Survivor season 31 premiere recap: Second Chance
Survivor is back! Can you feel the excitement? I know Stephen Fishbach can, judging by that super awkward post-challenge hug we saw him attempt within the first 30 seconds of tonight's season premiere. (There has never been a more awkward self-conscious celebrator in human history than Fishbach. I want him to win every single challenge ever just to revel in his endless confusion over how to properly congratulate others.) That's right, folks… it's time for Survivor: Cambodia—Second Chance and the rambling, nonsensical recaps that go with it.
And this week will be even more rambling than normal because I will be bringing you some on-location insights from my time on the island during filming. There was tons of stuff edited out of that Tribal Council that I will let you know about. Which is my way of saying — as perturbed as you may get with this recap, it's worth soldiering on, if for no other reason than to find out how Jeff Varner completely freaked everyone out right before the voting. Also, we have a few exclusive deleted videos waiting for you at the end, and the return of EW.com's Survivor Talk show on Thursdays, which you can start looking forward to right now.
But before we can get to all that, can I ask a simple question: WHERE THE F#%& IS MY BRACELET?!? Seriously, I can't possibly be expected to continue if my bracelet — which has no bearing whatsoever on anything even remotely having to do with this recap — is not found. You know what? EVERYONE STOP EVERYTHING AND LOOK FOR MY INCONSEQUENTIAL WRISTBAND!!! Anyone seen it? Anyone? Bueller? Oh, forget it. I won't allow that stolen bracelet — and I'm looking at you, Peih-Gee (who, it should be noted, is a jewelry designer) — hijack this column the way it just hijacked the entire Ta Keo tribe. So without further ado, let's get to it.
The episode begins with a greatest hits — or misses, I guess — of past contestant failures. "A relentless nightmare of what-ifs," Probst calls it. (Incidentally, Relentless Nightmare of What-Ifs is the name of my new indie goth band.) We are treated to contestants reminding us of their backstories inter-spliced with super dramatic slow-motion Local Action News Team-type shots of them walking through Angkor Wat. Personally, I would have preferred the action be sped up instead of down to Benny Hill levels of hilarity put to the sweet, sweet sounds of "Yakety Sax," but maybe that's just me.
They finally make their way to Probst just off the coast of Koh Rong, and their delight in seeing him is matched 100 percent by mine. Why? Because he's busting out the orange Survivor hat! It's clearly the most super-dope-fresh hat in Probst's entire baseball cap collection (which, rumor has it, numbers 3,728). I honestly don't know why he even bothers with the others. So Probst begins by reminding them what losers they all are ("You failed in your goal") while Kelly Wiglesworth gets a sitting ovation (don't want to tip over the boat after all) before telling us that she replays her Tribal Council loss in her head every day… which is the exact opposite of what she told me just the day before, but whatever. This fits the narrative better!
Probst tells them they can find a bag with their buffs and map in their boat, but in actuality he threw the bags to all four boats, which was wisely edited out because it took too long and none of the throws really landed so let's just get to it already. And when I say it, I mean the first twist. You all know how much I love it when they force contestants to make choices in challenges. And while this is not technically a challenge, both tribes have to decide how much time to spend gathering supplies on a big boat before leaving to try to claim a large bag of rice on a smaller boat about 100 yards away.
The scene immediately turns into chaos with people and things bumping into and falling down upon Jeff Probst. One thing you did not see: At one point Terry Dietz had to swim back to the small boat he started on to retrieve a pair of shoes he had left there. Not an auspicious debut for Deitz. With both tribes paddling rafts in a race for the rice, Wiglesworth dives in to try and win in, but she has underestimated how far away it is. Joe and Woo both dive in as well, and in the end it is the self-proclaimed Ninja Stealth Assassin who claims the food for Ta Keo.
I've been to some seasons with amazing maroonings (Heroes vs. Villains, Micronesia) and I've been to some seasons with terrible ones (Nicaragua, Redemption Island). This one was pretty cool. I mean, it's hard to go wrong when you have people jumping off of a boat. Throw a race in the mix, and you have good stuff all around. Plus: orange hat.
NEXT: What's up with everybody doing yoga?
Okay, let's break down what's going on at each of the tribe beaches. Let's start with Ta Keo. A lot of hugs going on when the tribe first hits the beach, but the divisions happen almost immediately. Folks like Terry, Wiglesworth, Woo, and Vytas are at the heart of an "old school" alliance, even though Vytas and Woo are from the past four seasons. I guess "old school" is a state of mind.
That's not to say attempts are not made to bridge the gap with the "new school" players. In a scene somewhat akin to me trying to connect with my 12-year-old daughter over what makes Justin Bieber so gosh-darn dreamy, Terry searches for common ground with Spencer by telling him how his kids told him to align with the human temper tantrum because they think he's swell.
