The new Normal: post-merge Survivor without the predictable proverbial poop

Another remarkable episode of Survivor Philippines, but this time it was internal rather than external chaos. That is, while last week’s episode concluded with a wild Tribal Council–even the people who were there had “don’t even know what the hell happened,” as Penner said–the real drama this week was between people, primarily Jonathan Penner and Lisa Whelchel.

Who would have expected a scene like the one they had on the beach to come from stunt casting (Blair from Facts of Life!) and yet another freakin’ returnee (three-time non-champion Jonathan Penner!)? But wow.

The way it played on multiple levels was fascinating, too: Penner clearly connecting with Lisa, identifying with her need to please other people, yet also using that to his advantage in the game. (“I don’t want to get in your head,” he said as he got in her head and admitted, “I am planting seeds with Lisa.”)

At first Lisa barely spoke, tears streaming down her cheeks. “How do you know?” she asked? Penner replied, “It’s my business too”–meaning both his work and an actor and, clearly, the business of playing the game and reading people, which he does masterfully. “These 39 days are going to change me more than 39 of my 49 years,” Lisa Whelchel said, and there was no doubt she meant it.

That is why we watch reality television, and that is why it can rival and best scripted TV: moments like that.

In the end, while those seeds still may sprout into a vine Lisa uses to tie Penner’s hands, Lisa still ended up voting for him, sticking with her original alliance, though it’s an alliance that doesn’t seem to value her for much more than a vote. Lisa is struggling with doing what she knows she needs to do as a player, but also said, “I love this game, but I think it’s too big for me–it’s bigger than me.” (She tried to explain that at Tribal Council and made no sense.)

It was Skupin who changed his vote, perhaps because one of his alliance members, Abi, tried to kill him with a coconut. It’s an interesting play on his part, and one I’m not quite sure what to think of yet. It’s not a Cochran-style flip, because we don’t have the same us-versus-them, original-tribe loyalty thing happening this season–which is one of the primary reasons why this season, post-merge, has been great.

The non-Penner target was Artis, and he leaves without making a deep impression except to be lumped in with people who didn’t seem quite like him at all, and his graceful exit was evidence of that. Can you imagine what Abi’s exit will be like, if she isn’t dragged to the finale because she’s unwinnable?

Speaking of Abi, she’s incredible television but incredibly confounding. The best way to describe her and my reaction to her is to quote Coach, who is “gobsmacked at [her] whackadoo status.” And compare her to Carter, who spent tonight’s episode picking a zit on his chest, and it’s like a whole different world with these two odd outliers among magnificent players: Penner, Lisa, Denise, Malcolm.

Let’s talk about the challenges, both of which were strong, and not just because Abi wasn’t picked to play for reward, leaving her to sit out yet another challenge, and she seemed to not be paying any attention to it at all as she sat on the side, pouting and/or giving herself a pedicure.

The reward was to take “much-needed school supplies” and toys to a village, Jeff Probst explained, and Penner’s team won in part because he dug up all the bags of puzzle pieces himself. The man is a monster. Lisa, Pete, Skupin, and Artis lost the reward, but so did the village, which got a box of shit that looked like it was purchased at a discount dollar store’s going-out-of-business sale.

In exchange, Penner, Denise, Malcolm, and human wallpaper Carter got an incredible feast. Watching their interaction with the villagers was nice, with Malcolm realizing that he’d rather go back to working with kids than “pouring drinks for girls in bars,” but the village seriously got screwed on that deal, since the beer they served probably cost more than those plastic crap toys and 25-cent school supplies.

I imagine/hope that the show not only paid for the feast but compensated the village in some way, and Survivor does have a good track record here, donating challenge supplies to locals, never mind employing people who live nearby. Still, it was quite comical watching them carry that florescent cheap stuff into the village.

The visit to the village was also delightfully comedic, especially when Penner told a group of kids his name, and then said, inexplicably, “In America, my name is normal.” So the kids called him “Normal.”

Hilarious, though not an accurate description of Penner, nor of this season.

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Plus: an interview with the actor who played Verlox and the ogre.


Shark Tank is getting a spin-off

Shark Tank

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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.