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Survivor Worlds Apart recap: so many choices, so much fun

At the beginning of Survivor Worlds Apart‘s first episode “It’s Survivor Warfare,” I was thoroughly annoyed: at Probst’s lectures about the stereotypes he’d assigned to each tribe, and his insistence that this season was entirely about discovering “which way of life will prove to be most valuable?” He used the tribe designations–artificial divisions created on his kitchen table, you’ll recall–to force character development. Then it got worse, when the show forced conflict, both with the elect-a-leader thing and the choose-your-poison thing.

By the end of the episode I was all:

The episode had many delightful moments, such as Mike eating a scorpion and immediately barfing, or Rodney inventing literary characters by insisting the tribe get “our Harry Potter grandfather outta here.” There were also an odd and uncomfy moment when feathered Vince said, “oh, I needed that” during an overly long hug he demanded from Jenn after demanding to know whether or not she was attracted to another guy and insisting he didn’t trust her. Not okay, Vince, not okay.

By far my favorite scene was Carolyn following So, and then using her observation of So’s overly obvious searching to find the hidden immunity idol for herself. I totally thought Carolyn was exiting the game with an idol, though, especially when she opened her mouth to catch rain on her tongue. So, So’s elimination surprised me.

Beyond the collars

Despite the narrative of “this is your lot in life” that overshadows the casting, the episode really became about choices, and what So chose to do with her power really became her undoing. (More on that below.)

I absolutely loved the first immunity challenge–not just because it was a strong version of the obstacle course challenge, which are usually great, nor only because Jeff Probst’s barked commentary offered insight such as, “50 pieces is a lot more than 10!”

What really worked for me was the incorporation of multiple choices as part of the obstacles. Because this is Survivor, and they think about these kinds of things, each had its plusses and minuses, and even the puzzles were supposed to take the same amount of time. (However: I do not understand why the 50-piece puzzle was supposed to be the easiest. I do understand why the five piece was hard; if you’ve never seen that puzzle before, or even if you have, it’s tricky. But 50 square pieces with words? Not easy.)

All the tribes started with the locks; all the tribes switched to the knots, and no one took the five-piece puzzle bait. There was a come-from-behind victory as the white collar tribe lost it at the puzzle stage, and overall it just worked.

As the immunity challenge made clear, Survivor‘s production design remains top-notch, even in Nicaragua. The intricately detailed treehouse Tribal Council is just spectacular.

A few brief words about the deceit versus honesty task. It was transparently an attempt to create drama and division early in the game. What was most interesting to me is not what happened on the white collar tribe, though I’ll get to that, but what happened with the blue collar tribe.

Despite the fact that the head collar and vice-collar were honest, they were second-guessed and doubted, in part because the larger bag of beans seemed small. Basically, production screwed them; it was a no-win scenario. I’m not a fan of when producers force something on the cast like that; it strikes me as a lack of trust in their cast to deliver. As Max said, “The biggest mistake you can make is putting yourself in a leadership position,” and it’s more fun to let someone do that on their own than force leadership.

Of course, watching So and Joaquin screw themselves even harder was terrific, and that is what swung the episode in a great direction, so perhaps those producers know what they’re doing. I understand So and Joaquin were probably going for a lie that included some truth, but they also included an option that seemed very unlike Survivor (a middle-of-the-road choice). Plus, they were also really bad at describing their options, real and imagined.

As Max said immediately after listening to So and Joaquin’s terrible made-up story about their choice,  “they’re terrible liars.” Yes. At Tribal, Max solidified his early role as this season’s narrator, churning out soundbites that the editors love (“a wicked downpour and lots of drama”). But he also said something remarkable when he pointed out that he would have made the same choice that So and Joaquin did, he just would have lied about it better.

That’s the kind of oddly direct honesty we’ve seen work for other players in the past. It was also terrific illustration of the contrast between two different types of players. By being honest about being deceptive, Max creates trust; by being deceptive about the truth, So gave everyone a reason to vote her out.

Tribal Council was so good, it didn’t even need much of the heavy hand of executive producer Jeff Probst. An alliance was immediately exposed, which is jaw-dropping by itself, but then that alleged alliance turned on one of its own.

The person who stands out in a bad way is usually first to go, and Shirin and Carolyn were the obvious choices–for failing at the puzzle and for being old, respectively. Carolyn seemed to be a particularly easy vote, being confrontational at Tribal and later opening her mouth to catch rain. But the tribe went with a smart but slightly less obvious choice in removing the less-trustworthy person. With that vote, they set themselves and this season on a far more interesting path.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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