Vytas also is trying to make some connections… with the ladies. He tells Peih-Gee how beautiful she is, informs Wentworth how excited he is to be with her, tries to give Abi a massage, and then attempts to win over the women through the power of yoga. Kelley Wentworth is particularly not a fan. "It's not sexy in any way," she says of Vytas' various poses. "Just go away. You're like a bug. Just get away. I want Vytas out. He's dead to me."
Shirin is not exactly president of the Vytas fan club either. She calls the Baskauskas brother "smarmy" and worries about his connection to Terry through Aras. Shirin and Spencer relay this information to Jeff Varner, who proceeds to tell us repeatedly over the next hour how out of his element he is and fast his new school tribemates go. "I'm the OG here, and I feel like the baby." Well, he better grow up in this game soon. The game does move fast. You need to make big moves, but you also need to delicately plot out those moves so they don't come back to bite you in the ass. In related news, Jeff Varner just got bit in the ass. Like, literally.
The other thing of note at Ta Keo is savvy Kelley Wentworth making like she is collecting palm fronds while actually looking for an idol. And then she finds one! She sticks it up her shirt! Then she stuffs it down her pants! Then she realizes it's not even an idol that has touched every part of her body. Instead it's a clue — featuring a diagram and exact instructions — to an idol which will been hidden at the next challenge. I won't waste a lot of time on this because regular readers already know I have been openly campaigning for producers to hide idols at challenges for years. I'm not sure whether they finally realized it was a good idea or just wanted to shut me up, but either way, I'll take it. And the #DaltonRossIdol is finally born.
But what the heck is happening over on the Bayon beach, you ask? Let's find out. But before we do, all men please remove your shirts and flex the pecs if you plan on fitting in over at Bayon. That's because we have a hardcore Alpha alliance of dudes being dudes. They're building things, tearing down trees, snapping towels at each other's butts — well, maybe not that last one, but if there were a locker room around, I guarantee you they would be. Savage. Joe. Jeremy. Even Keith seems to have been granted entry into this very exclusive Brotherhood of the Ripped Abs. That means all men on the tribe are all in this… Wait, someone's missing? Who is it? Oh, riiiiiiiight. Fishbach.
While Savage tells Joe how his teen girls think he's perfect — what is with all the older men telling younger guys how infatuated their children are with them? — Stephen sits by himself like that kid at the birthday party who only got invited because the moms were friends so the birthday boy had to, but no one really wants him there. "I feel exactly like I felt last time," says Stephen. "Out of place on a tribe with guys who are not like me."
This would all be super sad if it was not immediately followed by footage of Stephen being unable to break a small limb off a branch. It's, like, you're asking us to feel sorry for the dude before completely reversing course and saying "You know what, screw it" and then practically begging us to mock him for his pathetic display of physical non-prowess. I mean you went from showing Andrew Savage tearing down an entire tree to Fishbach being unable to hammer off a simple limb. Did you actually think I was not going to spit my Milwaukee's Best all over my Panasonic flat-screen TV in laughter? And here's the thing: I'm even weaker than Fishbach!!! Seriously! A strong breeze could knock me over at any second. And I don't care! It's still funny!
And then to ensure that Fishbach gets the absolutely least masculine edit possible, what do producers do but bust out the bumbling goofy background music as Stephen attempts to look for the hidden immunity idol in a swamp. Congratulations, Stephen — you have now become the show's comic relief. Oh, and what's happening back at camp while Fishbach is about to drown in three feet of water? Joe is making fire, of course. This entire juxtaposition is like one big sad trombone noise.
The only other question is: Who has a bigger crush on Joe: Savage or Tasha? Andrew uses words like "perfect," "incredible," and "awe" to describe his younger tribemate, while Tasha informs us that, "all I could think about was Joe's body" while doing yoga. (And somewhere Vince Sly quietly curses the gods.)
NEXT: What happened during (and before off-camera) at the challenge
It's challenge time, people! And the first challenge of Survivor: Cambodia—Second Chance is the same as the first Survivor challenge ever. Well, kinda. They've added some new elements in, but the carrying the raft through the water while lighting torches is about as old school as it gets. Here's something you may or may not know depending on how long you've been reading these things: Before every challenge, Probst gives all the players a walkthrough of the course. When there are different tribes, he gives the walkthrough to each tribe separately (with a CBS standards and practices employee listening in to make sure both teams get the exact same instructions). Before this challenge walkthrough, Probst had the tribes do rock, paper, scissors to determine who went first. Joe stepped up for Bayon against Spencer for Ta Keo. And I snapped a photo of the occasion. So who won? Take a look below to find out.
