The new season of Survivor is off to a strong start, despite what seemed like a questionable decision to bring both Russell and Rob back one more time.
It's been a while since we've checked in on Survivor here at PopMatters. And in the meantime, CBS' venerable reality competition show, now in its 22nd season, has been uneven, the result of weak casting, dubious rule changes, and a kick-ass all-star edition. The 19th season was dominated by Russell Hantz, who bulldozed his way through the rest of the players even as his tribe got whittled down in challenges. Finding three different hidden immunity idols without needing clues kept him alive despite an abrasive personality. His ability to come up big in terms of strategy and winning challenges took him all the way to the final vote. But his take-no-prisoners, if-you-aren't-with-me-you're-against-me attitude prevented him from getting the votes necessary to win the game.
The 20th season was the epic Heroes vs. Villains showdown, which brought back popular and infamous players from all throughout the show's history, including Russell. That season also brought back Rob Mariano, who has become something resembling the first reality show superstar. It was Rob's third go-round on Survivor, but he also participated in two editions of The Amazing Race and had his wedding to fellow Survivor player Amber Birkich turned into a reality show as well. Heroes vs. Villains proved to be one of the show's best seasons, as the Heroes imploded with too many leaders while the Villains were able to work together as a cohesive team. Thrown together on the Villains squad, Rob and Russell weren't able to put mutual dislike aside and strategize together. Russell eventually engineered Rob's ouster and again made it all the way to the final vote. But once again, with no concept of how to play Survivor as a social game, Russell failed to pull off the win.
Last season brought new concepts to the game, as well as a Young vs. Old format, with a team of 20somethings up against a group of people over 40. Predictably, the older team couldn't compete in challenges against the youngsters. This gap was made worse by the ill-conceived Medallion of Power, which gave one team a big advantage for each challenge. Both the Medallion and the tribe divisions were gone by Day 12, as the producers shuffled the tribes around and completely ditched the Medallion. What really sunk the 21st season, though, was a lack of compelling personalities. The two most memorable players, Jimmy T. and NaOnka, were memorable more for their grating, annoying behavior than their game-play. And legendary football coach Jimmy Johnson, with a strong mind for strategy, was the third player voted out, due mostly to his teammates' jealousy and paranoia.
Which brings us up to the latest edition, subtitled Redemption Island. It's off to a strong start, despite what seemed like a questionable decision to bring both Russell and Rob back one more time. This makes it Russell's third attempt in the past four seasons, and Rob's fourth over all, but now, four episodes in, it seems like a good call. Rob's approach has changed over the past decade: when he first appeared, all the way back in Season Four (Marquesas), he was clearly a villain. But his ability to team with Amber to get her the win in the first All-Star season and his leadership skills during Heroes vs. Villains have turned him around in the eyes of the audience and his fellow players.
While Rob was welcomed into the Ometepe tribe and quickly took over the alliance and strategizing for the group, Russell's entrance into the Zapatera tribe engendered mostly suspicion from his teammates. Accordingly, after two strong wins in challenges, Zapatera couldn't deal with their own paranoia about Russell anymore. So they threw last week's challenge specifically so they could vote Russell out. Tribes have intentionally lost challenges in the past on the show, and it's never turned out well for them. Giving Rob and the Ometepe tribe a bit of momentum after their win last week is definitely a risk for Zapatera, but they couldn't deal with Russell, so out he went.
That is, he went to Redemption Island. Now when tribe members are voted out, they compete with another ousted player to stay in the game. Last week, Matt, the devout Christian blindsided by Rob's alliance, defeated Francesca, the first player voted out. In the 9 March episode, his opponent is Russell. With Russell's history of winning challenges when his neck was on the line, this duel is an intriguing matchup. Russell is predictably confident before the challenge, but his big talk won't mean anything if he can't back it up and defeat Matt. Otherwise he'll be sent home from Survivor for the first time ever.
In addition to that drama, Ometepe is having trouble with Phillip, the man whose profession is described as "Former Federal Agent?" on the show. Phillip is one of those occasional Survivor players who seems to live in a different reality from his fellow tribe members. He fancies himself a voice of reason, yet wanders around the camp wearing nothing more than pink briefs, which understandably disturbs the rest of his tribe. Clearly he's the Ometepe tribe's biggest annoyance, but Rob is considering trying to get his alliance to eliminate Kristina. Zapatera, on the other hand, is feeling good after dropping Russell, but his two alliance-mates, Krista and Stephanie, are still annoyed that the tribe threw the challenge to do it.
This season is shaping up to be a good one, with strong personalities and savvy players. The Redemption Island twist is making for compelling duels, and no one knows yet how the winner of the Island challenges will integrate back into the tribe.