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Baker’s Dozen: What I’m Pondering During the Premiere

Dead Fans Walking

Dead Fans Walking

02/11/13 – Andy Baker shares what will be on his mind on Wednesday night!

So here we are, only days away from the Survivor: Caramoan premiere, and I find myself full to overflowing with thoughts and ideas about Fans vs. Favorites Part Deux. Not one to keep my opinions to myself, I thought a pre-season Baker’s Dozen might be in order! As always, this column is spoiler-free – and I would appreciate it if the comment section below remained thus, too.

By the by, if you want to see what I think of each of the players, check out the two Blogger Roundtable columns and the podcast the blogging team did with Rob. I’m going to outline some general thoughts about how I see this season playing out in BD #13, but I’m not waxing poetic about specific characters in here (I want avoid being more verbose – and redundant – than I usually am, if at all possible).

One more thing: Rather than constantly interrupt the flow of what I’m saying to include tangentially-related parentheticals, I’m going to go all David Foster Wallace on you and use endnotes. If you see a superscript number and want to know more, scroll down to the bottom of the column…

And now it’s time to move on to the Baker’s Dozen proper, so read on, fellow SuperFan, read on. And thank you for joining me in the Bakery. I’ve missed you over the past nine weeks…

1) Like many of you, I was disappointed to find out that the premiere will be 90 minutes rather than two hours. Was this simply a CBS press release error, as rumor would have it, and the intent was always to extend, but not double, the episode length? Or were there some late cuts which necessitated a “Big Bang Theory” rerun? If the latter, what would they cut, and why? Given the title of the episode – “She Annoys Me Greatly” – I can’t help but wonder if there was a whole lot of Phillip and Francesca fighting which CBS wanted left on the cutting room floor (having two of the three African-American cast members verbally assaulting one another wouldn’t look good during prime time). Whatever their reasons, any editing which leaves us with fewer Cochran, Brandon, and Phillip confessionals – which you know are going to chew up an excessive amount of screen time – the better. Don’t get me wrong, I like all three as narrators, but is there any doubt that we’re going to be shown what they think about EVERYTHING?

2) I know that 20 players is something of a safeguard – against five-person alliances, medevacs, and quitters – but with 17 players to be eliminated before Final Tribal Council and only 14 Wednesdays between now and the finale, there’s gotta be some doubling up along the way. This mathematical reality brings with it both the good and the bad. The Good: Unless a catastrophic plague creates a mass-evac1, we won’t be subjected to a recap episode. The Bad: We’re probably going to get a double-elimination.

3) Here’s the thing: I HATE double eliminations. To me, one of the key promises that the show makes to players is that if they can win competitions, they can avoid going to Tribal Council. For Probst to simply announce, “Both tribes will be voting someone out tonight,” feels like a violation of the game; someone who should have had three more days to scramble, negotiate, and strategize will go home without being given that extended opportunity to save herself.2  Yes, I understand the counterargument – that if a player is good at the game, he can extract himself from any “unfair” predicament (an alliance-busting tribe swap, for example) – but as we’ve been shown repeatedly over the years, three days is an eternity in Survivor. To take those days away from a castaway – and virtually guarantee that any scrambling the player does is both desperate and fruitless – is a cheap way to manufacture drama.

On a related note, the double elimination is another example of questionable adaptive gameplay. I highly doubt that these things are scheduled; producers will call for a double elimination when it will protect their favorites (insinuation intended) and take out the players they cast to be cannon-fodder. Along those lines, look for the double-elimination to happen after the tribe swap at a time when it will most help Survivor darlings like Cochran and Malcolm.

4) If you’ve listened to the Blogger Roundtable podcast, or read the two cast breakdown columns, you’ve heard me talk about what I’m now referring to as the Merge Wall. It’s a phrase I’m using to describe my inability to picture the Fans being a factor once we’re down to one tribe; I simply can’t envision a scenario where the Fans don’t turn to the Favorites for post-merge guidance, and as a result getting systematically eliminated. I’m not saying they’ll be Pangonged, necessarily; it’s far more likely that a couple of them will be used as GoatVotes when the Favorites sub-alliances turn on one another. Regardless of the individual fates of the Fans who make the merge, I do think that they will be far more fractured than the Favorites at that point, and that has everything to do with experience.

I recently got into a brief Twitter debate with Max Dawson, the heavily bearded3 and really sharp Northwestern professor who teaches a Reality TV class (with a  syllabus heavy on Survivor), about the depth of understanding that a cast member possesses versus what a knowledgeable SuperFan might have. His position, from what I can gather from a handful of 140-character assertions, is that even a first boot knows this game far better than even the most astute observer. If Professor Dawson is right – and I agree with him about post-merge players, but have my doubts about early eliminations – then even Francesca is a god among mortals, and the Fans are destined to be nothing more than speed-bumps on the road to a Favorite victory.