Yes, Joe's scissors cut Spencer's paper, so Bayon elected to make Ta Keo go first. Not sure it really matters all that much, especially since both tribes are on a no-talking lockdown while the other one is getting their walkthrough. Then, after both tribes have gotten their private tours, they are given time to strategize. Anyway, that's how it went down and now you know.
In the actual challenge itself, Ta Keo takes a big lead and gets their raft out of the water first after Keith loses Bayon's fire and has to relight. Ta Keo plants their raft on the stand. One Kelly starts making a pole she will use to retrieve the key, while the other Kelley starts looking back nervously at the spot where she neglected to pick up the idol. Can she retrieve it without anyone noticing?
The editing back and forth between Wentworth constantly looking over her shoulder helplessly at the idol hiding spot while Wiglesworth and Joe compete to get their keys is masterful, building up tension to a fever pitch. That tension is only broken by the Probst's commentary on Joe's "pole." Sample sound bite: "It looks long enough, but is it strong enough?" (That's what Andrew and Tasha would like to know!)
Another behind-the-scenes note worth sharing: At one point Probst had to call Joe back for leaning too far through the gate in an attempt to get the key. He had demonstrated to both tribes beforehand how far they could go. In fact, I snapped pictures of him doing exactly that. And they are now presented for your enjoyment. Check him out during the challenge walkthroughs for both Ta Keo and Bayon.
NEXT: The stuff you didn't see at Tribal Council
In any event, Kelley finally went back and got the idol and Joe finally got the key, leading to a massive Bayon immunity celebration that included Stephen Fishbach awkwardly orbiting around the perimeter of the group desperately looking for someone — anyone! — to embrace. Honestly, witnessing that may have been my happiest moment of being on location. Sadly, what we saw on TV did not do it justice.
Wiglesworth was definitely dejected after the result, believing she had let the team down by not getting the key. Well, I'm sure they can sort that out back at camp since they always have a few hours before Tribal Council. But wait! Twistapolooza continues as Probst tells everyone they are going straight to Tribal instead. Very interesting move here by the producers because by going straight to Tribal they are doing away with the period of time when cameras often capture the best strategic discussions and last-minute scrambling. However, where there is risk, there is often reward, and the potential reward here is getting that scrambling during Tribal Council, which often leads to chaos. That actually did happen here; you just didn't see it. More on that later.
There was actually a lot that didn't make it to the final Tribal Council edit, but what we did see was Varner telling us "I think people know what's happening tonight," followed by Woo saying he had no idea where he was going. We had Abi stating that there was "clearly a male thing," only to be told by Vytas that there actually was not.
There was Varner bragging about being "balls to the wall" while Peih-Gee got grossed out by something slithering across the Tribal Council floor.
When it was all done, Vytas was eliminated 6-4 over Abi after Varner chose team new school over old school. Woo was shocked and Vytas was bummed, telling us how he had said that he'd "rather not get picked than get picked and be the first boot." I get that. Good stuff all around, but here are all the things you didn't see that also went down at Tribal Council. Some particularly great material that I'm surprised got cut.
• Probst lit into Wiglesworth for her super-lame answers whenever he asked her about her last time playing. This had been building up for three days. Seeing as how Kelly lost the very first season by a single vote, naturally that would be a big story line coming into the season and — whether she liked it or not — she served as the postergirl for the entire Second Chance concept. Probst asked her about it at the opening, asked her again about it at the challenge, and again at Tribal Council, and Wiglesworth's responses were flat-out lame each time. She was clearly uncomfortable talking about it and gave them nothing to work with. Finally, Probst had heard enough (which is to say, he had heard nothing at all).
He came at her pretty hard, asking why every time he inquired about her past she gave such terrible non-answers. Kelly said she doesn't want to look back. Fair enough, but that is part of the inherent contract you sign when you agree to go on this show. I'm not saying you have to spill strategy. That would be dumb. But at least give Probst something to work with. Boston Rob was the master of giving completely evasive — yet entertaining — responses. Kelly Wiglesworth is not.
• Terry talked about how he stayed in shape for a decade in case he got the call to come play again. Homeboy wanted to be ready!
• Woo complained about how he hurt his feet at the open so could not walk with his tribemates down to the water to talk, so was feeling a little out of the loop. I'm not sure Woo's ever been in the loop on strategy discussions.
• The tribe was downright giddy at times. There was a lot of cracking up over pretty much anything Varner or Shirin would say. I was surprised that these folks who had fought so hard to come back could sound so cavalier at Tribal and the prospect of being the first one voted out, but perhaps it was nervous laughter, a release from the tension.
