Fans vs. Favorites vs. wildlife: Survivor’s craft outshines its contestants

Despite the hype of returning players and rabid fans ready to take them on, what stood out most on Survivor Caramoan: Fans vs. Favorites‘ season premiere was craft: The CBS series is flawlessly produced. In the past few years, even though budget cuts have forced the show to stay in a single location, those who plan, construct, produce, film, and edit have been stepping up their game even more, creating amazing television.

From that epic opening shot–helicopters swooping behind Jeff Probst as he stood atop a towering rock–to the art design of a four-story-tall set piece for a single immunity challenge, it was visually compelling and completely absorbing. Even the small things were done well, like the placement of a point-of-view camera right where tribes were hurling crates from atop a tower during the immunity challenge.

The wildlife shots were at an all-time high, and that’s saying a lot. When I thought I’d want nothing more than to watch an hour of crabs waving to each other (as Phillip talked about offing people’s families), next came a tarsier leaping from tree to tree and then gnawing on a grasshopper (a great metaphor for reality TV). These are nearly always filmed at a different time and place, but the editing fits them in seamlessly, and they add to the storytelling.

Alas, the crabs, tarsier, and camera placements were perhaps more endearing than the people. That’s not to say that the cast members didn’t come out of the gate swinging. They did, starting with the first, rather physical challenge. When you have two men nearly stripped of their underwear continuing to wrestle each other and two women for a life ring in shallow water, you have strong competition.

There are also some interesting dynamics here. For one, I did not ever imagine actively rooting against Malcolm, but I did, and only because I did not want the season to begin as a blow-out with the favorites besting the fans twice in a row. Also I was afraid of what Brandon would do if they won a second challenge in a row. After their first win, he yelled, “Favorites, baby!” pounding his chest and looking psychotic already. This is not going to end well.

Immediately after the first challenge, the fans tribe proved to be dysfunctional. Tangent: I hate that term, and calling the other tribe “favorites” is a bigger joke than calling Dancing with the Stars cast members “stars.” But the use of actual tribe names seems to be fading away.

Yes, we’re 26 seasons in and some people still don’t know not to be dicks on day one. There was Shamar, redundantly telling Matt to “shut up and stop talking” because he’s pissed everyone wants to build a shelter instead of try to create fire. Brilliant. To the tribe’s credit, they successfully made fire. To their discredit, a group of pretty people broke away from preparing to make Survivor babies and decided they were better than the ugly people.

First Eddie seriously insisted he is one of the “best lookin’ people here” along with Hope, his “Southern bell,” and they joined up with Reynold and Allie, who’d previously had a “little cuddle session,” and when he said cuddle, he meant he kneaded her ass. They actually decided and announced that they would not let anyone else sit at their lunch table because they are mean girls.

This was roughly parallel to what happened on the favorites tribe.

First, Special Agent Oh No I Can’t Keep Calling Him That Phillip created alliances with everyone. By alliances, I mean nicknames. And by created, I mean threatened. Phillip is frustrating as a character: he’s not a good player but he’s back because he’s so ridiculous that he makes allegedly good television. As Erik said, “he’s a combative idiot loser who makes everybody crazy.”

And that describes the majority of the returnees, though they’re savvy enough to not let Jeff Probst get much out of them at Tribal Council, which was dull except for the hilarious moment when Cochran recalled Boston Rob communicating who to vote for by touching that person’s shoulder, and then Malcolm touched Cochran’s shoulder and Cochran appeared to wet himself, perhaps easing his sunburn.

Francesca’s exit was foreshadowed brilliantly when she said, “If I am voted off first a second time, I will eat this rock. It’s not going to happen.” From that point on, it seemed obvious it was going to happen, as much as I wish Phillip would have taken the early exit.

Before Tribal, strategizing was alternately interesting and frustrating; it also seemed like we weren’t privy to at least some catalysts for decision-making (pre-season alliances?). Andrea’s targeting of Francesca made sense in the context of Francesca’s comparatively aggressive early game play, but still was a little left field. Brandon and Erik sensing something was wrong with Andrea playing both sides was also interesting, but went nowhere. Also, where did Malcolm evaporate to during all of this? Was he being interviewed? Digging up things he hid last season?

Overall, the strategy was not that exciting, or at least it was the least-interesting part of the first episode, in part because it seems to be dominated by a group of dicks on both tribes. Once things thin a bit, I hope some emerge as people to root for. Dawn and painfully sunburned Cochran are possibilities, as both seem to be a different kinds of players. “I can’t be the same freak I was last time,” Cochran said.

In the meantime, I’m content to watch a tarsier chew the heads off of other insects and Jeff Probst risk his life for the show that reigns as consistently the best reality TV show.

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.