And that’s where the Merge Wall comes in: Even if the Fans hold their own over the first half of the game, once we hit the merge, they’re going to be in over their heads… and that’s when the Favorites, none of whom finished worse than 10th (other than Francesca, of course), will swoop in and offer to guide them to the endgame. This offer will come with a price, of course: All the Fans will need to do is get rid of their own. And despite knowing that this isn’t in their best interests, they’ll do it anyway, believing – wrongly – that they’ll be able to flip the script before the Final Tribal Council.

That’s the advantage of experience, and why the Merge Wall spells doom for the Fans: When the stress and the stakes increase exponentially with every passing vote, only the Favorites will be able to think clearly. And that clarity not only gets a player a seat in front of the jury, but it also allows them to shape a compelling argument to make once they get there. I’m willing to bet my entire RHAP paycheck right now that a Favorite wins Survivor: Caramoan, and that this Favorite will use and abuse Fans as pawns and goats on the way to the title.

5) I find it interesting that so many Survivor analysts – myself included – are so focused on the female Favorites. “Brenda/Andrea/Corinne are going to be this season’s Parvati!” we shout at all who will listen. “Francesca will go from worst to first!” we bark at disbelievers. “And Dawn is the nicest person in the history of humanity and she’s going to bake bread out of coconuts and seaweed and then win the game!” we bellow to the heavens.

And yet, none of these women finished higher than 5th. On average, they came in 10th place; remove the outlier (Francesca) from the equation, and they came in 8th. In other words, jury fodder.

The male Favorites, on the other hand, did the following: 8th, 6th, 5th, 4th, 2nd. Almost all of them were true endgame factors, and the guy who did the WORST in his first time out there – Cochran – is a player many are pegging to do the BEST this time around. If experience is paramount in Survivor – and assuming that endgame stress dwarfs that of the early merge –  then the men have a considerable edge over the women, wouldn’t you say?

6) Speaking of age and gender, one thing I think we’ve learned over the years (and was highlighted in Survivor: Philippines) is that older players have an advantage over younger ones. Whatever the underlying reasons for this – less emotional volatility, more measured responses to stress and deprivation, differing goals for being on the show (Mactors want to change their lives; parents want to return to theirs) – life experience is a significant contributor to Survivor success.

With that in mind, let’s look at four numbers: 30.4, 33.2, 32.4, and 26.6. As they sang on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others. Can you guess what these numbers represent?

Answer: The first is the average age of the male Favorites, followed by the female Favorites, the male Fans… and finally, the female Fans.

Setting aside for a moment that it’s pure folly to leap to any conclusions based on such a small sample size, here’s what those numbers mean to me:

** The Favorites have an edge not only in game experience but also in life experience. A deadly combination, that. Like we needed any more proof that the Favorites are going to dominate.

** Just like in professional sports, there’s a peak-performance age-range for Survivor players, and it’s the same one as we see in a skill-based game like baseball: 25 to 35 years old. Makes sense: that’s where the triple threats are likely to reside. Young enough to be physical, old enough to have fully developed the empathy necessary to play the social game.

** The female Fans are really, really, really young. Even with Sherri skewing the numbers (she’s 41), the remaining Gota girls are severely overmatched in the life lesson department. There is no way that one of the young female Fans is going to win this game.

7) Another fearless prediction (informed by the age and gender divide): The women of Gota, both young and old, will betray the Fans and flip to the Favorites after the tribe swap. Each of them will be rewarded for their treachery in one of two ways, either by being used as post-merge pawns or being backstabbed themselves. Either way, the story won’t end well for any of them.

8) One topic we discussed endlessly heading into last season, thanks to the move to the Philippines, was the return of deep water challenges. Unfortunately, the endless rains (and resultant turbulent tides) ended up forcing Kirhoffer and his team to cancel many of the planned water-centric challenges and use land-based alternatives. The good news for those of us who love watching castaways compete in deep water is that all of the challenges that Kirhoffer couldn’t use last season were shifted over to this one… which leads me to ask one very important question: Do we have any idea if the Fans or Favorites can swim?

9) A lot of people have been complaining that the producers have a pretty liberal interpretation of what constitutes a “Favorite.” I understand the criticism, and agree with much of it. But I’m much more forgiving about the Favorites than I am about the Fans – because the latter tribe is riddled with recruits.

For the record, I totally understand why Survivor casts recruits; SEG is producing a TV show, and CBS, like any network, wants to appeal to a wide range of demographic groups.  I’m a firm believer in accepting the reality of Reality: Burnett and Probst love returning players, so most seasons will have them; Survivor casting agents such as Lynne Spillman feel that the online application process and open casting calls net very few viable candidates, and so they will seek out and cast people who fit a preconceived character archetype. I worked in showbiz once upon a time, so I get it.

