New locale, old-school ‘Survivor’

New locale, old-school ‘Survivor’

Ask any mainstream pop culture fan about “Survivor,” and they’ll recall a handful of details from its first two seasons. Vivid among these will likely be the guy who slaughtered a pig for food before passing out into a campfire and being airlifted prematurely from the experience. Twenty-three seasons later, he, along with two other veteran players, is receiving an additional chance at the title of Sole Survivor, and the accompanying million dollar prize.

“Survivor: Philippines” places each returnee at the head of a tribe, featuring three warring groups of contestants for the second time in the show’s history. This twist could potentially impact the season both positively and negatively. In the past, charismatic players on two tribes have created impenetrable alliances of five or six on day one. This has resulted in a single compelling episode in which the two alliances strive to win a majority of votes, but multiple subsequent episodes where the eliminated contestant is obvious five minutes in. The existence of three tribes of six increases the chances of inter-tribe mingling after a swap or the merge, which is never bad. However, within each tribe of six, entertaining and threatening players can be voted out tragically soon, since there are fewer weaker players for them to hide behind. It is arguable that less skill is required to obtain and maintain dominance in such a small tribe.

“Philippines’” premiere spent each of its ninety minutes well, giving viewers insight into almost every player’s background and motives. Rather than overexposing strategic players or over-the-top lunatics, the episode focused on an entertaining mixture of both. Numerous alliances and bonds were formed on all three tribes. However, because of the seemingly-volatile personalities most of these groups contain, they could implode in a heartbeat, and none is likely to dominate the others anytime soon. One highlight of the episode involved the first eliminated contestant casually allying with each tribe member, informing them of this, before volunteering to be eliminated for a poor challenge performance, all as a ‘genius’ ploy to vote out his tribe’s returnee instead. He did this in an eccentric Southern Virginia accent, making analogies about onions and quoting “Talladega Nights” right up until his torch was snuffed. Notably, former “Facts of Life” star Lisa Whelchel and retired baseball MVP Jeff Kent rounded out the cast. Their “Survivor” experiences thus far have been intriguing, as Whelchel must overcome a younger tribe majority while Kent struggles with an injured knee. That said, if the show focuses only on their previous personas, they may become stale to watch. Contestants will inevitably discover their celebrity identities despite their attempts to hide them, so a focus on their newfound island identities would be preferable to watch.

Filling out the premiere’s excellence was its return to, to quote host Jeffrey Probst, “old-school ‘Survivor.’” As the name “Philippines” suggests, “Survivor” has ventured back to the Far East, stranding castaways the Caramoan Islands. Along with fantastic new scenery, this allows the show to revisit thrilling water challenges, which Samoa’s stormy seas and Nicaragua’s murky water made impossible. In addition, the oh-so-prevalent hidden immunity idols, which allow contestants to negate votes against them, remain easy to find, but difficult to discover. Rather than being placed under obvious landmarks, the idols are in plain sight, as the seemingly-unsuspicious tops to their boxes of rice. This twist has every reason to create delicious paranoia in camp, as it did when implemented ten seasons ago.

These nuances, along with the excellent cast, ought to boost the season’s quality into the stratosphere. Considering the lack of quality summer reality television, “Survivor” could not have returned at a more welcome time.