• Speaking of laughter, Shirin broke out into a huge laughing fit at one point while Spencer was talking — just uncontrollable laughter. She guffawed so hard she was unable to speak. "You're a nut," said Probst. "We'll wait." And then they did. For a while. Finally, Shirin said she agreed with Spencer's comment about it being an unpredictable and formative vote. "That was the biggest waste of time ever," proclaimed Probst.
• At one point, Probst asked for a show of hands of who thought they could be voted out. Every single person raised their hands. "This is bulls—," responded the host at the display of people that clearly did not feel in danger but faked it anyway. He wasn't angry when he said it, but he also wanted them to know that he wasn't buying what they were selling.
• There didn't really appear to be a lot of scrambling at Tribal on the episode due to going straight there from the challenge, but there was. Woo mentioned at one point how there were two options to vote — "an easy one or a more strategic player" — but he didn't know whom he was supposed to vote for "because it was never set." (This was right before Abi said there was an all-male alliance. Abi also claimed that Terry had one-on-one conversations with everyone but her and made no eye contact with her at all.)
NEXT: The Jeff Varner bombshell that didn't make it on TV. Plus, exclusive videos from the island
• But the biggest thing that you didn't see went down after a tape change. Usually twice or so during Tribal Council, everything will come to a stop while the cameramen change their tapes. The last tape change occurred right before voting. Probst told the contestants during the change that it was time for the voting but that if anyone had anything to say beforehand they would have an opportunity to do so. Pretty standard procedure.
Well, when they came back, Jeff Varner had something to say. But it wasn't to Probst. Instead he turned to Kelley Wentworth and Peih-Gee and asked them right in front of everybody if they were still leaning with what they told him earlier in the day.
Wentworth's reply: "Yes."
This immediately sent Terry into panic mode. "Jeff, what does that mean?" he asked Varner, realizing his partner may have just flipped. Varner stayed silent. Terry was visibly shaken. Shirin was equally surprised by the boldness of the move. Probst asked her about her animated facial expression, which lead to this response from Shirin: "What's wrong with my face? Is the Botox not working?" (Nice callback to Probst's hilarious comment from last season.) Woo's response to all of this is the most Woo response you will ever hear in your entire life: "My confusion just went to an all-time high." Naturally.
• There were some great moments during the voting as well. Varner busted out his best Eliza Orlins impersonation, taking forever in deliberation before finally casting his vote for Vytas. Two people used the Keith-ism of "stick to the plan," with Terry saying, "After that Varner bomb, I hope they stick to the plan." Wiglesworth told Abi "You need to keep working on your social skills" while Shirin's message to Vytas was "'I'm just here to have fun.' Is that really your best line?" And then Spencer summed it all up best with his line at the voting urn that, "I just learned that Jeff Varner is a crazy person." Indeed.
It's amazing to me that none of this stuff made the final edit, but there was just too much good material, and producers also may not have wanted to telegraph the vote against Vytas by showing Varner flipping beforehand. Regardless, it was fascinating. And now you know.
Here's another thing you need to know: My episode 1 pick to win it all. Have to admit, I don't feel great about this one, but returning player seasons are always hard. I made this pick while out on location and everyone thought I was crazy. Yeah, crazy like a fox!!! In any event, my episode 1 pick to win it all was/is… Spencer. Wait, wasn't he my pick last time he played? Indeed he was, but the guy is super sharp and I have faith in him. Of course, now I've jinxed the poor dude, so sorry for that, but there it is. (Incidentally, other press folks insisted I pick a top 3 so I added Kelley Wentworth and Ciera into the mix. Watch those picks flame out as well.)
So there we have it: one 4,000 word recap down. But we are far from done for the week, people! For one thing, we have three awesome videos for you in the video player below. We have Jeff Probst right after Tribal Council breaking down what happened and what could be in store next, we have an exclusive deleted scene from the episode, and we have my pre-game interview with Vytas. So check those suckers out. Also make sure to read my premiere Q&A with Jeff Probst, which will be up early Thursday morning.
And yes, the triumphant return of Survivor Talk! Survivor Talk is a show we used to do on EW.com years ago, but it's back! Why now? I have no idea! But join me and a rotating stable of guest-hosts as we riff on the action and interview the latest ousted contestant. The first episode should be live Thursday afternoon. And, of course, for an obscene amount of Survivor scoop, you can follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.
But now it's your turn. Whom are you loving and loathing so far? What did you think of the idol-at-challenge twist? And who is your episode 1 pick to win it all? Hit the message boards to weigh in, and yes, I'll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy.
Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"