Behind the scenes of Survivor Samoa’s first ep: tie votes, flipped boats, and Russell H. gloats

The new season of Survivor had me the moment that massive wave almost swept Jeff Probst away as he delivered his signature “39 days, 20 people, one Survivor” line: how fucking epic and amazing.

Alas, that stunning beauty was followed a lot of attention on Russell Hantz, which is only okay because I think all of this attention means that Russell and his poopy underpants will be gone soon, because if he makes it past the merge I may go stand on that rock and wait for the wave to carry me away. He’s great but frustrating TV: He has none of Coach’s intelligence but all of his cockiness, and that’s a tragic combination.

Anyway, my guess–and I have no behind-the-scenes knowledge of this–is that the pre-season attention means he goes home sooner than later, but his tribe is probably keeping him around because he has strength they need. (Did you see how easily he carried those ridiculously heavy logs during the first challenge? Erik is no weakling and he struggled in a way Russell did not.) On day one alone, at least two people figured out that he was making alliances with multiple people, and his argument against Marisa was too much about himself. Not smart game play at all.

There are too many smart people on that tribe–Jaison, Liz, Betsy, Mick, Ashley, Natalie–to let him get away with his clumsy social game, never mind his sabotage and other strategies. And how much do you love Betsy for seeing through Russell’s inane strategy immediately? Her “don’t believe one thing they say” strategy is working.

Marisa leaving was tragic but not shocking. She told me “I snap back at really quick at people, especially men, and she did that with Russell. Tribes target the weak and the annoying first, and she made the mistake of clashing with someone too early, and thus had two strikes against her. But I certainly don’t think she went home because Russell decided to get rid of her, as much as the episode and he might like to give him credit for that. The tribe wasn’t unanimous, and the way he approached it with the other people called more attention to himself and his arrogance than to her.

Update: I just talked with Marisa, and she said “don’t feel sorry for me–I’m very happy the way it turned out. I have my dignity.” Although we didn’t see it, Marisa said she aligned with both Mick and Betsy and expected that would have taken her far, and also said “I really wish the editors would have included some of what we did around our camp” because “I worked my ass off and it is a beautiful shelter.” While Marisa said Russell burned her socks in addition to Jaison’s (she realized that once she saw the preview: “oh my gosh, that’s what happened to our socks”), she had much harsher words for Ben. “You don’t see much of Ben in that episode, but he’s wretched. He’s horrible. He’s a bully,” she said.” She called him a “slimeball” because of “his views on certain cultures,” and said he was “using slang and slurs to describe people from the other tribe and their performances.”

Since I was on location for the first three days, here’s some behind-the-scenes stuff:

  • Both tribes had to vote twice for leader because they tied the first time. The first time on Galu, Shambo and Russell tied with four votes each, and Erik got two. On Foa Foa, Mick and Jaison each got three votes, with Mike, Marisa, Liz, and Russell H. each getting one. The editing merged the two votes.
  • One of the Foa Foa boats flipped as they got close to shore, which is why some of them are soaking wet.
  • Jeff had the two leaders write down their selections for challenge roles before announcing them, so they couldn’t change their minds or get some kind of visual cues from their tribe members.
  • At the opening challenge, even before it began, it seemed weird that John left his pants on, and that’s what we were all talking about after it ended. As you saw during the immunity challenge, he wasn’t shy later about wearing his small, tight briefs that showed off his full rocket and boosters, so why did he only roll up his pant legs? And why the hell did he just lay down on the mat and refuse to stand until his tribe finally left?
  • Erik and Yasmin really ate into Foa Foa’s lead, and Shambo was not far behind Liz. It was an impressive comeback. They would have won easily had John not been so slow.
  • At the immunity challenge, which is called Yank Your Hank (a hank is a measure of rope, although these ropes weren’t exactly hanks), both tribes finished the first part–getting over the A-frames, tying ropes together, and hauling the crate up the ramp–in about five minutes. It took them about 20 or 25 additional minutes to do the puzzle, which was incredibly difficult. Probst harassed both tribes endlessly. Later, he told me that’s “to get under their skin” and he’s “usually just pumping one up or pushing the other down to see if they react.” They did.
  • The tribe camps are each in spectacular, neighboring coves, but getting access to each one required a drive, so it’s not like they’ll ever know they’re relatively close to each other. The areas that are well off the beach are pretty stunning, too, and I imagine we’ll see more of those as people wander off to talk strategy.
  • When we visited Galu’s camp on day two, we walked along the beach but had to dive into bushes as Erik came along the beach, dragging a massive banana-looking tree-like plant that he’d found somehow. I hope that’ll make into a future episode. (Update: Stephen Fishbach notes that the video is on CBS.com. I think we did a good job hiding because we’re not visible.)
  • Also at their camp, Brett was sitting in the sand, trying to use glasses to start a fire. All the footage in TV Guide’s special on this season comes from those camp visits, including Yasmin sleeping. Also, if you see any footage with the contestants on a beach with black volcanic rock and sand, that was most likely filmed pre-game, at Ponderosa; its location seemed to have an entirely different ecosystem despite being just on the other side of the small island.
  • We helped rehearse the challenge that was in the preview for next week. Called Schmergen Brawl, it’s a violent fight in the dirt that Jeff Probst will actually throw someone out of, a Survivor first.

Surprisingly, man not eaten alive on Eaten Alive

Eaten Alive

Discovery Channel’s happy family holiday special Eaten Alive aired Sunday, rewarding viewers for their two full hours of viewing by ensuring that they spent quality time in the company of others instead of wasting that time doing something else that might not have been as satisfying, such as buying things that have labels which accurately reflect their contents.


Winter 2015 reality TV debut schedule

winter 2015 reality TV schedule

Mark your calendars with all these upcoming reality TV show debuts, including Celebrity Apprentice, The Bachelor, and another season of MasterChef Junior, all of which kick off in early January.

There are also 20+ shows debuting in December--including the one-off return of The Sing Off. No winter break for reality TV.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.