How can one person be both so mean and so bad at the game? Abi-Maria learns the hard way that being catty and clueless is a bad combination

By Dalton Ross
February 27, 2015 at 11:30 PM EST
Image credit: CBS
S25 E9
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Many have tried to usurp her title. But all have failed. Alas, there is only one queen of the cartoonish, over-the-top jury facial reactions. Her name is Eliza Orlins, and she perfected her various facial contortions over two glorious seasons (Vanuatu, Micronesia). Eliza had not one, but several go-to moves. And her technique — whether on the classic eyes-bugging-out-of-her-head look of disbelief, the mouth-open-so-wide-a-freight-train-could-pass-through-it appearance of shock, or the head-shaking-back-and-forth-from-side-to-side over-exaggerated scowl of disapproval — was flawless. She has never, and will never be topped. (Just watch her expertly call up every weapon in her arsenal on command in this vintage Survivor Talk clip.)

But a legitimate challenger once again burst onto the scene in this most recent episode of Survivor: Philippines. When I first met RC before the game began, I had her pegged as something of an Eliza clone. Both had dark hair. Both resided in New York City. And both were Energizer Bunny motor-mouths whose vocal batteries never appeared to need recharging. But even I was not prepared for the positively Eliza-esque facial expression RC busted out at Tribal Council tonight. Right as Abi crossed in front of her to go vote, RC’s face contorted into a visage of pure disgust. Her one time-bestie had turned into a beastie. RC’s you-make-me-puke pause for the cause was fantastic not only because it was clearly directed and perfectly timed, but it also spoke for pretty much the entire viewing public as well.

Has their ever been such a splendid blend of catty and clueless as Abi-Maria? I mean, it’s one thing to be mean and hold everyone else is disdain, but to do it when you clearly have no idea what you are doing takes a very special person indeed. Or a person with a very tragic disease. That’s right, there is no way one person could be so unlikable while so clueless at the same time without being truly sick. Unfortunately, Abi is showing all the symptoms of a very nasty disease. That disease’s name? Naonkaitis.  Naonkaitis is a very serious condition. It’s symptoms include, but are not limited to: irritability, sass, a lack of self-awareness, a lack of intelligence, the burning desire to knock one legged women to the ground, the delusion of being better than everyone else when you are, in fact, worse than everyone else, and the tendency to describe people that are being perfectly fine and nice to you as mortal enemies.

Just how bad is Abi at this game? I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but Lisa tried to save her tribe last week be exposing Malcolm’s hidden immunity idol (which he had secretly kept from the others), yet instead of appreciating it, Abi insisted on repeatedly giving Blair Warner the cold shoulder. Why? Because she has no idea how to play! Also correct me if I’m wrong, but Lisa had to talk to Abi like she was a child to explain why it is you want to flush out hidden immunity idols so that the people with them lose their power, and 30 seconds later Abi shows everyone her idol for no reason. Why? Because she has no idea how to play! And she’s the one calling Lisa naïve? Ladies and genetlemen, Naonkaitis.

So, anyway, go back and watch RC’s face as Abi walks by her to vote. You may have missed it the first time because you were still confused as to why RC was wearing high heels to Tribal Council. But watch again and appreciate the latest in a long line of fascinating facial expressions to cross our TV screens since Survivor first went on the air 12 years ago. Somewhere, Eliza is smiling. Or, more likely, bugging her eyes 10 feet out of her head like Large Marge or Jim Carrey in The Mask. Now, onto the rest of this week’s episode, from the very top.

NEXT: Abi sits out another challenge

The episode begins with the fallout and confusion over the previous Tribal Council vote. Abi thinks Mike voted for her, only to be informed by Penner that he had done it because he was pissed nobody had told him about the Plan B. Then Carter informs Penner of who had voted for whom. “So I’m the one who blew it by not voting for Pete?” says Penner about Jeff Kent being sent packing. “That sucks.” Whether Penner did this intentionally or it was due to the last second confusion about the plan is not entirely clear, although he points out that a vote for Pete would have just made it a tie anyway, meaning they would have brought out the colored rocks. (Speaking of which, I seriously considered going as a colored rock for Halloween and showing up at John Cochran’s door just to scare the living bejeezus out of the man.)