Most seasons, if I complain at all about the recruiting process, it’s in an overindulgent, egocentric, “Why not me?” sort of way. And when the recruits are chosen well – for example, this season’s Reynold and Julia, who both look good on paper – I’ll give credit where it’s due. But here’s the thing: This is NOT most seasons. To put it bluntly:

THERE SHOULD NOT BE ANY RECRUITS ON A TRIBE OF “FANS.”

I mentioned Reynold and Julia above for a reason: I find both of them intriguing, teeming with potential, and in most other seasons, I’d welcome them warmly onto my TV screen. But there’s just one problem: they’re NOT FANS OF THE SHOW. Before being recruited, they were barely even aware of Survivor (having watched “a couple of episodes”); no doubt they’ve taken a crash course since their selection, burning through multiple seasons on DVD in a desperate attempt to wrap their heads around the game, but there is NO CHANCE that they’re prepared to go up against the more knowledgeable fans (Michael and Sherri, for example) never mind the returning players on the Favorites tribe.

Alliteration be damned – Probst, Burnett, and Stillman should be ashamed of themselves. If they’re going to subtitle the season Fans vs. Favorites, they should cast real fans, people who understand, and more importantly, love the game. To recruit players and force-feed them to us as “Fans” is patronizing and pathetic.

10) Probst Probe: As most of you already know, the mainstream media go-to guys for pre-season Survivor coverage are Dalton Ross (Entertainment Weekly) and Gordon Holmes (Xfinity). The latter conducts interviews which manage to balance humor and insight (a difficult trick indeed), and the former has unparalleled access to people like Probst. While I could write a thousand words about the brilliant work these two have done in the lead-up to Survivor: Caramoan, I’ll limit myself to a quick observation about Ross’s column, “Jeff Probst breaks down the Fans tribe.

As opposed to the player interviews, which are conducted before the game gets under way, this conversation took place when Probst knew how the game would play out (even if he doesn’t know the winner – a Probst assertion that I don’t believe for a second – he does know who’s in the Final Three). Keeping that in mind, it’s tempting to read into what he has to say about the Fans. Interestingly, he talks at length about only six of the ten; unless Probst is trying to mislead the readers of EW (a distinct possibility), Probst’s omission of Hope, Reynold, Julia, and Allie doesn’t bode well for their chances. The inclusion of the other six falls into three distinct categories for me:

** Matt and Shamar are mentioned to get us to care about players who are “different” and who won’t be around for long. It’s Probst’s way of saying, “Sorry we had you put your life on hold only to get booted, predictably, long before the merge.”

** Sherri and Michael are discussed because Probst doesn’t want us to write them off as aging outsiders. According to Probst, Sherri is a flirt and Michael is a strategist. He might as well have said, “You think they’re going early, but they’re NOT!”

** Laura and Eddie are included because Probst can’t ignore the younger players. In typical Probst fashion, he rips into the smart, confident, and empowered woman and gushes about the charming, ripped, and selfless young man. Which of these two do you think Probst wants us to root for?

11) Fortunes rising: Cochran. Oh, you socially awkward yet strategically savvy sweater-vested vixen, how I love thee and your chances this season. Let me count the ways:

** Between the South Pacific cast and the Wine & Cheese Alliance, Cochran has a number of enviable (and unfair) Day 1 alliances: Brandon, Dawn, Andrea, Corinne, and Philipp have all expressed an interest in teaming up with Cochran and/or have done so before, and Cochran knows Francesca from Survivor social gatherings in NYC. Cochran is going to have to choose wisely, of course – but the important thing here is that HE GETS TO CHOOSE.

** Because he’s such a physical liability – and how there’s likely to be a premium put on challenge prowess, given how strong the Fans are – Cochran SHOULD be a target when the Favorites go to their first Tribal Council. But he won’t be, thanks to Philipp and Francesca, who will be at each other’s throats, and Brandon, who will implode for any number of reasons (the overt sexuality of Andrea and Brenda, being reminded of his immunity necklace idiocy every time he sees Erik, getting furious that everyone keeps mentioning Uncle Russell when they talk about Malcolm). Cochran is as insulated as any castaway in recent memory, don’t you think?

** The over/under on the number of confessionals Cochran will get in the premiere alone: 11. If he’s around for the long haul – and there’s every reason to believe that he will – Cochran is going to shatter the Survivor record for Total Confessionals. (Anyone out there know who the current record holder happens to be?)

 

12) Fortunes falling: Phillip. If you follow Phillip on Twitter, you know that he’s promoting the heck out of his first novel, “The Specialist: The Costa Rica Job.” I highly doubt that Phillip would push this hard this early if he was going to make the merge; he and his publisher would slow build over the course of the season. Hey, Phillip, if you came back to Survivor to expand the brand and extend your fifteen minutes of fame, you better hurry up, because that sound you hear in the distance is your window of opportunity closing.

