you loving Chris Noble as much as he loves himself? Sad to see James go? Surprised by the swap to three tribes? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy.

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