Meanwhile, Lisa is really struggling with what went down and whether she can continue to play without losing her moral compass. (My solution: Don’t carry a compass! Being lost is a hell of a lot more fun.) Malcolm — the only person whose trust she betrayed — tries to console her, but it may not be enough. “I love this game,” says Lisa. “But I think it’s too big for me.”

Penner sees the internal struggle that people like Lisa and Skupin are having, and like any great player, he wants to exploit it. He consoles a troubled Lisa by using phrases like “God’s honest truth,” while also expressing sympathies for the public struggles Lisa had to go through with things like her weight as she tried to please everyone as an actress. Penner ends by hugging Lisa while uttering what is perhaps the biggest lie this game has ever seen: “I didn’t mean to make you cry.” BS, man! That’s exactly what you meant to do! And good for you. That’s just solid strategy, right there. Didn’t mean to make you cry? Puh-leeze, you’re about to make me cry — with laughter!

Reward challenge time. Today’s contest involves the players essentially being tarred and feathered for our amusement as they have to crawl one by one through mud and then rice (which of course sticks to the mud) while collecting a bag of balls, the contents of which will be shot into a basket. First team to get all 12 balls into the basket wins. A schoolyard pick ‘em leads to Malcolm, Penner, Denise and Carter on the red team, and all of the original Tandang (except Abi, who was not picked) on the yellow team. Often the unpicked person gets to choose a team to root for and if that team wins, they get to go with them, but Abi is given no such choice. Its just as well, because the reward involves handing out toys and school supplies to a village of children, and knowing Abi, she would probably just give some kid a pencil and then berate said kid for betraying her trust by not giving it back.

The most interesting aspect of the challenge is a strategy employed by Penner and the red team. While Skupin (who is up first for yellow) finds his bag and moves on, Penner stays in the mud pit and locates all four of his team’s bags. He then places the other three bags in specific corners so that the people after him won’t have to search at all and can just pick them up and go. The strategy pays dividends, especially when Artis and Pete struggle to find theirs. The red squad takes a massive lead of 11-0, but then all of a sudden the entire team morphs into John Starks in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA finals, tossing up brick after brick while Patrick Ewing stands to the side with an exasperated look on his face.

NEXT: Penner says to do it for the fans!

However they eventually do get the final twelfth ball in and win, so let’s go broaden some horizons, people! Penner arrives in the local village and proceeds to inadvertently tell everyone his name is “Normal” — which, in his case, could not be further from the truth. Normal bashes at a piñata and calls it “the happiest community I’ve ever walked into,” while Malcolm harkens back to his time teaching elementary school in Micronesia. “God, why did I give this up?” he asks. “This means so much more to me than pouring drinks for, you know, girls in bars.” Sure, Malcolm, but I’m guessing it is what the girls do for you after you pour them drinks in bars that you’re rather keen on. FREE SHOTS ON THE HOUSE!

Meanwhile, to entertain themselves back at camp, the Tandang members have decided to stage an off-off-off-off Broadway show titled Let’s Be Mean To Lisa For No Reason Whatsoever. The play begins with Pete alone on center stage, a single spotlight illuminating his presence as he explains how Lisa got “obliterated at Tribal Council.” Oh, you mean after she told you that Malcolm had a hidden immunity idol and should be blindsided but you refused to believe her and screwed the whole thing up? That obliteration? The next act features a two-woman scene where Abi goes out of her way to inform Lisa of all her shortcomings. “You are just gullible,” says Abi.  “You are just naïve.” You mean so naïve as to idiotically pull out a hidden immunity idol at Tribal Council and then not realize when someone else is trying to save your self-proclaimed big Brazilian booty? Oh, no, wait. That was YOU! Annnnnnnnnd…scene.

Off to the Immunity Challenge we go, where the contestants are balancing an oversized paddle on a stand while trying to roll six balls down a paddle onto six spots. First one to do so wins. The contest quickly turns into a two-man duel between Skupin and Pete. Both of them get four on the paddle, but then Pete’s start to roll off. That’s good news for Skupin, but bad news for Probst, who misses a golden opportunity to add to his legendary list of sexually-explicit-when-taken-completely-out-of-context-quotes (“Pete’s balls are dropping!”). So Skupin wins, and while that would appear to seal Penner’s fate, before we go to commercial we hear this from Artis: “At tonight’s Tribal Council, unless something goes wrong, we can get Penner out and we can actually for the first time in a long time, come back to camp, take a deep breath and we can relax for a while.” ALERT! ALERT! My Survivor sense is tingling. I should note that this is different from last week’s “tingly in my dingly” feeling. A tingly Survivor sense is when a seemingly innocuous quote is inserted as clear overconfidence foreshadowing for a future event. In this case, it looks like someone from Tandang is about to get blindsided. And sure enough, after trying to kill Skupin by sending a flying coconut towards his face, Abi tells us that, “It feels real nice right now.” Okay, now someone from Tandang is definitely getting the boot.

