Behind the scenes of Survivor Gabon’s first episode

Watching the first episode of Survivor Gabon was weirder than I expected. In part that’s because watching three long days play out in 44 minutes was surreal, but also because we saw none of the strategizing. When we visited camp of the loser tribe, Fang, Michelle was essentially an outcast, and that was a full day before the immunity challenge. I was surprised to see all of the Gillian conversation so early because it seemed obvious that Michelle was done.

Coincidentally, the last two people I talked to, Corinne and Michelle, were the last two people picked for tribes—and Michelle was the last person picked, the last person I talked to, and the first voted out. Watching that unfold, I was already surprised by how people are coming across—in part because of the editing, but also because of their game play.

Some were just like they were in person: Gillian behaved exactly like she didn’t want to, and knew that was why she got voted out second, and Randy was hysterical, but managed to stay quiet to his actual tribe. But Matty came across as much more likable on TV, and even evil Corinne seemed totally benign, or she will until she turns on one of her new alliance members (Charlie, Marcus, Jacquie, and Bob, which could be a formidable alliance, if they ever actually get to vote someone out). Charlie’s crush on Marcus is annoying in its pointlessness, and Dan wasn’t quite the same affable guy once the game started.

At Tribal Council, Dan was surprisingly defensive, and even argued with Jeff. Tribal, by the way, was much longer (about 90 minutes) and Jeff was much more confrontational than we saw on TV, and his language was much stronger. I thought his goading them into electing a leader was annoying and both out of character for Jeff because it was so manipulative, but that also came after about a 30 to 45 minutes of the tribe being totally blank and emotionless and delusional about how well they were doing. Probst finally got them to open up, and that’s what we saw last night. My favorite part was when Jeff told them that the members of the media would have beaten them in the immunity challenge because they were so slow, even though we sit on our fat asses all day.

Speaking of that challenge, the members of the press ran the challenge against the Dream Team—and got our fat asses kicked. We were yellow, Kota, and I was in the first position. We were actually ahead when we came out of the swamp (although I had no leeches, dammit), but for reasons that I’ll reveal in my book (tease!), we fell way behind. Still, we caught up at the end, thanks to our strategy of just digging a tiny bit out from under that final gate and going in feet or head first. But by then, the Dream Team had completed most of their puzzle, and I stood on the mat and became an obnoxious Survivor cast member, looking at Fang’s puzzle and yelling directions to our three puzzle masters. Yes, I was that annoying person; I am ashamed.

The whole challenge was thrilling yet exhausting, and took a long time, probably 20 minutes. (The editing made it look a lot faster than it was for the actual contestants, too.) The crater/hill was massive, and after swimming and climbing and running to the sand, we were all out of breath. And digging through sand is ridiculously difficult. You could get a sense of the size from the helicopter shot—which, by the way, was of the Dream Team, as were almost all of the helicopter shots. The shot of the immunity challenge, for example, wasn’t even filmed on the same day. You can see the trampled area where the 75 or so crew members stood with cameras and other equipment, and also where the trail that leads to it stops at the little swamp. There was a metal bridge there for crew and equipment, but it was removed by the time the overhead shot was filmed.

The challenge producers have rehearsals in part to make adjustments, which is why Survivor’s challenges don’t suck like the ones on other shows. Afterwards, the producers, including Jeff, talked about multiple things that didn’t work, and made those changes before the actual challenge, which took place the next day.

After we ran it, they decided to a) bury the puzzle piece bags in shallower holes, because it took us too long to get them out, b) have Jeff suggest they start digging in the center, whereas those on our team (who actually bothered to dig—tease!) were spread around because we had no idea where the bags were, and c) number the table to correspond with puzzle piece bags, so the order and direction of the three puzzles was clear.

In other words, it was much more difficult for us than it was for them, which is why when I watched the tribes run it the next day, I had no sympathy at all, even though after it was all over, someone handed me a towel and bottled water and we went back to take showers and eat lunch.