13) Prediction time: Below is a hastily constructed power rankings/order of finish, with some explanation along the way.

20. Francesca

19. Brandon

18. Phillip

17. Matt

Do I really think that the Favorites are going to lose three out of the first four tribal immunity challenges? No. This bottom four is more about how little I like each of their chances to avoid early elimination.

** A tribe swap will probably happen here, as it did in Micronesia **

16. Allie

15. Laura

14. Julia

13. Shamar

Post-swap, the female Fans who are willing to flip will stick around; those who try to target Favorites will be taken out. And at this point in the game, Shamar will have worn out his welcome.

** MERGE **

The Jury

12. Malcolm: Without an immunity idol to protect him, Malcolm will be targeted at every post-merge Tribal Council, both because he’s an individual immunity threat and because his social game is so strong.

11. Eddie: There will likely be some alternating between the elimination of a Fan and a Favorite, so that the dominant Favorite alliance can keep their numerical advantage. Eddie, like Malcolm, needs to go before he can Fabio his way to the Final Three.

10. Brenda: She’ll probably go a lot earlier than this – I just don’t see anyone trusting her – but I have to give the benefit of the doubt to any player Rob C. endorses as his winner pick.

9. Michael: I’m guessing that Michael and Sherri will flip to the Favorites, and ride that betrayal deep into the merge. Michael’s too much of a strategic threat to let get any further than this, though, and the five-person Favorite alliance will take him out before he can shape his own endgame.

8. Andrea: Someone has to be the first big backstab, and it might as well be Andrea. This slot might have been reserved for Erik, but he’ll win at least one immunity challenge when his alliance really doesn’t want him to.

7. Reynold: Not really sure why I have him going this deep other than having faith that he’ll want to establish his Survivor credentials so that he can play again. If that means being the loyal follower who makes a late stab at flipping the game, so be it. No one remembers you if you go out pre-merge (unless you’re Francesca, apparently).

6. Erik: Once he reads the writing on the wall, Erik will know that he’s going to have to go on an epic immunity run if he’s going to make it to the FTC. Unfortunately, there will be at least one challenge that doesn’t favor his physicality.

5. Hope: This pick is HIGHLY likely to make me look like an idiot. My reasoning: She and Reynold will team up and be a pair of controllable votes for the warring Favorite sub-alliances. Like Alexis in Micronesia, Hope will prove to be more resourceful than anyone was expecting, but it won’t be enough.

4. Sherri: Michael will carry her to the merge, and after he has outlived his usefulness and been sent to Ponderosa, Sherri will linger around long enough to be the last pawn standing.

The Final Three

3. Cochran

2. Dawn

1. Corinne

Do I think all three of these players will make the FTC? No. But I think it’s likely that one, and possibly two, of them will.

To explain: I see Corinne, Dawn, Cochran, Erik, and Andrea as a core alliance who will use some of the Fans to further their own ends. As the endgame approaches, two sub-alliances will emerge – Dawn/Cochran and Corinne/Erik, maybe, with Andrea as a swing vote? – and they’ll eventually turn on one another.

Whoever wins that power struggle will win the game.

Do I feel confident that Corinne will pull it off? Nope. But I sure as hell know she’s going to try.

And that’s enough for me.

*****

Footnote #1: How is it possible that there hasn’t been some sort of group illness over the span of 12 years and 25 seasons? I imagine the castaways are pumped full of various “keep ‘em healthy for a month and a half” drugs, but still, isn’t it odd? The players were on planes for several days, introduced to a foreign environment, and subjected to an alarming amount of stress – doesn’t that sound like an ideal set-up for a viral outbreak? I’ve worked at schools for the better part of a decade, and if one kid sneezes, suddenly everyone is out sick. How is it that Survivor’s never had a tribe-wide stomach bug?

Footnote #2: As you may have noticed, I tend to play around with pronouns in my columns. When I say “herself” here, I’m not hinting at any insider knowledge about Caramoan eliminations. I’m simply refusing to always use the masculine to identify the unknown.

Footnote #3: I wonder if Professor Dawson sees Matt, the impressively hirsute BMX salesman on the Fans tribe, as a kindred spirit?

*****

That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – thanks for reading, and I’ll be back early next week with my thoughts on the Survivor: Caramoan premiere. Until then, leave a comment below and/or hit me up on Twitter (@GetOnSurvivor)

Andy Baker

Andy Baker is a Survivor SuperFan who blogs about reality television, teaches English, studies psychology, and prepares tirelessly for his eventual appearance on Survivor. More From Andy Baker »


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