Denise, Malcolm and Carter have a pow-wow where they decide to target Artis, because no way Abi will ever give him her idol. But can they get Lisa or Skupin on board? It is at this point when Jonathan Penner does a truly remarkable thing. He attempts to convince Lisa that she should base her gameplay and moves solely by the answer to the following question: “What does the audience want to have happen?” Think about that for a second. He’s not saying, “Do what is best for you to get you farther and in a position to win.” Instead, he’s trying to appeal to the actress in her who wants nothing more than to please and be loved by an audience. AND THIS IS COMING JUST OFF HIS EMOTIONAL PEP TALK THE PREVIOUS DAY WHERE HE TOLD HER ABOUT THE IMMENSE COST SHE PAID BY TRYING TO PLEASE EVERYONE AS AN ACTRESS AND HOW SHE HAD TO STOP WORRYING ABOUT THAT!!! Remember, he’s sorry he made her cry! Unbelievable. Jonathan Penner, you truly are an evil genius.

NEXT: Why Skupin’s move makes sense — socially and strategically

Penner then hits up Skupin, who is less conflicted about flipping and tries to talk Lisa into it as well. She doesn’t want to betray her original tribe “but if Tandang is no longer loyal to me, am I being exactly what Abi accuses me of being — gullible and naïve?” Let’s head to Tribal Council and find out. There’s more talk about people being upset at Lisa for the last Tribal which, as we’ve spelled out, makes absolutely zero sense because all she did was make her tribe aware of a potential threat (which the tribe “mastermind” then chose not to believe anyway). Lisa then tells Probst that she received more grace from the people she was against than the people she was trying to protect. This seems to infuriate Abi, who considered her treatment of Lisa as graceful as a figure skater…if that figure skater is Tanya Harding wielding a police baton and going for the knees.

After Artis informs us that, “Tandang had one of the most powerful tribes put together in Survivor history. It is playing out the way it is supposed to play out” — Survivor sense tingling! — Abi goes back to saying how she feels Lisa is not loyal. It’s as if the woman is begging Lisa to rethink her drink and flip against her. The whole scene is so amazing is causes RC to start cuddling a man with a mustache, something that should only be done in extreme circumstances. In the end, Lisa does not flip — take that, Abi! — but Skupin does — take that, Abi! — so Artis is voted out. And I have to say, Artis’ final words were pretty damn classy. We didn’t hear much from Artis this season outside of his random Skupin-bashing, but he took his ouster in stride. Something I do not expect from his female alliance-mate.

As for the Skupin flip, it makes total sense strategically and is at worst a lateral move. He was in the fifth spot on the Tandang alliance and now moves to fifth in his new group. However, the pecking order in that new group is very unstable, and he can easily slide into a number three slot to side with either Malcolm and Denise or Penner and Carter. So beyond sticking it to Pete, Maria, and Artis, he put himself in a better position to go farther. And if Lisa flips as well, then who knows what will happen.

So, another immensely satisfying episode in an immensely satisfying season. As I’ve said before, the best seasons of Survivor have people you can both root for and root against. And they also feature a mix of smart and stupid gameplay. Survivor: Philippines has all of these things, and Lord knows it needed them after the disaster that was One World. And I expect you to be immensely satisfied with this week’s Q&A with Jeff Probst, in which I ask the host whether he has any worries about the fairness of bringing back returning players when so many of them continue to make it so far in the game. Check out his response! Also check out an exclusive deleted scene from last night’s episode as well as my pre-game interview with Artis in the video player below. And for more Survivor news and views, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

Now, it’s your turn. Do you agree that Skupin made the right move? Should Lisa join him? And did you enjoy seeing Pete’s balls drop? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Hit the message boards and let us know and I’ll be back next week with another Skupin of the crispy!

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